Last week I renewed my delight and relief about my local Toronto Public Library branch (High Park) when I found the exact books I needed on the hottest few days of the year. I can’t always afford to buy books, and I certainly can’t afford the luxury of air conditioning, so to kill two birds with one stone was fantastic.
I hadn’t been for almost a year and was surprised to see that there’s a new self-serve check out. Signing out my books, I had a strong impression of working at the checkout at Albion Library when I was 14. Then we used an electric machine called a “recordak” into which we fed a library card, the book index card and a due date card which we then fit into the pocket at the back of the book. No email reminders of due dates back then!
Being back at the library reminded me of my Toronto City Hall deputation in 2011, when Mayor Ford sat, reluctant and restless, listening to “tax payers” speak on proposed cuts to some of the most important and beloved city programs and organizations.
Over 300 of us gathered at City Hall at 9 am on July 28th. So many enthusiastic defenders of public programs that Ford cut our original time of three minutes to only one and announced we’d be there through the night. This meant that many people left City Hall because they had to work or look after their kids, etc. (the media reported a 50% drop out rate – a result of the last minute decision to keep proceeding going through the night, and not because of lack of resolve or passion for the topic!) Those of us who stubbornly stayed through the night bonded in our conviction to see this mini-protest through.
Finally, at around 4 am, I heard my name and I nervously sat down to address our Mayor and the committee. I’ve spoken in public and in front of cameras, but it’s not everyday you come face to face with the Mayor to tell him you think he’s wrong.
Here is my original speech, which I had to edit for time, but I hope not for effect.
Libraries Matter – Toronto City Hall, July 28, 2011
I’m a writer, broadcaster and book critic. I’m not here as part of a “special interest group,” or because of any mythical library union pressure. I’m here as a citizen of Toronto and as a regular user of the Toronto Public Library.
My first-ever job was at Albion Library in Etobicoke where I worked as a “page,” shelving books on the main floor and if I was really lucky I got to organize old magazines in the basement stacks. It was dusty down there, but the reading rewards were worth it. I had shifts on the checkout and sometimes conducted a story-time in the kids section, reading picture books to the littlest library users. I was grateful for the opportunity to pass on to the kids a love of reading, and a fascination with the worlds inside books.
I worked there from the age of 14 to 17 and what started out as earning my keep at the library around the corner in the confusing time after my parents broke up became the spark that lit my career in writing and around books. It’s the same for a lot of my writing colleagues, who sight trips to the library as kids as the very reason they became writers. It’s important to note that many of us are not just “artsy” writers, but make part or all of our living doing corporate writing for various Toronto businesses.
From the first time I stepped into a bookmobile as a kid to my days working at the library, until this very day, the library is not only a vital resource but a place where I feel a necessary sense of community and belonging.
There’s this idea that everyone has computers at home and that the almighty internet can give us every little piece of information we need. But it’s just not true. Many individuals and families don’t have the money and that’s where libraries save them.
At the library everyone has access and therefore everyone is equal. Our most vulnerable citizens rely on libraries; low income individuals and families, new Canadians and seniors, people living by no fault of their own on the margins.
A kid having trouble in school but whose parents cannot afford a tutor can get help with their homework at the library. Kids having trouble reading or struggling with a learning disability can sign up for help. Seniors can brush up on their computer skills; freelance or contract workers who struggle with precarious income can book time with a computer or use the free Wifi.
I’ve interviewed new Canadians who have learned to read by checking out books in English, but can also happily borrow books in their own language among the many foreign language collections available. Seminars that help them learn about settling in Toronto and look for jobs are more than just helpful, they are vital to the success of immigrants in our city. People living on the margins or the many lonely people in our society find connection and community at the library. This is important for the overall health of the city. And isn’t it better to have a place for teens from priority neighborhoods to hang out instead of the street or local malls?
The Toronto Library system is one of the most used in the world. Some branches more than others, but low circulation should not be a factor in potential library closings – esp. the ones in at-risk neighbourhoods. If one person uses the library, that’s reason enough to keep it open. Not everyone can always even afford the bus ride to get to a library out of their district. Libraries help kids stay in school, they help steer our newest citizens in the right direction. They give seniors and other people a place to go, a reason to join in.
The benefit of libraries is long term and never-ending. They not only facilitate and foster learning. They introduce us to people, places and ideas we might not otherwise know about. They give people a vital sense of community and for some, a reason to get up in the morning and continue to strive to be contributing members of society.
For all these reasons and more libraries need to remain open, accessible and free.