Skip to main content

Long before there was Google, or big-box bookstores with inviting chairs where you could flip through potential purchases, or coffee shops serving up WiFi and a place to park yourself with your six-dollar Macchiato – there was the library.

Today, for new parents seeking community, toddlers a space to sing and wobble through piles of books, immigrants a place to practise their English, or seniors wanting to learn a new skill – there is the library.

The library is a space for all. For people who are homeless, struggling with mental health, addiction and affordability issues, the library is a necessary haven – an all-day refuge from the cold, the heat and the street, filled with comfortable chairs, reading material, internet access and bathrooms.

As Susan Orlean notes in The Library Book, libraries have become de facto community centres for homeless people around the world. “The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity,” she wrote in her 2018 bestseller. “It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge money for that warm embrace.”

Vancouver’s new mayor, Ken Sim, who is preparing his first city budget, recently mused about getting the Vancouver Public Library to step up and bring in more revenue. If each branch raised even about $500 a month, he calculated, that would bring in $100,000 a year for the city. (Although the mayor had the number of branches wrong; he thought there were 17, but there are 21.)

Mr. Sim did not explicitly suggest charging for basic services such as borrowing books. Anyway, the Library Act forbids that.

The VPL, with its $58-million operating budget last year – which represents a tiny fraction of the city’s annual spending, and has covered the same number of staff for 10 years, in spite of growing demand – presented a dire financial situation as it looks ahead to next year’s budget. “To be clear, any budget reduction will lead to reduced hours and branch closures,” board chair Kevin Lowe told Council at City Hall budget consultations.

For next year’s budget, the VPL is actually asking for some new money: $250,000 to open branches that are currently closed on Mondays and extend hours on Sundays. It is also seeking $350,000 for three new positions: A social worker to train and support beleaguered library staff, helping them to de-escalate difficult situations and recover from them, and two community access workers who can connect marginalized people with needed services.

Instead, the mayor would apparently have library workers somehow find the time and bandwidth to raise $500 per branch per month (in addition to the revenue the library currently brings in, largely from room rentals).

The last thing any public library needs is to be nickel-and-dimed and forced to deploy its already novella-thin resources to try to raise a few bucks.

Library staff are at or beyond capacity; the burnout is real. This work would have to be done off the side of already-stretched workers’ desks, in between helping new Canadians find jobs, teaching computer skills, hosting book clubs and presenting puppet shows – among the many services that are free to the public.

Hard-working library staff in any city do not deserve this.

For many of us of a certain age, the library was all about books. It’s where we met Beezus and Ramona and Judy Blume’s Margaret, explored Narnia, cried our first book tears over Charlotte’s Web. The feel of the books’ protective Mylar and that distinct library smell remain a wonderful Pavlovian trigger. There are great things ahead, your senses tell you: escape, enlightenment, stories.

Today’s libraries offer even more.

“We do mind-building, soul-affirming, life-saving work,” Khalil Gibran Muhammad, then the director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, says in Frederick Wiseman’s 2017 documentary Ex Libris: The New York Public Library.

“Libraries of today have become community centres,” Mr. Wiseman wrote in his director’s statement. “The library remains an ideal of inclusion, democracy and freedom of expression.”

In case you have any doubts about the power of the library, consider the story of Richard Wagamese. The Ojibwa man was homeless in St. Catharines, Ont., when, looking for shelter, he followed some people into a building. It was a library. He became a regular, parking himself at a desk, asking librarians for books about an array of topics and jotting things down in a notebook.

One day, a brown bag appeared on his desk. Inside was a muffin and a sandwich – a gift from a librarian. She gave him another gift: She introduced him to Beethoven in the listening room, and later took him to a music performance.

Mr. Wagamese became one of this country’s great writers, publishing 14 books before he died in 2017, and two more posthumously.

In this time of growing scarcity, political division and anti-intellectualism, the library is a reminder of what society can and should be.

Do the math – and preserve it at all costs.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe