Are libraries what they used to be?

Opinions abound. I’m not a librarian, but I am a patron and an author so I find myself listening with intense interest. And it’s not just the tax dollars/budget part of the discussion I take note of. It’s the very nature of libraries that’s fascinating to me.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to visit the New York Public Library and say hello to the famous lions. All the little collections want to grow up to be this marvel. It’s more than a collection of books; it’s a breathtaking monument, a gallery of historical treasures, and a repository of knowledge so vast it’s breathtaking. NYCPL is far more than our typical definition of a place to go borrow books. Like New York itself, it’s a destination.

On the other end of the spectrum were my childhood libraries. Way back then, the Edmonton Public Library children’s section had a little petting zoo with doves, rabbits, and guinea pigs. As a kid without pets, I was there every weekend for my bunny fix. The outing was always as a family, and everyone walked out with a stack of reading material. I think this is one reason why I became a great reader—some households did the mall or the skating rink, we did books and that little collection of furry friends.

My school library was no less important. The school was an open plan, the library at the centre. Any assemblies—whether for singing carols or holding parades or (for some reason I can’t recall) rolling giant string balls around—happened in and around the shelves of books. It was at the middle of everything. Okay, so these childhood libraries weren’t New York, but they were every bit as significant in their own way. They reflected and formed a huge part of my school years.

The thing is, libraries aren’t just books, or ebooks, or DVDs, or whatever else we decide to loan. Done right, they’re an expression of the community they serve. Some will be an expression of civic pride. Some will be a place for kids to play. Others, like the one across the street from my workplace, will be a place where office workers like me can catch a breath on their noon hour. Everything moves faster in that branch, like the whole building is caught up in the downtown bustle. And let’s not forget the collections springing up on-line. Where we go, so too go our libraries.

So I wonder when folks say these institutions aren’t what they used to be. Of course they aren’t, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We change. They change to mirror us. It’s up to us, as a community, what we see. Our responsibility is to ensure they reflect our values.

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