FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, LIBRARIES WERE LIKE CASTLES of private knowledge. Even then they contained thoughts and ideas that could be dangerous, forming part of the justification for invading armies to ransack and burn them to the ground. The reasoning was simple: destroy a culture’s collected memory and you can wipe out the culture itself.
Except it didn’t work that way. Memories and acquired wisdom are dynamic things that, when called upon, still empower a citizenry even when their books are taken away. And almost immediately they begin building places of knowledge again.
For that very reason libraries have to be permeable, fluid things. Civilizations ebb and flow, and as long as enlightenment and knowledge are essential to progress libraries will be found at the centre of community life – not because they house books, but because they house our collective spirit, assisting us to adapt.
Libraries have manifested themselves in public and private life in thousands of ways. I recall when former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler told me of a remarkable library compiled and operated by the children of Auschwitz, recently mentioned in a New York Times article. Made up of only eight volumes, the books were hidden at night only to be distributed the next day – a moving story giving credence to Joan Bauer’s sage observation, “When the going gets tough, the tough get a librarian.” As long as those volumes lived, so did hope and enlightenment.
There are the lending libraries increasingly displayed in neighbourhood front yards, or those slowly built and donated by book clubs. All of these are just further indications that libraries of all sizes and forms are built to adapt to however knowledge is transmitted.
None of this is lost on London, Ontario’s civic council and administration as they work their way through budget deliberations. In greater numbers, citizens have been pulling together for causes. In neighbourhoods that gradual awakening has taken to our public libraries in search of ideas, conversation, engagement, and a convenient place to gather. In the past year alone formal gatherings have moved through the central and branch library buildings to discuss our relationship with the Thames River, to collect citizen input on issues like poverty and the environment, as a gathering place for the faith community to speak about financial equity and social justice, and for countless discussions on neighbourhood issues.
Far from receding into the shadows of their bookshelves, London’s libraries have emerged even further into public life as pivotal intersections of local democracy. At a time when financially strapped governments often respond to fiscal challenges by cutting funds for culture, libraries, perhaps London’s especially, remind us that when culture itself is mobilizing, citizens require publicly funded places to gather, talk, and learn more than ever. If we wish to strengthen our cities, libraries will stand at the core of that public work.
Our libraries aren’t mere structures, but experiments in community living that can never be truly completed because how people live together is ever in a state of flux. In the process, citizens themselves are evolving. One librarian put it years ago that when she entered the building first thing in the morning that she got the sense its shelves and atmosphere were breathing. That was because it reflected the growing dynamics of the community in which it found itself.
Author Toby Forward noted that, “Civilized nations build libraries; lands that have lost their soul close them down.” London’s libraries have flourished in part because they have not only caught the wave of civic renewal but have induced it. In so doing they have kept our city’s soul intact. Supporting our libraries still remains a revolutionary act – a direct signal to those in power that dynamic civic life requires energized citizens, and enlightened places in which they can gather. Libraries will remain as strong as citizens are engaged, and right now they are teeming.