The significance of libraries

I’ve been thinking about libraries a lot lately. Partly because of a school project I’m working on, partly because of the threat that city council could close branches to save money.

But thinking about libraries isn’t a new thing for me. I recently dug up some older posts I wrote (originally posted on blogs that I no longer update).

Here’s something I wrote in March 2006, when I was in university:

I went to the library at school today (yes, on a Saturday). I went because I feel like I am so behind, and I was not looking forward to spending the day at school. But I love libraries. They are so quiet and peaceful. And then there are the books. I can be sitting at my computer with the world wide web at my fingertips, but being surrounded by such a vast number of tangible resources really gives a sense of the large amount of information and ideas out there.

 Anyway, I had fun researching for a couple of essays I have coming up. The stress isn’t as great now that I know what I am writing about, and I’m getting into it.

 I wandered through rows and rows of books with no one around. It was a really serene day. And then off to read by the floor-to-ceiling windows with the sunshine pouring onto the pages. It made me feel good about what I’m doing. It reminded me of when I was little and told my mom I wanted to move into the library.

The library was vital to my university experience. I went to the library to find books and to get help from the librarian to conduct research for papers. I went to the library when I needed access to a computer. I went to the library to find some quiet study space. But I also spent time there to relax.

I visited that university library in June 2010, a few years after I graduated:

It’s pouring outside, but I find warmth surrounded by these concrete walls. I haven’t been here in a while, but it feels like I’ve never left. The silence. The serenity. Nothing compares to the comfort of a library. 

My memory tells my feet where to take me. I’m led to the same rows of books I would duck into in between classes or when the day was done and I just wasn’t ready to go home yet. 

Almost nothing has changed. Many of the books I used to pick up are on the same shelves—the same books that provided me with comfort and entertainment years ago. Everything appears to be placed where it was when I left. For some reason, it strikes me that even the lighting is the same. Well, of course it would be, I think to myself. But it makes me feel as if I’ve gone back in time—or as if time stood still, waiting for me to return to where I belong.

I walk slowly through the stacks, glancing left and right, up and down. Wordsworth, Beckett, Coleridge, Keats, Emerson, Dryden, Woolf, Milton, Chaucer.

As I glance at these names, one book in particular comes to the forefront of my mind. I remember searching for it on these exact shelves after a professor mentioned it in class. It’s probably still here. I look up and down the aisles. I only have a few minutes—not enough time to go back and look it up in the catalogue. I can remember what it looks like. I can still feel its weight in my hands.

It’s almost time to go; I’m going to miss my bus. I become slightly frantic as I’m now determined to find it. Aha! I spot the T.S. Eliot section. But there are many, many books here. My fingers trace the spines as I search, moving faster and faster, still trying to look at each title thoroughly so I don’t miss it. And then, when I’ve almost given up, I see it. It sits on the bottom shelf, almost at the floor. The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts.

The big, blue hardcover calls out to me to pick it up. I know I am not able to check this book out, that I can’t take it home with me. I need to get going. But I slide it out of its place anyway. I turn the pages and notice how they’ve yellowed at the corners. I breathe in the familiar musty scent. But time has run out. I put it back with the other Eliot works. 

As I rush to the bus stop, I wonder how many students, if any, have checked out that volume since the last time I did. I smile to myself as I imagine some nerdy girl or boy finding comfort walking amongst those literary giants.

When I think about it, it seems a bit odd that The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts was the book I felt compelled to look for. But when I think about it some more, it doesn’t seem so odd. I didn’t know it existed until that day our professor told us about it in class. When I checked it out of the library, I remember how cool it was to see Eliot’s handwritten notes and Ezra Pound’s handwritten edits. So it always stuck with me.

Even though I love looking for books in libraries, throughout my life, libraries have been more than a place to find information. They’ve been more than a place to find something entertaining to read. I’ve always thought of the library as my refuge; it’s the place I could go to when things got to be too much.

But even this isn’t why I think libraries are so significant. Libraries are centres that bring the community together. They give everyone equal access to information and the opportunity for education.

The Toronto Public Library offers everything from tutoring services, ESL programs, book clubs, job search help, legal services, health and wellness programs and a lot more. A couple of years ago I read an article about a homeless man who spent his days at the Toronto Reference Library. Through the use of the library’s resources, he was able to start his own business and get back on his feet.

So if you’re someone who thinks libraries aren’t important simply because you don’t check out materials, think again. There is so much more to libraries than the books they hold.


3 thoughts on “The significance of libraries

  1. This is a really great commentary on libraries. It’s amazing how many people seem to associate libraries with memories and nostalgia and connectedness. I’m a librarian and I definitely agree that libraries are community centers, but I wonder–what does that do to that institution you remember as a peaceful oasis? My own library is full of rowdy teens playing games, ridiculously loud knitters making sweaters, people chatting, cell phones ringing, librarians laughing with patrons…not at all quiet. I love it this way. Someone told me that one of my users described my library as the community’s living room and I think that’d great. But I wonder what someone who loves calm & quiet thinks of the shift in most libraries.

  2. Hi Nicky,

    Nice piece on the meaning of libraries. When I was at Western, my sanctuary was the library. I would set up shop in my favourite booth and work on essays — starting with the research, connecting ideas, and then bringing it all together into a theme and structure. Plus the librarians were fantastic in helping me with sources. A couple of related thoughts: Toronto has been upgrading public libaries for severalyears. There are some beautiful spaces including the Spadina/College branch. Also my local library on Pape has been transformed into a beautiful and usable space, now with the balance between print and e-sources. Nice to see public libraries that are a going concern and destination for the community.

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