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Canadian public libraries played an important role during the pandemic: report

The Kingston public library, central branch is shown in Kingston Ont., on Thursday April 28, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg The Kingston public library, central branch is shown in Kingston Ont., on Thursday April 28, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

More than just a portal into the book world, Canadian libraries provided communities with access to knowledge, health and helped the government fulfill core mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent report by the Canadian Urban Institute and Canadian Urban Libraries Council.

According to the report, public libraries became community hubs by acting as food bank distributions sites, giving out COVID-19 rapid test kits, creating protective equipment for frontline workers with 3D printers, hosting shelters and group homes with free WiFi zones and more.

The report, published Wednesday, notes that the Canadian public library network includes 642 library systems and 3,350 branches.

The report said that barriers to service like library fines were removed and digital programming increased to include lending laptops.

"Through the pandemic, libraries emerged as our 'safe third places'– providing reliable, essential service that was mobilized swiftly and decisively to meet the needs of local communities," said president of Canadian Urban Institute Mary Rowe in a press release Wednesday.

"Libraries ensured community knowledge informed emergency response nationwide."

More than 200,000 Canadians get job-seeking help at their public library, while more than 300 libraries offer technology training classes, attended by nearly 16,000 people each month, said the report.

The report states that one of the key post-pandemic challenges Canadian public libraries have faced is a lack of funding despite the active support they have provided all levels of government to help them deliver their obligations to individuals and neighbourhoods.

Canada spends around $8 per person or $305 million per year on its urban libraries compared to European countries that spend between $11 and $60 per person, according to the report.

Funding for libraries comes from a tax base that does not increase to match population or economic growth, meaning it remains flat or fallen in real dollars over several years. .

For every $1 invested in Canada's urban libraries, $6 is generated in community economic impact, with a return of over 600 per cent, the report said.

Given the positive impacts of libraries during and post-pandemic, the Canadian Urban Institute is calling on all levels of government to relieve current operational pressures, treat libraries as critical infrastructure and formalize sustainable investment streams. 

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