Public libraries lands of the free

I had a chat with a friend of mine recently about the presence of shelves, and of books, and the effect that they have on us. It is inexplicable. But, the effect in question can be summed up by one word: comfort.

New Westminster Library image courtesy of Dennis Sylvester Hurd

There is something comforting about rows and rows of books – the colors of the spines, the smell of them, the visual appeal of the irregular heights and widths. I love the look of new pages, white as snow and with lines of text that draw my eye along like a magnetic force. I love aging pages, too; yellowed, and sometimes with the mysterious thumbprints left by readings past (I am a notorious re-reader, friends). Books are treasures. They are artifacts of great worth.

In this age of digital this and electronic that, I still find great comfort in the sight of books, not to mention delving into one, and having a world open for me. Now, I am not knocking the electronic medium. What an ironic thing that would be, given where you’re reading this, and how I’ve written it!

But some of my best adventures have been in libraries. When I say that, I’m referring to personal, actual adventures, not symbolic adventures that I found in books (although I had those too). Like the time my friends and I put on a completely plot-free play based on the Hardy Boys TV show when I was a kid. We put up a flyer on the cork bulletin board of our local library, instantly making us a theatre troupe, just by that action alone.

It wasn’t much of a play, mind. There was a lot of hitting with plastic bowling pins involved as the bad guys knocked out the good guys. At one point, one of my friends imitated Shaun Cassidy singing “Da Do Ron Ron,” just like in the show.

I just dated myself thoroughly there. Wow. Oh well.

Anyway, the library was a stage for us, a forum. It was a place where we could make idiots of ourselves, if we wanted to, under the watchful eye of a long-suffering Librarian. We were free to do so. We didn’t pay to rent the space to put on our play. And no one (thankfully) paid to see our theatrical debacle.

It was free!

This of course is not even considering all of the books I took home. They were free, too. It was absolutely free access into the minds of authors from across the globe, and across the ages – Maurice Sendak, Bill Peet, H.A Rey, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Franklin W. Dixon, and later Edgar Rice Boroughs, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allen Poe, J.R.R Tolkien, C.S Lewis, Ray Bradbury, and more. And what a privilege, to enter into someone else’s perception world like that, or even to be given a new set of perceptions to suit an entirely alien world.

Libraries, even in some of the stories themselves, are places of refuge. In Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, a strategy against the forces of darkness is formed by 13-year old heroes Jim Nightshade, William Holloway, and Will’s Librarian father. In Stephen King’s IT, the library in haunted Derry, Maine is the site of a similar gathering of souls against a hateful darkness over which Mike Hanlon, a Librarian, has kept a constant vigil. And what is the prize in these stories? It’s freedom, ultimately.

And rightly so.

Because libraries invite you in, whoever you are. They are sanctuaries. They are places of peace, and of coming together with others, even if it’s in silence. They are places of understanding, of seeking, of learning. You are free to come and go, read a book, study, listen to a tale read by someone else, read one to another. They are places of community if there ever were such places.

I am lucky enough to live very close to New Westminster Public Library. I take my daughter there a lot. She’s four. And when we go, she bee-lines to the puppets, who then come alive to her, and to me. Because she gives them voices, breathed into them by her imagination.

Then, it’s the puzzles. And then, it’s the first eye-catching book she can find. She doesn’t just choose a book, she mines for one, focusing her eye on a bejeweled spine, drawing it forth. Then, we delve together – books about trains, about dinosaurs, about bees. We explore. We’re explorers, together.

Now, I’ve used the word free a lot, here. And sure, literally speaking, your public library is supported by tax money, and rightly so You kind of do pay for them, being all grown up and stuff. But, even in this grown-up context, these are not just conveniences in our community, they’re investments in it.

But, that’s not really what I mean anyway. I’m talking about the feeling of being able to access worlds of fact and imagination without having to worry about what it costs you. In those moments of exploration, the library gives us a glimpse of what it would be like if we didn’t have to put a price tag on knowledge, on community, on expanding our possibilities regardless of our age. It is the spark of childhood, of being unfettered once the imagination is ignited.

Maybe this is why I find the presence of books so comforting.

And as usual when I write these things down for you here at Tenth to the Fraser, here are 5 songs related to what I’ve been talking about. In this case, it’s books, or references to them anyway.

  1. Paperback Writer – The Beatles
  2. The Book I Read – Talking Heads
  3. Everyday I Write the Book – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
  4. The Book Lovers – Broadcast
  5. Page One – Lemon Jelly

5 Replies to “Public libraries lands of the free”

  1. Which is why we need to fight the expansions of copyright envisaged by the WIPO Copyright Treaties, the misleadingly-named Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement and the Canada-EU Trade Agreement, all of which are intended to move towards all our culture being pay-per-view (or read, or listen).

  2. Hooray for libraries! And for Elvis Costello!

    For me, it’s the smell. Familiar. Full of potential. (I wonder if this would be the case if I hadn’t spent so much time in them as a kid? Do libraries and used bookstores just smell…musty? to some people? The horror!) And they are the great equalizer, I’m always struck by this; rich, poor, old, young, you see it all. I love what they do and what they represent.

  3. Thanks for comments, guys!

    Chris – I think I could bore for the Canadian Olympic Team when it comes to the issue of restrictive copyright laws. Sure, everyone needs to make a buck. But, at a certain point, being able to partake and share in first-quality information and content in the short term often, usually, historically, leads to profits in the long term. In this, thank god for libraries, where a kid can read Faulkner’s the Sound and the Fury, listen to Miles Davis’Sketches From Spain, or watch Orson Welles Citizen Kane unhindered by user fees that serve copyright holders who’ve produced nothing. Allowing free access to landmark works is how culture develops. Monetizing the hell out of every movement just isn’t the way forward when it comes to introducing new generations to the basis of where culture has sprung.

    You see? I’m already boring you!

    Clara – Yeah, that smell, that smell that is heavy with nostalgia and childhood magic. I love it. And yes – it’s free to everyone!

    I’m glad you approve of the Costello. I flipped a coin to see whether it was going to be that tune, or Nick Lowe’s “When I Write The Book” as performed by pub-rock champs Rockpile. Thanks for bringing it up, so that I could get the Lowe number in there, too!

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