November 21, 2016
As part of an austerity plan, the Newfoundland government announced last spring that it was closing 54 libraries, more than half the libraries in the province. This aroused such a wave of protest that the education minister, Dale Kirby, suspended the closings till an external committee could study the implications of this change. Kirby also acknowledged that the original plan wasn’t exactly his favourite. “I can’t say,” he remarked, “that I’m 100 per cent comfortable with the closure of 54 libraries.” The committee’s report is due this winter.
A study of the Toronto Public Library in 2012 noted that in the previous two decades the staff had shrunk by 25 per cent. Because of reductions in budget, the library gave up 532 staff positions. During that time the population of the city steadily grew, and along with it the number of visitors to libraries. At the moment, the Toronto city council is considering another sharp reduction and library users are furious.
This is an international pattern. Recent funding cuts have closed hundreds of libraries in Britain. In the U.S., both the federal and state governments have made radical cuts to library funding.
Libraries remain popular and well-used but they are going through a fragile period. Providing access to knowledge and also serving as community centres in many places doesn’t necessarily impress people who write government budgets. To many, a library must seem a vestige of the past, easily replaceable. There’s a widely held belief that kids now get all the information they need from the Internet.
The Internet, of course, is a marvellous place to find specific facts but it can’t do what a library does. It can’t stimulate the imagination by showing us what an unconquerable ocean of knowledge is available to all of us. Walking through a library, seeing and touching an astonishing number of books on obscure subjects can be a revelation. For many of us it’s our first glimpse of the sea of information available, our first hint of our own bottomless ignorance. Many good libraries also have actual human beings who, if consulted, will be able to gauge a visitor’s level of interests and explain how they can be extended.
Providing access to knowledge and also serving as community centres in many places doesn’t necessarily impress people who write government budgetsA good library is meticulously planned but its content is so haphazard that we experience it, like literature itself, as a rich panoply of surprises. One afternoon when I was about 12 years old I was sitting in the handsome Carnegie library in the Beaches district of Toronto. I was reading my first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, also the first one Arthur Conan Doyle wrote.
Holmes, investigating several murders, discovers that the motives for these crimes of the 1880s were to be found in America, in the Mormons of Utah. I was absorbed in this tale when I turned the page and came upon a notice from the publisher. It said that the next few scenes had been eliminated from the original published version to spare (I swear this was the phrase) “those of tender years.” Well, I was reading it in the children’s department of my library.
In the novel a large party of Mormons, led by Brigham Young, are depicted in a lurid tale of kidnapping, murder and enslavement. The passages omitted may have been thought unsuitable for the young, or insulting to Mormons, or both. A descendant of Brigham Young called the story “scurrilous” and some school libraries made a point of not carrying it. I soon found a true copy in the adult section of the library but I never forgot that incident. It was my first contact with censorship, a subject I wrote about often over several decades.
My Beaches library was one of the many gifts of Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), a Scottish-American steel manufacturer who made a great fortune in the 19th century and then spent the last 19 years of his life giving away about 90 per cent of it while urging other wealthy citizens to do the same. He built Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, the Pittsburgh Museum and many libraries. He was the Johnny Appleseed of literacy, scattering 3,000 public libraries throughout the English-speaking countries, including 125 in Canada. He bought the buildings; local communities provided the land, the staff and the books.
I spent happy and enriching hours in that Beaches building in childhood. Later, I learned to do research in Toronto’s original public reference library, also a Carnegie gift. Today I live around the corner from another of his benefactions.
He’s not forgotten by those who love libraries. He’s mentioned as a model of carefully targeted philanthropy in a book published last year, "BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google", by John Palfrey, the former director of the Harvard law library.
“The moment is right for a new investment of this same type and scale,” Palfrey says. He wants more investment in libraries, not less, and if governments can’t help, private philanthropists have to be found.
Palfrey says that thinking nostalgically of libraries in our past, while understandable, misses the point. In fact, “nostalgia can actually be dangerous.” He believes the next big innovation in knowledge management should come out of the world of libraries. “Libraries must act as ambitiously networked institutions.” He believes they must connect their network effectively with partner institutions: archives, historical societies, museums and other cultural heritage organizations. Otherwise, “for-profit companies will determine what we read and how we read,” he warns. Those companies, the recently emerged Google-Apple-Amazon-Facebook gang, will always have incentives to offer services that are “biassed, limited, and costly.”
Palfrey’s book is a call to arms. While many libraries are fighting desperately to retain their meagre budgets, Palfrey wants them to be aggressive and expansionist. Perhaps they can accomplish in their own world what universities did in the middle of the 20th century, occupying a transformed section of the economy by understanding what the world of knowledge needs and finding ways to provide it.
Source: The National Post