Thursday 28 April 2016

Why I care about cuts to libraries in Newfoundland and Labrador. #nlpoli #nlpublib

My grandmother died when I was 12 years old. Some of my memories of her are incredibly sharp, while others have become a bit more hazy in the decades that have flown by since her passing. But I do have strong memories of her walking me to the small branch library in the town where I grew up. There were mulberry bushes outside which would stain the sidewalk with their purple juice, and inside, books which were free tickets to far-off, magical places.

Libraries provide safe, inclusive places for youth, particularly for youth who might be, as I definitely was, different from other kids. I was nerdy, withdrawn, weird, a kid who lived for stories. I devoured books by the armful, and the library was probably the place I felt most comfortable. I always felt awkward and out-of-place, but not there.

My very first job as a teenager was in that same small branch library. Later, I worked my way through two university degrees working in libraries and archives. Today, my professional work as a folklorist, author, and storyteller still involves and revolves around libraries. I might still be weird, but stories became my life, and I wouldn’t change that for anything.

Those far-off, magical places I had only ever read about became, through my love and passion for stories, places I actually got to visit. I have read, performed, and researched stories in libraries on three continents, from tiny libraries on the Orkney Islands, to a jam-packed school library in Story City, Iowa, to the magnificent Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam - the largest public library in Europe.

A young colleague of mine, as I write this, is in Amsterdam.

“Go to the public library,” I urged her a few days ago on Facebook, “it is pretty amazing.” If she goes, and I hope she will, she’ll be one of the 2.5 million users and visitors who enter its doors annually.

Wherever, whenever I travel, I seem to end up in libraries. In Dublin last November, the highlight of my trip was my visit to the Trinity College Library to see the Book of Kells. Previous to that trip, returning home from a heritage conference in Digby, Nova Scotia, I made a co-worker drive back to the airport with me via Halifax, solely so we could see their amazing, jealousy-inducing new public library.

Not everyone gets to do this. Not everyone gets to travel, or visit far-off libraries in places as exotic as Stromness or Story City. Trust me, I know what this makes me: it makes me privileged. I recognize that, and I try, honestly, to acknowledge and remember what my own privilege means.

Yesterday, it was announced that our short-sighted government plans to close more than half the public libraries in the province, and to eliminate 64 much-need jobs, most of them in small communities. This is happening in the province with the worst literacy rates in all of Canada.

And so, when I see people far more privileged than I attack libraries, I get angry. Because it isn’t about cutting costs or being more financially responsible -- it is an attack by a privileged class on the very people who need our help, those people who depend on libraries: new Canadians, rural families, seniors, low-income peoples, youth, job-seekers, readers with low levels of literacy, the list goes on.

A librarian friend here in the province confessed to me privately about her job: “It's terrible, knowing how hard I worked for this, because it's all I've ever wanted to do.” Another told me how the library in her town is being shut down, in spite of the fact that is is well-utilized, with a large variety of programs for young and old. In that instance, her public library has been open in the community for 70 years. And I’m hearing from librarian friends that they found out about these job cuts yesterday from patrons and from media first, not from their employers. One found out about the cuts while at the grocery store at lunch, returning to work only to receive her notice. The chair of one library board was blindsided by news of the cuts from a reporter phoning her first thing yesterday for her response.

One librarian friend sat in her car yesterday and cried.

A museum colleague on the west coast of the island told me their library has been in place since 1955.  “It was through the library our museum was born,” she told me. “It is a vital part of our community and very well used. We are slated to be closed.” They are not within 30 minutes of another branch, so anyone without a car is simply not going to be able to walk to their local library.

Somewhere in this province there is a weird little 12-year-old kid whose grandmother isn’t going to be able to walk him to their library anymore. That makes my heart ache. Libraries allowed me to discover who I was; in many very real ways libraries turned me into the person that I am now. I feel sorry for that weird kid. And I’m angry about those who simply do not care about, or want to understand, what libraries mean to him, and to me, and to those who need them most.

         - Dale Jarvis, 28 April 2016.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Library Association could use your help.
You can read their open letter to Cathy Bennett here,
or click here to take action to save our public libraries.

UPDATED: here is the list of the 54 libraries on the chopping block.


Unknown said...

Excellent essay. I think my life might have turned out different if my mother, a librarian at the Marystown public library, hadn't brought home stacks of books for us to read on a regular basis. It opened up the world to us. Even now in my retirement, I appreciate being able to go to the local library to get books and read some magazines and newspapers. I'm always impressed that every computer terminal has someone at it no matter what time I am there - for many people it is the only place they can go online, look for and apply for jobs, and do printing/copying. Of all the decisions this government could have made - this is the most baffling.

Judy Cooper Textile Artist said...

Well said, Dale from a retired teacher.

Unknown said...

Well said indeed. Our rural communities need those libraries. I remember volunteering in our community library from the ages of 13-17. I would get first dibs on the new teen magazines and use them for inspiration in sewing my own wardrobe. It definitely is a place where you can explore and visit far off places.The last paragraph made me so sad. The fact that our youth will never get to experience this.

Unknown said...

