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The Library: A Community’s Place to Gather

The Vancouver Sun by Baharak Yousefi 12 September 2012

I didn’t grow up with books. My family didn’t go to libraries. In fact, I don’t come with any of the typical librarian origin stories of a childhood spent falling in love with the written word. The first library I ever visited was my school library in the eighth grade, the year my family immigrated to Canada. I went in and never left. I didn’t care what they had on the shelves; I looked at everything. I looked because I couldn’t yet read in English. A year later, I read.

Over the next few years, I made up for lost time: school libraries, public libraries, and the great big university library on top of the mountain. They held me while I grew up. They taught me history, geography, psychology, literature, politics, feminist theory, and other subjects in between. And all the while, they held me. I sat in large rooms with others and read by myself. And it is only now, years later, that I am beginning to understand the significance of public space, of “the commons,” and of social consumption.

Libraries collect, preserve, and provide access to knowledge and information, and it does not much matter if the shelves are real or virtual. It is by consuming books, films, music, and art that we learn to adopt a critical stance and begin to imagine a world that is different than what we know. But the most extraordinary thing about libraries, their raison d’être, goes beyond their role as collectors and access providers.

Libraries have been and must remain places where ordinary people can become aware of themselves as agents of change, and most significantly, collective agents of social change. If, as citizens, we take our role as change-makers seriously, then we must read, but also gather, listen, and do. Library shelves — whether physical or virtual — contain only a fraction of the knowledge we need to change the world.

Let us, for a moment, embrace a kind of techno-utopianism. Let us put aside the realities of class and inequitable access to technology and assume that, in the future, all British Columbians will be able to access digital copies of published books from the comfort of their homes. Even if this scenario were true, the assumption that all the knowledge that matters is written down, published, and accessible is false.

Communities are repositories of a different kind of knowledge. If libraries understand their role as stewards of this, a knowledge that has been historically disadvantaged and underprivileged, then their role in the world of ebooks and free Internet becomes abundantly clear. In an era of greater access to conventional knowledge, libraries must facilitate community engagement by providing citizens access to each other and to local communal knowledge, and seek ways to provide space and opportunities for future creation and capture of this knowledge.

A year ago, the Vancouver Foundation asked: “what is the issue of greatest concern in Metro Vancouver?” Vancouverites reported being most concerned about social isolation and disconnection. They found that “certain groups of people are struggling more than others to feel connected and engaged” and concluded that “ignoring their needs will cost our community.” The Vancouver Foundation also reported an interesting statistic about library visits: 83 per cent of respondents reported visiting a local library, community, or recreation centre.

Many library users recognize libraries as one of the few remaining indoor public spaces where they can gather without having to buy something in order to stay. Time and again, in person and in the media, I’ve seen library users and citizen groups rally for their libraries.

“We love and need our libraries,” they say. The generosity and goodwill is energizing.

Libraries need to remain responsive to our supporters and users who are coming through our doors, but we must also do better by those who don’t see themselves reflected in our current services. Libraries must listen and better understand the needs of our communities. We must expand our role as conveners and facilitators of dialogue, joy, and social change. Our users may be coming to libraries asking for ebooks, but they are also coming to feel supported and connected, to be heard, to learn, to understand … to be held.

Baharak Yousefi is head of the Fraser Library at SFU’s Surrey Campus.