Whose Library?

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Should publicly-funded Canadian university libraries charge fees for use? Should graduate students from other Canadian universities have to pay those fees? These are the questions being raised by graduate students at York University in Toronto, Ontario who face a proposed new fee to use the library resources at the University of Toronto.

Being a former York graduate student myself, I understand exactly how important it is to have access to the rich collection of resources at the University of Toronto. York’s own library system, by comparison, is inadequate to support the university’s large and growing graduate programs and relies on the University of Toronto to subsidize this deficit. This is part of the reason why you find so many York grad students browsing the stacks of Robarts Library.

York graduate students have circulated a petition against the proposed $200 annual fee and they have got their message out in the Toronto Star this week. However, neither the petition nor the article address the matter of greater public access to university libraries in Canada. If graduate students from York are entitled to access other publicly-funded university libraries, shouldn’t the public at-large have greater access to those same resources?

This is an issue that came up in discussions at the Public Knowledge Project conference over the summer and one that should be raised in this current debate over the University of Toronto library system. The proposed fees for graduate students from York are not unlike those levied against community borrowers. They stand as a barrier for Canadians outside of academia with an interest in accessing the wealth of scholarship held within the walls of places like Robarts Library. We should strive to find more ways to properly fund our university libraries while we remove such barriers to their collections.

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Sean Kheraj is an associate professor in the Department of History at York University. He researches and teaches in the areas of environmental and Canadian history. In addition to being a co-editor of niche-canada.org, he is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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