Libraries are dying. Not literally, perhaps, but figuratively. With the increasing availability of information online, the physical spaces for physical books are in danger of being disregarded and undervalued. Bad news when speaking about a free public service that requires funding to operate. In conversations with a friend of mine who has a masters in Libraries and Information Sciences, I’ve noticed a concerning tendency–libraries are losing funding hand over fist while also being expected to broaden their range of services in order to stay “relevant,” or be seen as necessary.
It’s not a bad thing if libraries provide extra reading programs, internet access, conference spaces for educational talks, etc. Libraries are important distributers of information, sharing knowledge, and sources of learning for people of any age. And of course they should branch into the additional modes of providing accessibility through online information and resources. But should they be expected to be the equivalent of a community centre, including daycares, outreaches, youth activity centres and the like in order to validate their continued spatial existence?
Libraries and librarians can have a big impact on readers, even little kids. It’s long been a stereotype to have the disapproving librarian frowning and “shushing” people for making a peep in the library, but I think this does a disservice to caring, calm librarians who quietly influence kids to become readers and ensure that the space is suitable for the purpose. I was fortunate enough to have encountered many during my childhood, including my Granny, who always had books in her house for us grandkids to read, along with the ever-present pile of library books beside her recliner.
My Granny was a librarian in a small town for many years and though she retired when I was a toddler, I have vague impressions of going into the library to see her. I won’t pretend that I loved libraries and books ever since. Actually, I thought the library smelled funny and was incredibly boring. I did, however, absorb some of the excitement that I observed in my older, reading siblings when we went, which helped frame my view on the importance of the library.
When we moved soon after, one of the first things I recall doing in our new area was driving around to find a library. At first we couldn’t find one, and disappointment in the vehicle was palpable. Again, smol me picked up on this reaction. Fortunately, there did turn out to be a library, hidden in the community centre along with a consignment shop and day care. And that was where my family consistently spent an evening each week (sometimes two!) and where I learned to read.
I wasn’t immediately an avid reader by any means. Even after a few years and I was perfectly capable of reading at an age appropriate level, I tended to gravitate towards the library’s admittedly limited movie collection. When the librarian noticed this trend she just asked me, “How come you never borrow any books?” I responded with what I thought was a perfectly reasonable answer: “It’s too hard to find them in the shelves.”
At this time I still considered myself limited to the selection of picture books—and as anyone who has taken a kid to or has worked in a library knows, those spineless, flimsy, inconsistently shaped demons make for harum-scarum shelves and easily lost books. So of course I thought it was too hard to find anything. But that one comment by the librarian, no doubt given along with some considerate suggestions for what to read that I don’t clearly remember, started me thinking about putting more of an effort into books, and it sticks with me to this day.
When I started reading the chapter books my older sister had borrowed from the library, I discovered the magic of reading through the Chronicles of Narnia series. I think the reason these books in particular, along with Alice in Wonderland, really gripped me is because of the vivid imagery evoked through the writing–the magical places and the strange creatures that the descriptions would challenge me to envision. I can still remember mental images of scenes from The Horse and His Boy, over fifteen years later.
Part of how I learned to value reading came from the distinct lack of other stimuli in the library setting; the very boredom that I first felt became a comfort when I turned to books for entertainment. We’ve all heard how important having times of boredom is for kids to develop imagination and creativity—it drives the mind to generate its own entertainment. Because reading is an interactive process, the place where reading takes place being boring can actually be a good thing to get the person to enter that “creative” headspace required for enjoying a story. It leaves room for intellectual and imaginative connection with the ideas.
When a library is quiet, calm, and, well, boring, it frees the mind to focus on the world the book evokes. And then, once you’ve become accustomed to slipping into paper worlds, it becomes easier to do even when there are distractions. Reading develops concentration, which maximizes comprehension. And when first learning especially, a distraction-free environment is the way to go.
So, it makes me sad that libraries are being pressured to change the way they operate and become social gathering spaces and activity centres. There is a time and place for social programs, but where is the time and place for quiet public spaces of contemplation and mental—as opposed to sensory—stimulation? Historically, that’s the library, and I think it should stay that way.