My Library Experience

Here in Toronto, we’ve had a number of concerns about libraries lately. A general question went out: “What do libraries mean to you?” Last week I had the following encounter at my library.

For those who don’t know: although I live in Toronto generally, I also live in the infamous Jane/Finch corridor. As in: not just on the outskirts, but one block away from the core intersection, at Jane & Driftwood. It’s known to be a pretty rough area. I grew up just south of here, left and lived in the States for a couple of decades, and have since returned to my roots. Across the street from my current home is the York-Woods public library. I’ve known this branch since I was a kid. Some of my earliest memories where here: taking books out on different subjects that interested me. It has certainly evolved with the times: nowadays there are more events (there’s a theatre joined to the library) and Internet access and classes in all kinds of things. It is something of a community hub, where people know they can come to learn, to enjoy and to be safe.

Last week I was notified I had a hold that had come in. I don’t buy many books any more: cost is one thing, but there’s also the fact that many of the books I read I don’t really want to own. Reading once is enough. But there was a bit of confusion, and I showed up on Sunday afternoon… not realizing that they are closed on Sunday afternoons. Beside the list of hours printed on the door was handwritten note saying that the branch would be closed on Sundays until further notice. There was another young man there as well, on that warm August Sunday afternoon, who seriously had to be half my age. He had a laptop in one hand, and looked at me as if he was trying hard to understand.

“Closed?” he asked, pointing to where the hours were printed on the glass. Sunday was listed 12:30 – 5:00. With only a couple of words I recognized his accent as being Eastern European, though he could have come from a number of areas.

“Yes,” I answered, pointing to the sign. “The library’s closed on Sundays for the summer, I guess. They don’t have enough money to stay open every day.” I shook my head. In my neighbourhood, that is the worst excuse possible. Weekends… Sunday afternoons… are precisely when kids needsomething to do. They’re at work or school or camp or something during the week; for the weekends they are left to themselves. Going downtown costs money, if only for transportation; activities in the immediate area are either too expensive or non-existent. Libraries help to take care of that. At least they would if they were open.

Instead, kids will look to the malls and the gangs in the area for some action. They’ll get mixed up in the wrong crowd, be at the wrong place at the wrong time, or actively stumble into drugs or theft. The gangs don’t close down for the weekends like libraries do. In ten years some kid from Jane and Finch will be arrested for arson or burglary or murder: and will never realize that if he’d had more options for things to do in the summer of ’11, it might have all been avoided. Now I now we’re all responsible for our choices and our actions: but sometimes I wonder if we deny our kids some of the opportunities for right choices in order that people like Rob Ford can close some libraries and save a little bit of in taxes. So much for the community’s involvement in raising children.

“There is WiFi?” the young man asked. I snapped back to the present and smiled.

“Yes,” I answered. I’d brought my laptop here before and tapped in to the library’s wireless network. Yet another thing the library offered. These days, libraries not only allowed you to connect to the world through their loaned infrastructure of books and music and video: but they provided access to the Internet. It was like a multi-laned on-ramp to the education super-highway.

“No cost?”

“No cost. It’s free,” I answered. But you’d better enjoy it now. If Mr. Ford gets his way, the libraries will be privatized. Then we’ll have to pay for our library card, and our holds, and WiFi, and everything. It’ll work for a while… and then the rich won’t come because they can afford it all on their own (and who wants to read a book that’s been handled by who-knows-how-many-other-people?). So they’ll have to raise the charges and lay off some librarians to cover operating costs: but the president of Toronto Libraries, Inc (based out of New York) will still get her 6-digit salary… and then a bonus when it all goes bankrupt. Which will happen, because the poor won’t be able to afford it any more and the middle class have all becomepoor, so there’s no-one left to actually use the service.

I hoped the young man would get back to use the free services while he could.

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