Jessica Riddell is an associate professor in the department of English at Bishop's University, the chair of the Bishop's University Teaching and Learning Centre and a 3M National Teaching Fellow.
In the wake of the provincial government's decision to close almost half the public libraries in Newfoundland and Labrador, politicians have offered up a number of justifications. The most prevalent – and specious – argument is that technology has rendered libraries obsolete, and that libraries are now relics of the predigital age.
This couldn't be further from the truth.
Libraries are not static repositories of physical books. Rather, they are knowledge hubs where people of all ages can seek out opportunities, collaborate, create, and learn. When we think about libraries, we must extend our perception beyond the limitations of bricks and mortar, books and periodicals, and understand libraries as public spaces devoted to knowledge creation in its many forms. Public libraries uphold values of inclusivity, social and cultural literacy, and equal access to knowledge – all key values of a vibrant and thriving democracy. When we close our libraries, we threaten to unravel the very fabric that binds members of our communities together.
In this digital age it is even more important to invest in libraries as spaces where we encounter, explore, and experiment with ideas, whether these ideas are found in the pages of books or are circulated by digital content platforms and new technologies. As a university professor, I have yet to find a technology that can replicate – much less supersede – the powerful learning that occurs when my students and I encounter complex ideas together in safe, supportive, and curiosity-driven environments.
If you've been to a public library recently, chances are you've seen how vibrant and dynamic these public spaces are. You may have stopped in for free Wi-Fi and stayed for an art exhibition. You may have browsed the new releases while waiting for a public lecture to start. You may have signed up for a book club and discovered the espresso at the library café is unparalleled. If you are a regular user of a public library, you know that the programming offers almost endless learning opportunities for every age and stage, from toddlers to seniors.
In the past 15 years, many educational institutions (especially in higher education) have invested in their libraries; some have even renamed their libraries as "learning commons." The new name is designed to emphasize how these public learning spaces represent the true sense of a "commons" – that is, a space accessible to all members of a community who have responsibility for and investment in a shared vision of learning. Librarians and library staff at my university are key collaborators in this vision: they are not guardians of books but rather facilitators, curators, community event organizers, archivists, researchers, educators, and mentors. Moreover, they teach the next generation about digital literacy, a core competency of global citizenship.
Steven Johnson, in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, traces the history of innovation and argues that creating fertile environments facilitates "collisions of creativity" where people from diverse backgrounds "converge in some shared physical or intellectual space." Although Mr. Johnson identifies 18th-century coffee houses, 19th-century salons, and even a 1970s garage where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak famously founded Apple as sites of these collisions, he could easily have been describing the public libraries of the 21st century.
Libraries are not a luxury to be cut when there is an economic downturn. Instead, we should be investing in libraries and learning commons as key social institutions that connect members of our communities and provide opportunities for creative collisions.
Now picture a library. What do you see? If the image in your mind includes rows upon rows of books, people reading quietly, and a stern librarian shushing unwitting patrons who crackle a candy wrapper, you need to get thee to a public library. And while you are there, hug a librarian.