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For several years I was a deputy minister in the Ontario government. Before that, over a 30-year career, I had many titles – assistant deputy minister, general manager, director, team lead, executive assistant. But before all that, I was a librarian.

I only worked in the library sector for a few short years before jumping into government. Those who discover I first chose librarianship as a profession often shake their heads in disbelief. “You don’t seem like the librarian type,” they say. Then they make the usual jokes about the archetypical bun-wearing, noise-hating, dusty spinster in horn-rimmed glasses and sensible shoes (or the sultry temptress that lurks beneath, once she lets her hair down). People tend to forget about the great librarians portrayed in books and film – rebels, strategists, censorship-fighters, mystery-solvers. Inevitably, the negative trope wins, and my argument – that librarianship is fundamental to democracy – is drowned out by a lot of dramatic shushing. It’s not that smart, but I’m used to it.

Many millennials I know see libraries as irrelevant, soon-to-be obsolete, not worth wasting public funds on. They look at me with confusion when I defend the investment. “Really?” they ask. “Even with the Internet?” I may as well be talking about keeping rotary phones and Rolodexes going. I resist going into lecture mode about privilege, fairness and levelling the playing field. Not everyone’s literate, has a computer or can navigate the system. But I do say, in no uncertain terms, that I would not have made it to where I did had it not been for my local library.

As a latchkey immigrant kid adjusting to life in a new country, I found escape and refuge at Mimico Centennial Library. My parents’ rough divorce plunged our already precarious existence into poverty. My family couldn’t afford a single book, but when I discovered I could go across the road and read anything I wanted – for free! – my life changed significantly. That library became a safe haven, a rich world of knowledge that fostered a lifelong love of books.

The place was magical to me – warm brick, white stucco, natural wood, with an angled copper roof. Built in 1967 to commemorate Canada’s 100th, its award-winning design drew considerable attention. The children’s section had floor-to-ceiling windows where a giant drum-shaped aviary housed noisy budgies that entertained the kids. The adult wing was a two-storey atrium with a bright balcony, cozy window seats and comfy plant-filled reading lounges. There was even a theatre and a cobbled courtyard with reading benches and a butterfly fountain. I was there all the time.

Being a voracious reader, I quickly grew out of the children’s department. At 12, I got up the courage to ask to use the adult section. The friendly librarian said “No” with a smile – you had to be 14 – but if I was willing to work there when I turned 13, she’d make an exception.

The day after my next birthday, I got my first part-time job. It gave me pocket money to ease the burden for my now single mom. It also opened up my world. I was exposed to the Canadian book trade and publishing industry. I learned about acquisition, client service and conservation. I witnessed the transformative power of libraries for those facing barriers related to language, economics, disability or remoteness. And I discovered authors that are my favourites to this day.

I often got teased about my job. Kids earning half what I did stocking shelves, cleaning arenas, building one giant bicep scooping ice cream made the same dumb jokes. I didn’t care. I kept working in public libraries till I finished university, both front-line and behind the scenes. Thanks to those roles, which paid increasingly well as I gained experience, I was able to supplement my scholarships, study abroad in France and graduate debt-free.

While completing my Master’s in Library and Information Science, I learned about the ancient roots and philosophies of the profession. Beyond theory, the curriculum covered a range of topics – business administration, computer programming, policy issues such as censorship and privacy. We learned about harnessing technology through the World Wide Web well before it was a household term. Much like the librarians I’d worked with as a kid, my profs were thoughtful, funny, well-read, interesting people. I didn’t think I’d mind being like them when I grew up.

After a couple of research stints, I landed a job as the CanLit Librarian at the Metro Toronto Reference Library, Canada’s largest. While I expanded the collection (and my own expertise), I organized authors’ nights, poetry readings, literary festivals, and couldn’t believe I’d translated my love of books and literature into a job that paid decently with benefits.

Best of all, I was part of a diverse, eclectic, intelligent, supportive team of professionals, devoted to the equalizing effect of free information. They weren’t rigid gatekeepers protecting rare books in silent, hallowed repositories (though some books were precious). They fought for freedom of expression. They’d literally search the world over, using their knowledge and uncanny problem-solving skills to find needles in haystacks. But they also helped high school students with their homework. No matter the question, there was no judgment. They went out of their way to put people at ease, ferreting out their true needs, especially those who were ashamed to display what they thought of as ignorance in a knowledge-based institution. It was public service at its finest.

As much as I loved my work, there were shortcomings in the profession. Female-dominated except at the highest levels, stagnant in terms of growth and promotion. I was young and ambitious. I wanted to get ahead, needed broader scope for advancement. I moved into government and never looked back.

Now, in retirement, I am looking back. Well, forward too. I’m reading ravenously and using my public library again, virtually and in-person. I’m also writing, and find myself reconnected to the strange, often impenetrable, but still fascinating world of publishing, where a former career in librarianship is understood, even valued. What a concept.

To those who eschew public libraries, consider this: just after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainian Library Association issued a statement declaring their libraries “strategic weapons” of war – places of power, security, asylum and freedom for all Ukrainians. Since then, Ukrainian “warrior” librarians have used the tools available to them – books, knowledge, cultural wisdom – to participate in the resistance, fight cyber-misinformation and preserve national memory.

If that’s not essential – and badass – I don’t know what is.

Shirley Phillips lives in Toronto.

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