Much has been made of the sharing economy and I’m a big proponent of it myself, as I’ve mentioned before. But for many of us, our introduction to sharing came from outside the economic realm, when we signed up for our first library cards.
Growing up, our branch of the library was a little under two kilometers away and my siblings and I would often walk there on Saturdays to browse the shelves. Our school libraries were also well-stocked, so we each had stacks of books from both sources scattered around our rooms. After University, I began to neglect the library, as my suddenly greater discretionary income allowed me to develop a more robust book-buying habit. That dropped off in my mid-thirties when I realized that I could never own All The Books and my purchases became a little more discriminating. I started visiting the library more often again, borrowing the books that I knew I would likely only read once and test-driving the ones that would eventually make it into my permanent collection.
I’m lucky to have access to a great library system in Vancouver, which was recently declared the top library system in the world (along with Montréal’s). Other library systems are in jeopardy, though, like the hundreds of libraries lost in the UK. Zadie Smith‘s description of a failed battle to save a local library is heartbreaking. More chilling are accounts like Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold and the emerging stories about the dismantling of Canadian science libraries.
Free access to knowledge is a fragile thing and the Internet is a poor storehouse for an intellectual commons. The resources that a library provides cannot be matched on the Internet, at least not for free. I’m reminded of Janet Frame’s description of winning a year’s subscription to her local library (called the Athenaeum) in To the Is-Land, which allowed her entire family access to a world of books that had been closed to them. What kind of intellectual life do we want to bequeath to the future? One that is closed to all but a small coterie or one that allows for the emergence of talent from the great mass of people?
So, do the future a favour and show your local library a little love. You might be surprised what you find there beyond the stacks – digital resources, a wealth of movies, music, and television, and even handy apps that keep you up-to-date on your library activities. And if you’d like, tell me what you love about libraries in the comments below.