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Borrowing Privileges at the University of Toronto

Ottawa, October 2009

OPEN LETTER
 
As President of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA), I write to express the Association’s deep concern over the recent decision taken by the University of Toronto to cease offering complementary direct library borrowing privileges to students, faculty, and staff from other Canadian universities as of 30 September 2009, thereby requiring them to pay a substantial fee for this service – $200 per year, $130 for six months, $75 for three months, or $20 a week.  We are similarly alarmed at the suggestion made by Elizabeth Church in the Globe and Mail that the university may also be considering the possibility of charging visiting students and faculty to browse the stacks of some of its main libraries.[1]

Founded in 1922, the CHA is a bilingual organization with 1,200 members across Canada, the United States and the rest of the world, dedicated to scholarship in all fields of history.  As the leading scholarly organization of historians in Canada, the Canadian Historical Association assumes an advocacy role regarding issues of concern to its members and other practitioners interested in advancing the discipline of history in Canada.

In our view, the value of the University of Toronto Libraries goes well beyond the faculty and students of the University of Toronto.  Historians in Canada are especially fortunate to have access to the John P. Robarts Library, one of the top research libraries in North America.  Its extensive collections include rare and difficult to find material and are used extensively by historians from a variety of fields as well as scholars from other disciplines.  Their vast collections have no parallel in the country, and they have been built with provincial funds at least partly in recognition that they would be a resource that all Ontarians and other Canadians would have access to. 

Imposing a fee for borrowing will limit access to these resources for faculty, staff, and students who are not formally part of the University of Toronto community.  This represents a great disadvantage to people who come to Toronto to use its libraries from other universities in southern Ontario and across the country, either on a short-term basis or for longer stretches of time in the summer or during sabbatical years.

The new fee structure will be most difficult to bear for graduate students.  Countless students enrolled at nearby institutions, not only in the greater Toronto area but also throughout southern Ontario, are heavily dependent on the resources of the University of Toronto Libraries to complete their coursework and to prepare for examinations.  Many more, enrolled in more distant institutions but residing in the region, similarly rely on these resources while they complete their master’s theses and doctoral dissertations.  Direct borrowing privileges are crucial to their work.  A yearly fee of $200 is a substantial sum for students already facing financial hardships.

The Canadian Historical Association recognizes that University of Toronto Libraries face considerable financial pressures as they seek to revitalize the John P. Robarts Library and to maintain the excellence of their collections.  We recognize the importance of devising new and fair ways of funding university libraries at this economic juncture.  Yet we strongly believe that charging direct borrowing fees does more harm than good.  The admirable mission of the University of Toronto Libraries is “to foster the search for knowledge and understanding in the University and the wider community.”  It seems only proper that innovations in fundraising should not take the form of obstacles to the scholarship of individuals who are not affiliated with the University of Toronto. Moreover, while the new fee structure entails significant costs to individual users, the revenues generated represent only a “drop in the bucket” in terms of bridging the libraries’ funding gap, if a recent statement by Dr. Cheryl Misak, the University’s Provost is correct.[2]

Institutions of higher education in the Province of Ontario and throughout Canada have a solid tradition of sharing information resources. The University of Toronto’s new fees policy goes against the spirit of existing reciprocal borrowing agreements, and creates a dangerous precedent that other universities may chose to follow.  It is not in the interests of scholars across Ontario and Canada, nor is it clear that it will ultimately be in the best interests of the University of Toronto. 

The Canadian Historical Association calls on the University of Toronto’s administration to reverse its decision to charge a fee for direct borrower privileges, and to instead continue to offer complementary borrowing privileges to the graduate students, faculty, and staff of other Canadian universities. 

Sincerely,

Mary Lynn Stewart

President, Canadian Historical Association

[1] Elizabeth Church, “University's library fee for outsiders outrages academics” Globe and Mail, 15 September 2009. http://www.globecampus.ca/in-the-news/article/universitys-library-fee-for-outsiders-outrages-academics/

[2]Ibid.

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