Posted by: bluesyemre | September 29, 2019

Simply put, #libraries are incredible

“While the library has clearly embraced the digital world to meet its customer needs in 2018, it’s not necessarily obvious to the general public.”Becky Guthrie/National Post/Getty Images

Sadaf Ahsan: Unlike so many industries that have been disrupted by technological advances, libraries across North America have shown an uncanny ability to adapt…

It’s 4:33 p.m. on the Saturday of a long weekend, and the Toronto Reference Library is set to shut its doors in 27 minutes — not exactly on the dot, but close enough. Despite the looming deadline, the five-storey structure, iconic for its sprawling, curved atrium designed by architect Raymond Moriyama, remains packed from floor to floor.

Groups of high-school students huddle around a colour photocopier on the fifth, while on the fourth, a young couple make out unaware of the French anthologies and poetry books surrounding them. On the third, an older woman takes notes from an Italian cookbook that has seen better days, as just about every study pod remains occupied by readers on the second.

It’s the first floor, however, that contains the most action: students clamour around laptops, barely suppressing laughter; an Indian couple chat with a woman at the “Newcomers to Canada” kiosk; and a man furtively argues with his partner on a payphone by the restrooms. At the centre of the main floor, study carrels with computers are arranged in a circle. It’s here where a 56-year-old homeless woman has been camped out since noon, with several duffel bags nestled at her nook. “It’s starting to get colder and it’s warm here,” she tells me. “And that’s nice after the shelter closes. I like being around other people who are just doing their own thing, it doesn’t feel like I’m bothering anyone, they don’t notice me, I don’t notice them. It feels safer than being outside, you know?” Meanwhile, the teenager next to her dances at his desk with his headphones on while watching music videos. Unbothered, a woman beside him quietly takes a practice driving test.

Next to the computer stalls are over a dozen television screens, broadcasting everything from Spanish music programs to a soccer game. When the lights finally flicker to signal the library’s imminent closing (for real this time), those watching all stand simultaneously and head for the exit as though they’ve just finished a shift and need to punch a timeclock. As I watch them join the hordes from the other floors, I’m approached by a man wearing shorts and a t-shirt. It’s 10 degrees in Toronto today, and his attire is made all the more unusual by the collective woosh of coats being put on as the clock ticks ever closer to five. He’s a teacher visiting from Poland, he explains to me without any inquiry. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “There are so many people here, so many students. Is it always like this? They all have a place to work. This is like a family. A commune. It’s beautiful.”


Toronto Reference Library. Jose San Juan / City of Toronto / Flickr

As the pressure from security guards mounts, I say goodbye and head for the exit with the last of the procession. When I look back, the Polish tourist has taken a seat at the centre study table and is looking up, wide-eyed at the skylights decorating the ceiling. For someone who has spent the majority of her life taking the library for granted, it took an outsider’s perspective to grant me a moment of enlightenment. Here, in the middle of an affluent Toronto neighbourhood, stands its most accessible institution, where a diverse community can gather daily without fanfare or bother. It’s an absolute wonder that such a place exists today.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way: libraries began as private collections. One of the earliest and largest was amassed by Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose archive helped form the Library of Alexandria in 3rd century BC. It was founded in Egypt by Ptolemy I Soter, Alexander The Great’s successor. His dream was to house a written or donated copy of every book in the world on everything from math to astronomy, translated in multiple languages. At its height, the Library of Alexandria was believed to have held 500,000 scrolls, along with lecture rooms, labs, gardens, a zoo and dining halls.

Roman libraries soon followed, taking the design one step further with books displayed on the walls around communal writing hubs, bringing the library closer to becoming the inclusive public institution we know today. Authors would hold public readings there, scholars would gather and booksellers would make copies of any scrolls missing from their own collections. Considering the comparatively low literacy rate, patrons at the time were typically of a certain class.

By the 17th century, “the golden age of libraries” had emerged. University and national libraries began popping up across Europe, with subscription libraries — along with their dreaded late fees — taking hold at the beginning of the 18th century. In North America, a flurry of public libraries opened throughout the 1800s, with the Toronto Public Library (TPL) opening its first free public branch in 1884. The influx was buoyed by wealthy benefactors and businessmen like philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who made public libraries his mission.

Anyone who thinks the public library is a fossil hasn’t stepped inside one in a while.

Vickery Bowles

It’s the kind of grand history that lends the library a certain vintage, and a credence to the erroneous impression that our local libraries are more of a museum than an active resource. Rumours of its extinction have long been exaggerated by stereotypes: picture a musty library, grandiose in its historic interior design, but so silent you could hear a pin drop. Elderly, moustachioed men keep to their corners, spectacles perched on the tips of their noses as they peruse the newspaper; journalists trail-blaze through microfiche for a story dating back to one specific night in 1947; all while pencil-skirted, tight-bunned librarians raise a finger to their lips reminding you, “This is a quiet place.”

