In 1992, I landed my first job, such as it was, at the public library in Albion, Nebraska, population 2,000. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the elegant Beaux-Arts library was constructed in 1908, one of sixty-nine in the state supported by Andrew Carnegie. I knew none of this at the time, as I was ten years old.
I had responded to a Help Wanted sign asking for volunteers to digitize the catalogue. As far as I could tell, this was an exciting time in books. Physical card catalogues, with their drawers and cross-references, and physical due date cards, with their date stamps and signatures, were giving way to electronic databases and printed receipts. Madonna had just published Sex, and Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County dominated the bestseller lists, neither of which meant anything to me though I did sense a certain buzz in the air. They were just two of the many titles — coming and going as they did — that gave the library energy. So what could be better than typing author names and titles into a new computer behind the lending desk, charged with immense bibliographic responsibility?
My parents assured me that the librarian, Mari Hosford, wasn’t asking for a volunteer my age, but I can be stubborn, especially when it comes to books. I applied, and she graciously welcomed me, perhaps thinking I’d last an afternoon. We set to work, and I stuck around for years.
I hadn’t been in Albion long when I started. My family had just moved there from a 320-acre farm a four-hour drive and a world away. While I would meet teachers and classmates at my new school, it was really through the library that I got to know what I consider my hometown. Mrs. Hosford soon trusted me enough to do more than put barcodes on covers and transcribe copyright pages. As she would sit outside on the limestone steps smoking a cigarette, I would answer the phone and check out books. The public library is a unique lens on any community: I quickly learned who was who — putting faces to the names that were on the area’s buildings and ranch signs. I also learned who read romance novels, who did the most genealogical research, who loved the magazines (and which ones), who was perpetually overdue, who powered through non-fiction, and who baked the most (we lent cake pans, which seemed perfectly natural at the time and still does).
The Albion Public Library was a magical place, with its adult section upstairs, its children’s section downstairs, its newspapers just to the left of the main entrance, its lone black and white photocopier to the right, and its elaborate woodwork throughout. In the basement, generally off limits, there were bats that sometimes found their way into the main lobby — spinning circles as Mrs. Hosford and I would try to corner them with a broom. Those restricted stairs led to treasures untold: old encyclopedias and phone books, mouldy periodicals and town records. I had a great public education, but I realize now that my love of research and the archive — the paper, the smell, the serendipity — wasn’t awakened in the classroom.
Years later, I moved to Canada, and like so many immigrants to this country, I began to understand my new home, once again, through the public library. The Cabbagetown branch of the Toronto Public Library was closest, but I tended to spend my time at the main branch, in Yorkville, or the Lillian Smith Library, on College Street. Sure, the University of Toronto offered an embarrassment of library options, and I roamed those stacks too. But more often than not, while my fellow graduate students sat hunched over in their tiny study carrels, I spread out at a public library table.
One of the things that distinguished my doctoral research, I think, was how much material came from public library collections — material that wasn’t and likely never will be digitized and downloadable. My project required time and energy at the Toronto Reference Library and its wonderful Baldwin Room. It required trips to the Onondaga Public Library in Syracuse, New York. And it required a functioning interlibrary loan network. Even as I had daily access to Robarts Library, one of the largest in the world, I sought out rare books and ephemera from small towns across Canada and the United States.
The lending library has played an important societal role in this country for centuries, just as it has around the world. UNESCO describes the public library as “a living force for education, culture and information . . . an essential agent for the fostering of peace and spiritual welfare.” But, however essential, it has always been a somewhat precarious institution. Public or private, libraries can disappear if we don’t pay attention to them. Sometimes it’s dramatic and fast — collections that go up in flames, like the original Library of Congress in 1814, Toronto’s University College Library in 1890, or Dalhousie University’s law library in 1985. Sometimes it’s more prolonged — the repeated revival and destruction of the Library at Alexandria being the classic example. A library can also wither through less theatrical entropy: mildew and book rot and leaky pipes.
Then there’s budgetary destruction, which has become an all-too-common conceit lately.
In its 2018 budget, for instance, Saskatchewan slashed library funding by $4.8 million, or 58 percent. The majority of the cuts, $3.5 million worth, targeted communities outside of Regina and Saskatoon, along with the popular One Province, One Card interlibrary loan program. The regional library in Moose Jaw, with its twenty branches, handed out pink slips to six employees. Saskatchewanians reacted by staging read-ins and signing petitions. Eventually, Brad Wall’s government issued a mea culpa and restored the funding.
This past April, Doug Ford’s government in Ontario tried a similar tack, announcing a 50 percent reduction in funding for the Southern Ontario Library Service and the Ontario Library Service–North. Even as provincial support for municipal systems holds steady, the cuts represent a serious threat, particularly for the 121 libraries that serve small communities and First Nations in the North. Michael Tibollo, the minister for tourism, culture, and sport, suggests that SOLS and OLSN “have no involvement in the day-to-day operations of Ontario’s public libraries,” which surely doesn’t reflect the reality of anyone who depends on their services. Maybe that’s why Queen’s Park has agreed to restore, at the very least, OLSN funding by June.
It’s not just Saskatchewan and Ontario, of course. Similar cuts were proposed in Newfoundland and Labrador three years ago. For a while, Alberta charged fees for library cards to help offset a lack of funding. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to cut $11 million from his city’s system, a move the actor Sarah Jessica Parker is fighting loudly.
As Susan Orlean writes in The Library Book, her account of the devastating 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire, “The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them.” Few communities can match the robust collections of the Toronto Public Library, with its 100 branches, comprehensive programming for all ages, and 11 million items. But that’s not to say intellectual curiosity is any less robust in a place like Moose Jaw or Midland or Marten River. There’s no way to predict the form or the urgency of a library patron’s needs or wants. And there are a lot of patrons in this country — more than half of us visit the public library each year, and as many of us hold a library card as do a passport.
Public libraries are where we “protect and pass along shared knowledge,” as Orlean puts it. And from the very beginning, that knowledge has taken disparate forms — from Shakespeare and Kroetsch to 3D printers and cake pans, from citizenship and language classes to just getting online for an hour. The public library is where the curious eleven-year-old, the immigrant, the graduate student, the recently unemployed or the homeless person, and the award-winning novelist can come together. And a healthy interlibrary loan program, among other services, is essential to whetting the appetites of everyone, whatever they’re hungry for. Not everything worth reading, worth learning, worth experiencing is on the internet. It never will be.
When I think about the public library today — whether my go-to branch at Queen and Saulter or one of the 915 other locations in Ontario — a different type of Help Wanted sign comes to mind. It reads, simply, Save Me.