Monday, August 06, 2007

Library cutbacks are shortsighted solution

I remember my father, a rabid gardener, teaching me what the huge piles of dirt beside new housing developments meant. He explained that they scrape off all the topsoil to sell. I asked how things grew if there was no dirt left. He said people had to buy it back, or just hope for the best while planting in soil devoid of nutrients.

It didn't make much sense to me at the time; cynicism has made me wiser.

I've been following the latest proposed municipal budget cuts. I'm no lobbyist, and I don't have any special interests, but for the life of me, I will never understand the slashing and pillaging of funds destined for libraries.

If you haven't been in a library recently, you need to go. I worked in one as a teen after spending hours and hours there as a child. Back then, most of the librarians still had that stern demeanour – I recall one who actually would peer at you over half glasses, complete with a little strap so they could swing from her neck when she didn't need them. She was terrifying.

This past week, I ventured into the most beautiful little library I have ever been in. Located in Wainfleet, Ont., (population: 6,600), it's a large single room that emanates out from a glorious skylight. It has specialty nooks for magazine and newspaper readers, and a fabulous children's section with a flowing mural and custom kid-sized furniture. The layout is brilliant.

Chief librarian Rona O'Banion is young and funny and has more energy than the kids who filled her children's section that day. Recognizing a small community needs its anchors – and that a library should be one them – she has blown the dust off the concept of what a library should be.

If libraries were some profit-driven corporation, they'd pour millions into ad campaigns to remind you of what they have to offer. But they're not, and they can't.

And as we lose touch with the most valuable things a library has to offer, we cripple ourselves in the process.

Read a book you loved, and want more like it? Ask a librarian.

They don't just show you more by the same author, they'll show you dozens by other authors.

It's great that we buy books for our children, but at a library, they can go free range and peck at what they want. You don't have to be wealthy to deliver to your child a lifetime of riches; take them to the library.

An Internet connection is a wonderful thing, but children have a hard time discerning context. The provenance of much of the information is missing or limited, and a library is staffed with people trained to know the difference.

As parents venture out of their knowledge comfort zones, libraries can help us continue to lead our children. And yes, I want to be able to do that on a Sunday. We support hot and cold running 'round the clock access to everything that doesn't matter. Library hours we truncate.

The whole concept of libraries originated with private collections being made public. It was recognized early on that access to literature on every discipline would help create the kind of society we yearn for. Julius Caesar reportedly burned the fabulous Library of Alexandria, knowing it would be a bit of a sore point for his enemy.

I won't feign ignorance about governments having to make hard decisions in dispersing public funds; but neither should taxpayers feign surprise when, after all the topsoil has been hauled away, a tree refuses to grow.

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