The Library’s Greatly Exaggerated Death

Those who say that nobody uses the public library anymore annoy those of us who do. Contrary to persistent laments on the imminent demise of libraries, Canada’s 22,000 library branches are alive and well—and thriving. Libraries, like other public institutions, have had to change to serve the public’s shifting needs, but they continue to be the heartbeat of many communities across the country.

October is Canadian Library Month, and CBC Radio heralded the month with a special edition of Cross Country Checkup on September 28. Peter Mansbridge guest-hosted a 2-hour town hall session, entitled, “What’s the Future of the Library in the Age of Google?” Guest speakers and callers from across the country weighed in on whether libraries are still relevant in the age of electronic communication. The answer seemed to be a resounding “yes.” Although the town hall session was held in the library-less Stratford Campus of the University of Waterloo, Director of Academic Programs Professor Christine McWebb acknowledged that “libraries are still central to research.” Students agree, with one student describing the “vibe of knowledge” present in physical libraries.

Students from the Stratford Campus are not completely cut-off from libraries, however. Although their campus doesn’t have physical library space, the library at the main campus in Waterloo, and all its materials, are available to Stratford students. While students everywhere do increasing amounts of research online, one participant cautioned that resources online can be impermanent—there’s no guarantee that a resource will be there the next time you’re looking for it.

Online resources don’t meet everyone’s needs. “Not everyone is information-literate,” says Stratford Public Library’s CEO, Julia Merritt. Many people require assistance to help them find the resources and information they seek. One caller to the program agreed, saying the role of public libraries is to connect people to people and people to information. In smaller or remote communities especially, the public library may provide vital access to high-speed internet as well as a community meeting place. Commenting on the future of libraries, a caller from Sutton, Quebec was firm: “the future of libraries is what it has always been—to allow people to read what they want to read and acquire information. New technology is just another tool.”

My own relationship with libraries began early. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, money was tight and buying books was a luxury. A voracious reader, I quickly exhausted my family’s book collection. My public library card was, to me, as magical as a credit card with no limit. Any book the library had could be mine for a time—for free. The library is even more magical these days. No longer limited to my local library’s offerings, I can access books and other materials from across the province through inter-library loan.

The books I want to read far outstrip the time I have for reading. Despite that, I manage to read over 100 books yearly. If I bought that many books each year, not only would I run out of money, I’d also run out of space to store them. Of the books I read, two-thirds of them are borrowed from libraries (others are bought, borrowed from friends, or picked up—or downloaded—for free.) Which books am I more likely to read? Those with the library-enforced deadline, of course. A bought book may languish for months or forever without being read, while those borrowed get priority—and get read.

While libraries are inextricably linked with books, today’s public libraries have evolved to meet their communities’ changing needs. Far from being mere repositories of knowledge, today’s libraries provide meeting space for community groups, host events, provide internet access, promote literacy and creativity, host art workshops, provide gallery space, provide training, and—important to me—proctor exams. The way I use libraries has changed too. I do much of my book-browsing online, order the books I want, then pick them at my local branch. With e-books, inter-library loans, and online catalogues, my library usage has increased, not decreased, in this electronic age.

Although those that don’t use libraries seem to believe nobody else does either, the truth is libraries continue to be vital to their patrons. Over 21 million Canadians hold a public library card. In BC, 55% of residents hold a library card and use it regularly. According to a recent Globe and Mail article, Halifax is set to open the doors this fall to a new $57.6-million public library—a reflection of increased usage and public demand for a new building. Calgary may be following suit with a new library building in 2018. Expenditures like these hardly sound like a death knell.

Canada’s public libraries are an enduring institution. Not everyone uses them, but not everyone plays hockey, either. And nobody is singing a funeral dirge for the sports arena.

Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario

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