It's not just books.
Some see the potential loss of the library from the old town as the final blow to a bygone era, while others see it as part of the creation of a bigger community.
Margo Fyfe remembers when she could walk out the door of her Niagara-on-the-Lake home and drop by the wool shop or the hardware store.
Slowly, though, the 76-year-old has seen such stores disappear. Shops in the attractive town which has become a magnet for millions of tourists cater more to visitors than the few thousand residents of the old town.
"For a long time, I've seen what I stayed here for deserting me bit by bit," Fyfe said Wednesday.
Fyfe stayed put, partly out of practicality and partly out of passion. She could walk wherever she wanted to go. She also loves the town, where she went for "the most glorious walk" Wednesday with her springer spaniel Molson and revelled in sharing her neigh¬bourhood with tourists.
The latest possible departure from the old town has her thinking about all she's seen change. But the contentious debate on the future of the public library is more than a discussion about where to go to borrow a spy novel or peek into a specialty cookbook.
"The library is just the straw that broke that camel's back," said the feisty Fyfe, who's lived in the old town for more than seven decades. "The old town is going down the tube very rapidly.
"It is a jewel for all of Canada; it is being tarnished."
She suggested the town should become the Williamsburg of the north. The Virginia colonial-era village has been rebuilt and preserved as a historic attraction.
The debate Fyfe is watching is a discussion steeped in the history of a community many residents and observers agree is unique. The contentious discussion also lays bare a deep divide between old town and rural residents as each group reaches for a strong hold on services which can give a community its civic heartbeat. In doing that, the debate which brought 350 Niagara-on-the-Lake residents to a community centre Tuesday night also cuts to the very core of how the town is governed, what all in the municipality want it to be and the difficulty reaching any consensus on that.
Hugh Gayler, a geography professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, echoes Fyfe's "camel" assessment of the spot the library in the historic former courthouse on Queen Street holds in the current debate.
"It's more than a place to borrow books. It's a social centre in many respects," Gayler said Wednesday.
"What is there left? people are saying.
A library is a very important community function. It's a psychological loss in a sense when you see a library going."
Gayler also points to other factors at play in the current debate, including the "eccentric nature" of Niagara-on-the-Lake, a municipality formed through 1970 changes in local government which brought together the disparate communities of old town, St. Davids, Virgil, Queenston and the rural areas of Niagara Township.
"It's very hard to set up a good debate down there," said Gayler. "There's an immediate confrontation on absolutely everything. I don't know how you resolve it."
Those who favour the proposed library relocation to a site on Regional Road 55 see much virtue in the move. Library board members and staff say current quarters are inadequate and outdated. Renovation and expansion were considered, but ruled out as too expensive or providing only minimal extra space. Books have to be stacked higher than current standards recommend. Space is lacking for children's programs and parking is a perennial problem, particularly during the tourist season. Aldermen supporting the move say it would be in the best interest of all Niagara-on-the-Lake residents.
Observers also see such benefits.
"No one has any more right to it," said former St. Catharines regional councillor Bob Bell, who cautioned of the need to take into consideration concerns raised by the library board and staff. "If the place is not adequate, you've got to do something. People living in the old town will get there (if the library relocates). You just can't always walk to every place you want to go."
Seeing the library shift to the outskirts of the old town, as is favoured by a slim majority of the eight-member council, would follow a pattern in other communities of decentralization to suit a wider and car-owning population, Gayler said.
While such moves are convenient for car owners, they do "nothing for civic civility of the place," he said.
"I think people are alarmed at the Disneyland quality that's hitting the place," Gayler said, cautioning however that the town's current good business fortune is a marked contrast to the empty shops in a "dying community" 30 years ago. "It wasn't going to be saved by the local residents," Gayler said, suggesting the "up¬market tourist place" the old town became was a key to its revival.
Former lord mayor Stan Ignatczyk, a rural resident, considers the spectacle unfolding in the town 'Very sad."
"It's got carried away a little bit, where we feel out here we (have to) say, we're part of the town, too," said Ignatczyk, who noted there's a perception those in the old town "want it all."
He's also leery, however, about seeing the library vacate its current site. His preference lies in making the current site meet the library board needs. "It's difficult. It does need expansion. How do you accommodate that? What will be the effect on the old town?"
Larry Bourne, a University of Toronto professor of geography and planning, sees a need for creative thinking when towns face issues such as those in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
"They often don't look for innovative solutions," said Bourne. "It's surprising what you can do without going out and paving over another field."
Bourne was not familiar with the specifics of the current Niagara-on-the-Lake debate, but said that in general, small towns are better served when they keep facilities in the core and address associated problems upfront.
"Fix the parking problem," he suggested, offering up examples as diverse as the small town of Fergus and Bloor Street in Toronto, where parking has been relocated behind main streets.
Mary Jane Grant would welcome such innovation.
"All I want to do is help keep our community alive," said Grant, who leads a recently formed coalition of resident and community groups wanting the library to stay put and maintain the old town as a "living, working, historical" community.
"I'm not against tourism or development. I'm certainly for something called balance, certainly for something called vision and I'm definitely for something called fair representation and we definitely don't have any of those right now."
Grant, who is president of a business consulting firm and has taught creative thinking at the University of Western Ontario's business school, said the aldermen don't represent the old town. Terry Flynn, the only alderman from the old town, supported relocation along with aldermen Austin Kirkby, Jamie Slingerland, Dennis Dick and Dave Lepp.
Grant sees one way of "rescuing" the old town lying in a form of secession, or designation as a separate town under the Municipal Act, something for which there is precedence in four Ontario communities. "The notion is not as radical as some might think."
Ignatczyk sees difficulties with secession, particularly in lights of forces at play in the larger municipal world.
"In the end, do you get swallowed up by someone else anyway?" he asked. "If we have a community divided, we're vulnerable to other things happening in the Region.
The former lord mayor looks to the current council to "get this streetcar back on track, and somehow find a way to deal with all concerns.
"I think you're going to have to look past the divisions," Ignatczyk said. "It's not whether you or I win, but whether the town wins in the end."