But despite their reputation for constantly murdering traditional institutions, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center report, Millennials visit the library more than any other generation. At the TPL, the oft-derided cohort makes up almost a third of its patrons according to a 2016 annual report. “Anyone who thinks the public library is a fossil hasn’t stepped inside one in a while,” says TPL City Librarian Vickery Bowles. “Our values are enduring and more important now than ever. It’s never been more crucial to identify what the truth is. From literacy to equitable access to information to protection of space and privacy – these are things very few places still offer. And on top of that, it’s a customized service with a willingness to change over time. Yes, books are still the heart and soul of the public library, but it’s no longer just a place to consume, but create content.”

Based on Canadian Urban Libraries Council reports, the Montreal Public Library and Vancouver Public Library, two of the other largest branches in the country, have seen eight to nine per cent rises in visits between 2010 and 2015. Not to be outdone, the TPL, which houses over 10.6-million items including books, DVDs and eBooks spanning 40 languages, is the largest public library system in Canada and, in 2008, had averaged a higher circulation per capita than any other public library system, making it the largest neighbourhood-based library system in the world. In 2017, its 100 branches hosted more than 17-million visits, its website welcomed almost 30-million visits, and over the course of the year, 157,000 people registered for a library card.

Those are staggering figures for anyone still clutching to the image of a librarian stamping books and shushing anyone’s voice that rises above a whisper. As a free, public institution, the library has become an essential service, uniquely catering to the specific needs of people from all financial, educational and cultural backgrounds. Its ability to remain relevant to this mission has been largely due to its flexibility. Unlike so many industries that have been disrupted by technological advances and the social changes that soon follow, libraries across North America have shown an uncanny ability to adapt.

Instead of wallowing in grief over the threat of tablets and eBooks, libraries have increased their offerings to patrons through virtual visits, electronic circulation, WiFi use and in-house community programs. For instance, when the TPL saw that the circulation of physical materials had dipped by 13 per cent in 2012, it worked to increase its electronic circulation. The results: a rise of 368 per cent. But while the library has clearly embraced the digital world to meet its customer needs in 2018, it’s not necessarily obvious to the general public.

Erika Heesen of the Perth Union Library says the biggest obstacle facing the institution today is marketing how it has “created a level playing field and has remained the original sharing economy.” Her branch has done everything from visit farmers’ markets to partnering with local restaurants during Ontario Public Library Week to get the message across. Karina Douglas-Takayesu, a reference librarian at the Timmins Public Library, agrees: “There is still a surprisingly outdated, generalized view of libraries as being passive places that only house books and are often seen as a last resort for finding information when all else fails online. I was at the Ontario Public Library Super Conference a few years ago, and many of us lamented that our patrons did not realize their library had a website, some of which have been online since the 1990s!”

A key part of marketing the library’s services is with greater digital inclusion and digital literacy, particularly for those in rural or remote regions and among low-income populations. In an effort to provide support to these communities, Ontario libraries have made a concerted effort to offer emerging technologies, along with hundreds of training and support programs for those new to the country, those looking for job opportunities, or those just trying to access the news. The Vancouver Public Library houses inspiration labs that not only include “creation stations” for web designers, but recording studios and presentation and training centres. Meanwhile, the Alberta Public Library system features regular speaker series, enhanced resources and services for people with disabilities, and a province-wide telecommunications network.

These and countless other branches across the country offer free access to 3D printers, streaming services, virtual-reality tools and design software. Several branches also provide free coding and Photoshop classes. There are discussion groups, study rooms, book clubs, festivals and galleries, all administered by local public libraries.

According to a Nordicity report, 56 per cent of the patrons who used technology at an Ontario library in 2016, including a computer or printer, for example, wouldn’t have access to these resources otherwise. Sixty-three per cent of these patrons identified as low-income. And 46 per cent – the majority of whom identify as a visible minority – wouldn’t have access to internet at all were it not for their library. In addition, a quarter of survey respondents said they had used library services to manage and/or grow their business, while half used them to develop employable skills. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to claim there is no other public institution offering quite as many tools and resources and for such an altruistic purpose.

While many library systems across the country can boast about their successful transition to a digital world, their efforts to adapt is a means to making an impact on real people. “For all the social and technological changes that have taken place since the early 19th century, at the heart of the library is the human factor,” says Douglas-Takayesu. “The library remains the one place where anyone can go in search of information and expect to find it there. Libraries are dynamic and operate on a philosophy of freedom of information expression to meet the needs of an ever-changing community.”

As an accessible space and a primary resource for recent immigrants (to not only take classes, but find a place to connect with others) and even as a source of shelter for the homeless (for whom several librarians are trained with which to deal), the library stands out as a public institution that actually makes our communities better places by caring for its most vulnerable members.

But just as absence is said to make the heart grow fonder, perhaps the true value of the library can’t be completely grasped without being confronted with losing it. In Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, the writer attempts to weigh that loss by delving into the mystery behind the catastrophic 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library, which reached an astounding 2000 degrees and blazed for seven hours, burning 400,000 books with it. She documents the moments in which hundreds of volunteers arrived at the branch after the fire had been tamed, and worked for three days to preserve what remained of its collection. At one point, the volunteers formed a human chain, “a living library,” passing the books between each other. “They created,” writes Orlean, “for that short time, a system to protect and pass along shared knowledge, to save what we know for each other, which is what libraries do every day.”

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