By Madonna Hamel
For a couple of cold weeks last winter I did nothing but read. I finished the new Ann Patchett and Anne Tyler, as well as an old edition of HG Wells’ “History of the World”. If I were to pay for the recent hardcovers it would have cost me over $65. And the HG Wells book is a collector’s item now, so it probably goes for more. I got them at the library.
I can’t imagine a world without libraries, and the thought that my local one might close is causing me to hyperventilate. When I first moved to Val Marie, on the edge of “nowhere”, I was thrilled to see the library sign in a window. Well then, I thought, I’m home. I have access to all my friends: authors and their offspring, their books, who, when I cannot see the world, can bring the world to me. I’m like the traveller who feels better knowing there’s a “decent restaurant” with espresso or an internet connection or a translator in the vicinity. Only libraries contain all three, in the form of recipe books, reference material, and language dictionaries.
I will always remember my first library visit. I was 10. It was on a weeknight and my mother had to return some books and for some reason I got to go with her – just me. It was a spring night in Prince George; it had just rained and the light from the library spilled out and made the dark street shine. The big, warm and well-lit foyer, with its hushed and intent adepts bent in solitary contemplations, seemed like a sacred space to me, as if here might be my congregation gathered in the church of stories and words, with answers to all my questions. Not to mention questions I never thought of asking. That night, as mom headed over to the renewal desk, she waved her arm in a broad sweeping gesture, like she was the queen of this palace. Go ahead, she said, look around. It’s all yours. It’s everyone’s.
I wasn’t a big reader. At the time of my entry into the church of stories I was still reading The Bobbsey Twins. Perhaps that is why my mother brought me along, maybe she was telling me I was perfectly capable of meatier stuff. As it was I felt pulled to the Reference section. Or, more accurately, I was pulled to the big, old leather bound tomes that reside there. Who knew such things existed: dictionaries digging to the roots of words, encyclopaedias dedicated entirely to myths and legends, conglomerates of rocks and minerals, gardens of verses, pools of a million tiny things?
My mother found me in the genealogy section, and after explaining to me the family tree, she suggested I check out the kid’s section. I was on my way there when I spotted a name I recognized: Ray Bradbury. I only knew it because one of his short stories was in our school reader. Something about a turtle finding his way to the shore.
“Can I take this one?” I asked my mom, half-expecting the answer was no because I pulled it from a shelf in the adult section.
“If that’s what you want, yes you can, dear. You can take out any book except the ones marked R because lots of people need to look at them, all the time.”
While I never read the Bradbury book, I was forever changed by the fact The Library, the vast ocean of literature that bid me swim beyond the tiny puddle of books I’d, up until then, believed was all that was permissible and available to me. I learned the thrill of prowling the stacks – walking up and down the rows of shelves, running my fingers over the spines of books, the way I would walk home running a stick over fence slats, and stopping suddenly to see what book I’d chosen, or which book chose me. I had learned the meaning of serendipity and it has made life so much richer, fuller and broader. Working in the art library while studying at Emily Carr in Vancouver, I was constantly bedazzled by the hefty expensive picture books I shelved. The librarian would often find me flipping through the new arrivals before filing them in their rightful place, but he never complained.
If you have a vague idea what you want, a librarian can help you figure out your need. But whether you opt for serendipity or assistance, online ordering can’t help you. And you’ll never strike a conversation like those at the checkout line, or in the biography section: “Oh you like that writer? I’ve always wondered.” “Have you read her autobiography?” “Did you know he’s got a new book out in his Hinges of History series?” Not that all conversations are about books. Ask Betty and Don and Marilyn who sit in the rockers in our little library and catch up on the latest gossip. Despite our stereotype image of the shushing librarian, libraries do encourage communication. Just keep it down.
Jeremy Rifkin predicted in 2001 we’d be moving from The Age of Excess to The Age of Access, as he calls our present age, in his book of the same name, (a book I took out of the library). The subtitle of the book is: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism Where All of Life Is a Paid-For Experience. Rifkin warned that what we share as public property will soon become accessible only to those who can pay. One reviewer wrote: “Are we encouraging alienation or participation?” He suggested we were entrusting “corporations with stewardship of our social lives.” Is the province’s threat of cuts to our libraries just one more change in the direction of access to the well-off, one more disruption of our relationships with our communities and the world? I can’t think of a more democratic space than the library, a place created to provide access for all, not just those with an American Express card for whom membership has its privileges.
Libraries are responsible for the education of many of this country’s great thinkers and writers. James H. Gray wrote about his days during the Depression spent in Winnipeg’s William Avenue library in his classic prairie history book “The Winter Years”:
“I was afire with determination to make some sense of the world while I waited for employment to find me, though when I hit the public library I scarcely knew where to begin. I approached the bookshelves almost like a drunk in a liquor store – eager to grab everything in sight. My batting average in selecting readable books was seldom over .500. To set against such palpable failures as Marx and Hegel were discoveries of delight – Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class and Alfred Marshall’s development of marginal utility.”
He also reminds us the library is a place to rest, get warm, allow the less fortunate among us to, as my sister says, “to retain some dignity”. The library, writes Gray, was a stopover for many, half way to where they were going, “a wonderful place in which to get warm. All over western Canada, people were reading as never before. They may have fallen asleep over books and magazines that were beyond their understanding, but they were searching for a sign, a light to guide them out of their own personal wilderness.”
Val Marie loves its library. Most of its users seem to prefer the tactile fact of a book: they like to turn pages, feel the paper, its sheer heft. But it’s not just an aesthetic thing, says my friend Pat. “Many seniors don’t have electronics and don’t know how to access books if they do.” Ervin has always “marvelled at the public library in its never-ending quest to be educational, exciting, rejuvenating and relevant.” Diana describes libraries as “the great equalizer in a world of increasing disparity.” And Arron reminds me that the library “is a place that represents our government’s support of its people’s continued learning and exploration throughout our lives.”
The people who decide to cut library funding are the same people who, if they read at all, can afford to shell over the $32 for a new release. They are the same people who, as they rise in social stature and income, no longer “need” to mingle with the rest of us, the great unwashed, who still take the bus or the train or the metro, who still eat in cafeterias, who still hold and attend potluck dinners. The people who make top down decisions about the direction in which we “should” move as a culture and a society seem to forget that the biggest, most enduring movements, like the one that began in well-lit libraries across the prairies those long dark days of the Depression, moved up from the bottom, where we library card carriers live. Long may we read!
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.