Within the first week of arriving in Toronto, I decided to hit up the University of Toronto’s library. After all, wasn’t this the one-time stomping grounds of the father of Canadian Communication studies, Marshall McLuhan? And his contemporary and fellow luminary, Harold Innis, has a residence and a college named after him. As a Communication-reared undergrad, how could I resist? So I went with a skip in my step, glowing at the prospect of all that new-old knowledge, just waiting to be discovered–only to find my nose smashed against several glass doors of technology and information access policies.
Maybe I’ve just been drinking too much of that “information wants to be free” juice, hearing too much about the role of the library and the university in public life and its vital role in the health of a democracy. There’s a part of me that looks back on that whole experience that goes, well, the University of Toronto, as an organization and an institution, has the right to make whatever rules it wants to about its facilities, regardless of what I think of them. Nevertheless, I still feel somewhat miffed about how it all went down.
What did go down, you ask? I made my way through the revolving doors of Robarts Library and found myself in the middle of the Scotiabank Information Commons. Um, thanks, Scotiabank. I heartily appreciate the whopping two machines you’ve given for public access to the library catalogue. Except that only one of them even worked. Over at the Commons helpdesk, I asked the dude about the dead catalogue machine; his response consisted of asking me, without shifting a foot to even look at the computer, to cold-reboot the computer, which did nothing. I decided to leave him in his post-exam stupor, and waited for the gentleman at the other computer to finish.
I found a Marshall McLuhan book that I hadn’t read before, copied down the call number, then decided to see about getting a library card for myself. Naturally, I did that thing where I didn’t read the page very carefully, and stood in line like a gimp before being snottily told by the woman working the Loan Services desk that they don’t give library cards a) to undergrads of other universities, or b) to the general public. at. all.
This, admittedly, blind-sided me a bit. I’m used to libraries being relatively open places. The SFU Library has policies for external borrowers that are not directly affiliated with the university. I remember using the SFU library to do policy-related research on salmon farms when I was in grade 10. Through the COPPUL system, I was also able to get a community borrower library card at UBC (otherwise valued at $100 CAD). Between that card and interlibrary loan with SFU, I’ve had my hide saved on more than one assignment. I do notice that U of T does give “research readers” the ability to borrow, to the tune of $150 CAD a year.
There’s something much more insidious about the way it’s done at U of T though. After napkin-blogging the previous experience, I went in search of my McLuhan book, determined not to leave before having had my share of the intellectual experience that I consider the social contractual obligation of any library that stocks books in a language in which I am literate. I found myself outside the stacks, after pacing up and down the elevators for a good 5 minutes. “Finally!” I sigh. And stop.
Mounted on a piece of purple paper, in front of a desk with a curt-looking woman sitting in front of turnstiles, it says something about…having no access to the stacks without a UTorStID?
I pull out my camera to take a picture of this. Curt-looking woman, naturally, pulls out some non-existent policy about me not being able to take pictures except on the first floor. I humor her, ask to see on paper the policy about stack access. She tells me to go to the reference desk, so I do, and repeat my request: show me, on paper, where it says that members of the public cannot have access to the stacks, and cannot get a library card. She grants my request by going to the U of T website and printing off a copy of their stack retrieval policy. So I go downstairs, fill in the little form, and am told that the next stack retrieval occurs at 3:00, and that the book will be available for me at 4:00. I look at my watch–it’s currently 1:30.
This is what miffs me: these policies aren’t set down on paper. They won’t tell you explicitly about these policies, or that they’ve made such aims to exclude you if you’re a member of the public and not either a) paying tuition, b) being paid by them, or c) contributing to their closed academic system by being a visiting grad student or faculty member from another university (and thus affirming that system). Because these policies are nothing to be proud of whatsoever–that U of T is essentially washing its hands of its responsibility as a public respository of knowledge? That it did and is denying me, both as an undergraduate of another Canadian university as well as a Canadian citizen, even physical access to their information? I can hardly imagine what kinds of problems they must have had in the past in order to create such restrictive policies. Were there immigrants hanging out in the stacks polishing off Rousseau by the hundreds? ESL students crowding around the children’s literature parts? Even UBC and SFU let you just look. Their main campuses, perhaps, have the advantage of 45-minute bus trips from the city centre to keep out the deviants, but their open policies have managed to make it to their downtown campuses.
I think of the not-uncommon sight of Downtown Eastside residents catching up on the Globe and Mail in front of those large windows at the SFU Harbour Centre Library in Vancouver. I eventually went back to U of T for the book at 4:00 and chilled with it on the couches behind the printing station, entirely not enamoured or impressed by this ivory tower approach. If nothing else, the Toronto Public Library will be my friend, even if you won’t, U of T.