I don’t remember a time when going to the library was not an important and yet routine part of my family’s life.
Important — because we had neither the money nor the storage space for all the books my parents wanted to read.
Routine — because “going to the library,” like buying groceries, changing the linen and washing the dishes was built into the rhythm of our lives.
Saturday, after the chores had been done around the house, we were packed into the car and driven to the library. The Army camp in which we lived had a small library and many of the books were donated by the men and women who lived on the base. Because a fair number of the men had married while in England and brought their wives back to Canada and a goodly number of the families had been posted to England or Germany many of the donated books had been bought in (or shipped from) England. I was deposited in the “for young children” nook which was packed full of books written for English schoolchildren.
While I was sitting, enraptured, in the niche set aside for young children my older sister was picking out books she wanted to read and then arguing with the librarian (or, more accurately, one of the women who either volunteered or was paid very little to run the library) as to whether they were “suitable” for a girl her age. Meanwhile my mother and my father would have each struck out for their favourite sections of the building.
After an hour or so mom or dad would gather us all up, we would check out our books and head back home. Where over the course of the next week we would not only read the books we had picked out we would check out everyone else’s books.
Later, when we had moved from the Army camp to a medium-sized city, we checked out the various branches of the local library. My father walked by one branch of the library every day as he went to work, and my sister walked past another on her way to school. Since this was before the Internet took off, Saturday became the day when my mother would drop me off at the best “research” branch of the library to do my homework while she ran the weekly errands. I would work for several hours at one of those long wooden library tables until mom returned and then she and I would spend a pleasant hour or so in the stacks before going home with our trove.
During the years that I studied and worked in academia the library continued to be the building that held the books that I couldn’t afford and didn’t have room to store. Without the library I couldn’t do my research. I lived for much of the year within a few minutes walk of a number of major research libraries. Over the years my respect for the skills of librarians flowered. The completion of both of my graduate degrees required years of research, much of which would have taken longer (or been fruitless) without their assistance.
Now I am once again living year round in my home in a small city in Canada. One of the things that I expected to miss was access to a good library system. Yet today I found myself standing in the middle of main branch of our local library and thinking (and almost saying out loud) “I LIKE our library.”
The local library is more accessible than it ever was before. It is physically accessible to those who were once unable to negotiate its stairs and narrow entrances. It is virtually accessible to anyone who has get onto the internet. I can browse the stacks from home and request that the books I am interested in be set aside. Much of the library’s reference section is available online and so I can still read many of the academic journals in my field.
The library is also more lively than it was years ago. There is large, colourful, and welcoming section for children and for teenagers. There are comfortable chairs for people, old and young, who simply want to sit and read. There are computers and internet access for people who cannot afford either. There are librarians who will help people set up the resumes that they will soon print out on the library printer. There is a little coffee/fruit/pastry stand. People all around me were having fun, enjoying themselves, happy to be in the library.
I stood there for a moment and thought, “this is the center of my community.” People go to the library to learn how to apply for jobs, they go to learn new skills, they go to watch movies, take part in book clubs, and to meet people.
In my town the library has, in many ways, replaced the church as the center of the community life.