Libraries are meeting places for young and old; reading opens our minds to tolerance and empathy for our neighbors next door and in other parts of the planet; the love of reading feeds our desire to understand the world around us. The library is a welcome space for discussion, for research and in many places, it is the only place to which a person can go to use the internet. Libraries are cultural centres for all of us. A borrowed book is one of the most beautiful examples of recycling that we could possibly imagine. As our province goes through this time of severe financial stress, it is the responsibility of those for whom we voted and who work for us (the government) to keep our librarians and libraries. It is vital to our intellectual and community survival. For many it is the welcoming atmosphere in a library that keeps them thriving and gives them hope. I feel lost for words as I try to express how much the library has meant to me since I was a small child.

Unknown said...

Dale, you have described my feelings, and I'm sure those of many others, perfectly. This latest blow only further exemplifies the government's lack of respect and understanding of the importance of libraries to individuals and communities throughout our province. As a retired teacher and former librarian at Holyrood Public Library, I know first hand how a rural library can provide technical support, educational programming and research material in addition to all reading genres, but more importantly, a library is a gathering place where all people, regardless of age, gender, race, religion or political stripe, can feel welcome, comfortable, and enjoy a respite from daily activity and stress.
I derived so much joy from reading stories to pre-schoolers, hosting guest authors and special events, ordering our book club's monthly selections, assisting seniors with computer skills, helping youth and unemployed people develop resumes, working with CAP employees and summer students, purchasing new books,planning and preparing themed displays and workshops and working with the community and Library Board to promote literacy and public involvement. All of this ( and more) in addition to regular administrative duties AND we were open to the public only 20-25 hours weekly! Many rural libraries are open far less and still strive to provide similar services despite continuing cut backs and de-population. All the more reason to keep these libraries open as they are essential to the life blood of the community; a way for people to share common interests, a joy of reading and learning, have access to Internet and social media, and just escape with a good book! Like Dale,anyone who has grown up using a community library will no doubt have fond memories of time spent there and can relate to his comments.
Even if the buildings are relatively new or part of another structure, libraries are Heritage Spaces because they provide an important link to our past in addition to serving our current needs. Years from now , when time, technology and space have redefined our existence, I hope new generations can still appreciate how their ancestors depended on and respected these cutural, historic icons and not ask in a totally innocent voice "Daddy....what's a book?".

Unknown said...

They are closing the Library on Change Islands and Fogo Island, both of these libraries are located in the school.The kids there use these libraries on regular basis as well as the local people. The libraries have computers that people can use for those that don't have a computer. Yes, there are people who still don't own one! These islands are isolated and the nearest library is a 30-45 minute ferry ride away plus the hour drive to get to Gander or Lewisporte....not everyone has an e-reader either! I personally refuse to buy one because I love the feeling of holding an actual book in my hands...Nothing beats it!

Wisewebwoman said...

Thank you Dale. I was 4 when my dad took me to the library for the first time and got me my very own library card. I was an early reader and still devour books, a library is a gateway to the world. I can tell just by talking to people a few minutes who reads books and who doesn't. Every child/adult should have this chance to expand their universes, one page at a time, no matter the family income or circumstances.

We've opened a volunteer library in my wee community and it is gratifying to see the hunger for books out there. We open afternoons Tuesday and Saturday and also provide a cyber café thanks to the generosity of our council.


Carolyn R. Parsons said...

The library on Change Islands was started in the forties by Otto Tucker, who went as a young teacher and decided there needed to be one. It has been in place since that time, though now housed in the school instead of in its own building..something that guarantees the resources will be there for the students if not for the public. When I was in grade four I won my first poetry prize..first place in a contest held by the library. It was entitled "The Library" and my mother still has a copy of that. My ten year old voice talks about my escape to other places and the magic of that ability to one growing up on a tiny island with limited outside access. I checked out the complete works of Shakespeare in 7th grade. I had to renew but I read it all. Is any of that relevant? Possibly. I did publish my first poetry book in 2009 and a novel in 2010 and I also grew up with a huge love of shakespeare and quite by coincidence eventually went on to live in a Hamlet called Shakespeare in Ontario, near Stratford. Otto Tucker didn't start the library on Change Islands for profit. Sustainability was never in his mind. Jessie Miflin traveled by dogteam, skiff and plane to the outports even before Otto Tucker set us up on Change Islands and was responsible for establishing somewhere around 50 public libraries. The value was obvious then but now the very places that need it the most are losing it. In the 2014-15 year Change Islands circulation at Change Islands was nearly 5000 with a population of 250 people, higher than that of Fogo Islands with approximately 2300. The library is part a part of life. There is a ferry ride and an hour drive minimum to the nearest library left open. The library board to decided on a regional model had a good plan in some ways...that model is used in other jurisdictions however with exceptions..if people live too far from the regional library a satellite does exist for isolated communities. I guess I'll have to compose a new poem now..about the library that was.

Janice Stuckless, avid reader, writer & library fan said...

Beautifully put, Dale. When they first announced the book tax I tried to stay positive. "That's OK," I said. "We can borrow books for free from our libraries." Next day my glimmer of hope clouded over and with every bit of budget news the clouds continue to gather....