The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: libraries

Keeping a Community’s Soul Intact


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.

For Libraries, It’s Their Time


Ferguson Library During the Crisis


LOOKING BACK ON A LIFE THAT HAD FAR more twists and turns than most of us could endure, Lemony Snicket considered one aspect of his journey that provided him solace: “A good library will never be too neat, or too dusty, because somebody will always be in it, taking books off the shelves and staying up reading them.” To that list could be added the extra dimensions of viewing, listening, dialogue, and social media.

It’s likely we know this already, yet in some of the most significant happenings of modern life – many of them tragic in nature – libraries having taken on the roles of consolers, citizen guardians, event educators, and, in some senses, emergency agencies. Some examples.

Consider how Ferguson, Missouri’s, libraries stepped into the breach of social conflict, legal confusion, and general unrest following the Grand Jury’s decision to decline to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown a year ago. By any measurement the community was facing a defining moment. With local schools closed, along with others buildings, the city’s library system went to work in ways nothing less than transformational. They remained open and welcoming for students to be taught by working and retired teachers, in what was termed as the city’s “ad hoc school on the fly.” Reaching even further, the libraries hosted the U. S. Small Business Administration in order to provide emergency loans, and the U. S. Secretary of State Department to provide document recovery and preservation services. Extending their reach out into the community, library staff circulated “healing kits,” filled with books, stuffed animals, and activities to help Ferguson’s children cope with the tensions of what they were seeing and feeling. When the worst of it was over, citizens realized that they could never quite look at their libraries the same ever again.

Libraries in Connecticut and New Jersey welcomed residents under assault from Hurricane Sandy, and who found themselves without power, by providing spaces for emergency services. They also hosted citizen dialogue sessions that encouraging locals to “talk through” with one another their stories, frustrations, and sense of loss. Those conversations inevitably became circles of hope – something that would never have transpired unless the libraries moved beyond their traditional mandates.

Public libraries are now more popular than at any other time in their existence, which is saying something, considering that they were some of the first physical structures to appear in our communities. In a world changing every day through dramatic technological innovations, libraries have kept themselves relevant by keeping pace with such developments.

And they are discovering new ways to enhance those communities in which they function. In London, Ontario, the city’s library system has taken on the vital partnership role of helping its community to think of how the Thames River might take on a more pivotal role in the quality of life of citizens. In an effort spearheaded by the London Community Foundation, local libraries will serve as information collection and disbursement centers, as individuals, organizations, businesses, and entire neighbourhoods are consulted as to how the historic waterway system might assist us in coming to terms with our future in ways that will preserve river’s integral and sustainable relationship with a people and its land. More will be announced by the London Community Foundation as to public sessions and the library’s vital role in it all.

“Whatever the cost of our libraries,” noted Walter Cronkite, “the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” And now we can add the observation that our libraries are now healing and transforming communities, helping them to discover a new future. Quite a bargain.

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