In praise of the public library

Toula Foscolos
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On a recent trip to NYC, I opted to do what any proud book nerd would do; take a guided tour of the New York Public Library. Standing at the corner of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, this iconic Beaux Arts building has been a part of the Big Apple since 1911. With nearly 53 million items, (among them superb collections of rare books and original manuscripts – including the Gutenberg Bible and Jefferson's manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence) NYPL is the second largest public library in the United States, behind only the Library of Congress, and one of the most important in the world.

From an architectural point of view, the building itself is absolutely stunning. One could easily spend hours walking around, taking it all in. But to a book lover such as myself, the sheer quantity of knowledge contained within these walls left me enraptured. This is a library that has 80 miles of shelf space! Its reading room is the size of a football field! When poet Jorge Luis Borges wrote “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” I’m thinking he meant this library.

Buildings such as these are the memory banks of humankind, irreplaceable storehouses of history and human thought. They are the place where people go for “Nutrimentum spiritus”; what the Romans called “food for the soul”.

I love books. I love reading books. I love discussing and debating books. I love how they feel in my hands. I love the smell of them. But, most importantly, I love where they allow me to go when I read them. I applied for my first library card when I was 7 years old and that simple act changed my life. Sure, my formal in-school education has provided me with invaluable knowledge, but there’s no denying that my own personal literary choices have shaped me into the person I now am today.

“She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain,” Louisa May Alcott says, in Little Women when describing Jo. What a wonderfully glorious thing to have happen to you!

But what’s ultimately most important about public libraries is the “public” part. Just like at the NYPL, where its many collections and services are free of charge, public libraries are probably one of the most profoundly democratic institutions we have.

To use a public library, in most cases all one needs is the desire to. In a world where status and money can fast-track so many to the front of the line, it’s nice to remember that this gateway to reading - a “life-long intoxication”, as writer Logan Pearsall Smith put it - is available to everyone. Equal access to information is a vital cornerstone of democracy. It should never be compromised and never taken for granted.

It’s why it made me so sad to hear our guide tell us of the cutbacks the NYPL was experiencing, due to budget shortfalls in NYC. The cutbacks mirror nationwide cutbacks, which have resulted in a reduction of operating hours and/or book acquisitions. The recession has affected libraries everywhere and with information so easily obtainable online, one wonders how they will be affected in the future.

In a world where status and money can fast-track so many to the front of the line, it’s nice to remember that this gateway to reading - a “life-long intoxication”, as writer Logan Pearsall Smith put it - is available to everyone.

I think the harsh truth is that the advent of new technologies is making public libraries appear redundant and unaffordable. With more and more books being digitalized, the need for a ‘physical’ distribution point becomes less important. But the internet, as efficient and all-encompassing as it often appears to be, is also self-limiting in that it requires the tools with which to use it.

According to the 2011 Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study, an annual report produced by the American Library Association (ALA) with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, more than 65 percent of public libraries report that they are the only source of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities.

Here in Canada, financial shortfalls have affected us as well. How many of you remember the heated debate regarding Mayor Rob Ford’s proposed budget cuts for the Toronto Public Library that erupted last year, and even had author Margaret Atwood pleading for people to stand up and fight?

The Harper government also recently announced drastic cuts to Library and Archives Canada, one of the country’s most important cultural institutions.  Public libraries in Canada (Montreal has 44 branches) are governed by provincial statues and are primarily financed by municipal tax revenues and other local income, making them vulnerable to budget shortfalls at any time. This, despite the fact that the National Core Library Statistics Program reported that public libraries served 28.5 million municipal residents – a total of 93% of the Canadian population.

But cutbacks will continue to take their toll. Libraries, while vital in allowing easy access to books for those who can’t afford other means of acquiring them, will continue to remain at the bottom of the priority list. And in the battle between cost-cutting and welfare most governments have clearly picked sides.

It’s up to those who value the public library system to take on the fight and show their support any which way they can. Because, at the end of the day, what will be lost if the library fades into obsolescence will be immeasurable.

Organizations: American Library Association, Public Library Funding, Library and Archives Canada New York Public Library

Geographic location: Canada, NYC, Montreal

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  • Larry Meegan
    July 30, 2012 - 15:29

    Toula, I just wanted to say thank you for such a well written essay about libraries. I saw it through a Tweet and retweeted it for others to enjoy. Thanks again.