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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

DRAWN OFF TOPIC

Des McAnuff on school libraries Add to ...

Des McAnuff, a two-time Tony Award-winning director, is artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where he’s directing Twelfth Night and Jesus Christ Superstar .

What are your earliest memories of libraries?

When I finished high school, Woburn Collegiate in Scarborough, I was already writing plays. I had a girlfriend, and her mother mentioned Harold Pinter to me around that point. I said, “Who’s Harold Pinter?” She said, “Des, you can’t call yourself a playwright if you don’t know who Harold Pinter is.”

So I went to Cedarbrae Library and spent a good deal of my time there. I read all of the plays of Harold Pinter and I read all of the reviews, and the plays of Edward Albee and Joe Orton. In those months, I educated myself.

I had lots of help from the librarians. Having a librarian at your disposal elevates the importance of books and literature. While I think the Internet is an extraordinary invention, there is something visceral about holding a book. It gives it a value and weight that I don’t think can be duplicated on the electronic screen.

Surfing the Net has great value, but there is something about a library that can really inspire young minds and take you on a different kind of journey.

Better than self-guided journeys surfing the Net?

That tends to be a solo journey, very different to having a guide to knowledge that a librarian can be. That interaction between a student and a librarian becomes a dialogue. Giving students access to that kind of mind is really invaluable. I’d hate to see it slip away because we have this wondrous tool. I’d hate to see that invention become reductive. These tools we have acquired should expand our ability to think. They shouldn’t diminish them.

Does Joe Lunch Pail share your view? Budget constraints demand cuts, and school libraries have become popular targets.

The way politicians legislate is, they tell each other horror stories. Over here we have a hospital and over here we have a school, a theatre, a library. The game is always to tell the most horrendous horror story about one of those to get money for what you value.

As taxpayers, we’re all contributing to things we don’t necessarily believe in. We depend on these people we elect to take care of the resources that are important to society. I think books and the general public’s access to books are very important. Statistics back up the idea that schools with librarians score higher. If a kid has someone to talk to about a subject or an issue or a research paper, of course it’s going to expand their horizons rather than just blindly surfing through the Net.

Then why have libraries become the target du jour for budget cuts?

Sometimes, we are susceptible to the horror stories. These are clearly challenging times. All the more reasons to protect educational institutions – which would include libraries, in my opinion.

You want to talk about investment? Don’t look at the stock market, look at education. These are the thinkers and the leaders of tomorrow. Libraries contain the wisdom of the ages. When we make decisions, we need the ability to plug into that.

Libraries are no longer morgues for paper. They’ve adapted to the times, they’re digital learning centres, offer courses, community meeting rooms, drive change, yet they’re still under threat. What can be done to stem this trend?

People need to speak out, protest – and not for themselves, but for the generations that follow us. This is a time to dig in.

Kids live in a digital world. Increasingly, won’t they think: “Who needs a library?” I have all the information in the world at my fingertips.

That is an illusion. Surfing the Net can lead you certain places The librarian is going to lead you different places. A librarian can target areas of knowledge. Libraries contain the wisdom of the ages. When we make decisions, we need the ability to plug into that.

Who’s going to shush you now?

When I think of libraries, I just don’t think of books, I think of groups of people. It was my favourite place to study. There was a lot of communication that went on and a certain amount of shushing if the conversations got too animated.

The image out of the Frank Capra movie with the stern librarian telling everyone to be quiet was far from the libraries that I grew up in. They were definitely social centres for learning. We should all have a vested interest in young people learning.

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