On Monday, October 17th, the presentation of BiblioQualité by the Association of Public Libraries of Quebec (ABPQ) attracted a lot of media interest. According to the results presented in this assessment exercise Montreal would take first place with a score of 91%, while the average for Quebec cities is 67%. This suggests that only Montreal gets a seal of approval.
Although this Bulletin represents a high quality, relevant and useful tool for the development of public libraries in all communes of Quebec, it is nevertheless necessary to give at least some precision to the interpretation of its results.
This clarification applies to Montreal. Its very high rating is explained by the fact that it applies to the Montreal metropolitan area, which includes all the communes of the island, including the uprooted cities, some of which are among the best libraries in Canada. The score that applies to the area that is now Montreal is closer to 71%, a score barely above the Quebec average of 67.
These results for the city of Montreal and its agglomeration reflect the Diagnosis of the Municipal Libraries of the City of Montreal published in 2005. This document identified a significant shortage of staff, a significant lack of space, unfair service and the need for significant additional financial outlay.
The same diagnosis also conducted a comparative analysis with the nine Canadian cities outside of Quebec with populations of 500,000 or more. Aside from the fact that Montreal was significantly behind in key categories like staffing (professional and technical) and available space, the indicator where the gap was most horrifying was the penetration rate. Leaving aside the failed cities, the situation can be summed up as follows: Less than one in three Montrealers has historically visited their library, compared to between one in two and two in three in Canada’s other major cities.
This situation has deep roots dating back to the late 19th centurye Century, at the time of the founding of the Public Library Movement, a North American movement that French-speaking Canada, at the instigation of the Church, refused to join. It was not until nearly a century later, in the late 1970s, that the leadership of Minister Denis Vaugeois allowed the development of public libraries to really take off.
If we examine things with this historical delay of almost a century in mind, the progress made by Quebec libraries is remarkable. But there is still a lot of catching up to do across North America when it comes to Montreal’s network of public libraries. And we should be pleased at the high level of collaboration over the past 15 years between the City of Montreal and the Department of Culture and Communications.
One of the key characteristics of the city of Montreal is the diversity of the socio-economic profile of its population. There are large disparities in terms of income, educational background and literacy levels. The distribution of libraries and the resources available to them also seem to vary greatly, which is all the more worrying given that they can help improve literacy, Frenchize newcomers and help them integrate (more than 120 emerging cultures combined in Montreal), just to name a few.
In his work Literacy in Quebec. A local perspective on the problems Economist Pierre Langlois, published in October 2021 in collaboration with the Literacy Foundation, writes: “Large cities outperform the Quebec average when it comes to the number of respondents achieving PIAAC Level 3, the threshold which is considered necessary to understand longer and more complex texts. However, disadvantaged sectors and neighborhoods of these large cities show lower results. This is exactly the case in Montreal.
Public libraries, which 20 years ago were considered torturous due to the digital invasion, are nonetheless more relevant and present in the lives of citizens than ever as they are an instrument of knowledge and culture, but also of inclusion and prosperity.
But if we are to be content with the progress that has been made in Montreal and throughout Quebec in terms of public reading, the last thing to do is jump to conclusions, and certainly not in Montreal.
I’m sorry, but we can’t say mission accomplished! If I can suggest one conclusion, it is rather: We are finally moving in the right direction, this is not the time to slow down!
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