Monday, April 11, 2016

The Good News About Public Libraries, or, 5 Reasons You Should Visit Your Library This Week

Libraries have always played a prominent role in my life. I have fond memories of going to the library as a child. I have worked in libraries in one role or another for well over twenty years. So I suppose that it isn't surprising that I have made visits to the public library a regular event with my own children.

In today's fast-paced, tech saturated society, many people have questioned the relevance and necessity of libraries. Why do we need libraries when we have e-books, google, and big box bookstores with high end coffee shops? Libraries have responded by finding new and innovative ways to attract patrons and thereby justify their existence. You can now find public libraries that loan musical instruments, power tools, seeds and there are even projects where you can sign out a person for a candid conversation about their life experience and world-view. You can go to a library to knit, draw, use a green screen or 3-D printer, create and learn. 

These are all fantastic programs, and it is exciting to see the possibilities for 21st century libraries. However, in the midst of change, it is important to remember what it is that has always made public libraries great. I also think it begins with children, who will grow up to be life-long patrons. Looking through the eyes of a child you can see what really is most important about a public library, and get back to the basics, the gospel or good news of these important institutions. So here are five reasons why I think you need to visit a library, with a child or on your own, and I hope that it serves as a reminder to libraries about what they are doing right (and what they have always been doing right).

1. Books (of course)
A little spine poetry in honour of poetry month.

Recently my daughter went on a field trip with her class. They climbed a mountain (OK Mount Pelion), they went curling and visited the public library. She came home bubbling over with excitement to talk about her trip. Did she talk about the beautiful view from the top of the mountain, or about the thrill of sweeping and throwing rocks? Those things didn't even come up. This child who goes to the library almost weekly could hardly wait to tell me about the library. "Mom they have a series there where you get to decide what happens in the story and the first time I froze to death. The next time I died from heat in the desert!" Ah, the good old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. A day of actual adventures with her class could not compare with a great book placed into the hand of a child by an enthusiastic librarian.

The library contains more than books to be read for entertainment. Recently I was discussing a controversial issue with my daughter and we had conflicting viewpoints. Of course, she was wrong (I'm only half-joking). We each gave reasons for our positions. I told her we could research to become better informed. But what if we went to the library and they only had books in the collection that supported the one point of view? The beautiful thing about libraries is that to the best of their abilities, all view-points are represented in the collections. The freedom to read is freedom for all. And by understanding the point of view of others, we gain a greater understanding of our own beliefs.

2. Belonging

I have a library card. My children both have library cards. We didn't need to pay to join the club. We live here, we belong here. It is a thrill for a child to have that card because it belongs to them. It allows them access to infinite worlds. Children are not lesser citizens at the library. They are given the same responsibility and access as adults. What is really owerful for a child is that they can choose what they get with that card. They will not be told that they are not old/smart/able/rich enough to choose a particular book. They belong. They have a voice and a choice.  Where else can you take a child where the answer will always be a yes? No matter your age, economic status, a particular book. No matter your age, gender, religion, or identity, all are equal, all belong at the library.

3. Being There

The library is a destination. We seldom go downtown for any other than reason than to visit the library. It is a break from Minecraft, and watching YouTube videos of people playing Minecraft. It is something to look forward to. One of the children's favourite things about going to the library is who gets to put the money in the parking meter. It's all part of the experience, the ritual. And if we get to the meter to discover that there is still time left from the last person, well, it's like we have won the lottery. It always feels like we are embarking on an adventure, all for just a few coins. Whether it is for a program, to get books, or just a quiet place to do homework, knowing the library is there means that there is always somewhere to go and something to do. It costs nothing to enter those doors, and one can stay all day. Literally, all day...on my day off... In the winter when it was dangerously cold on the street, the library was there. It was a designated warming station, free and open to all who needed to get off the street and get warm. Need a bathroom downtown? The library can be a blessing just by being there!

4. The Bibliothecary

Alright in keeping with the alliterative style of this post, I pulled out this impressive word for the librarian. Arguably one the library's most valuable resources, the library professional (including librarian, technician and assistant) helps patrons to navigate though the information overload in the modern world. They are skilled researchers, sleuths, and confidants. They are able to recommend a "just right" book, create fun and informative programming, and connect patrons to community services. A librarian just might be able to help you conjugate French "ir" verbs. The librarian is leading the charge for fun and exploration, critical thinking, higher learning and discreet and confidential assistance to all patrons.

5. Barks

Yes, I know, now I'm really reaching for alliterations, but bare with me. By "Barks" I am referring to programs at the library. My son has participated in a program called "Paws for Reading" where struggling or reluctant readers can read to a St. John's Ambulance therapy dog once a week. This has boosted his confidence and encouraged him to practice his reading. This is just one of many programs offered at our local library.  As mentioned above, the staff are what make what could be just a room full of books into a vibrant and active space through the programming that they provide. Just as being in a reading club was exciting for a child 30 years ago, the story times, craft days, puppet shows and summer reading programs are just as exciting today. Sometimes these programs incorporate new technology, sometimes they are constructed from cardboard costumes and imagination. Either way, it is fun and enchanting to the next generation of library patrons.  Remember, for the small children, it is all new to them. They are building memories, and when they are grown, chances are they will want to do the same with their own children.

In conclusion, if you haven't visited a public library lately, or ever, check it out. You will find an active community hub, with free access to information, helpful and courteous staff, and a place to belong. The things that have always made public libraries great are the same things that still make them great today, and so much more. Open your mind and enjoy every moment, right down to the clink of the coin in the parking meter. That's my two cents. What do you think of the role of public libraries in modern society? Do you have any memories of public libraries from your childhood? Did you have a favourite librarian?

A penny for your thoughts? 

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