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Subject: For the Love of Libraries - Andrew Cohen, The Ottawa Citizen

*For the love of Libraries*
Andrew Cohen, The Ottawa Citizen

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Ed Broadbent, the former leader of the New Democratic Party who wants to return to Parliament, says that he has a deep, undisclosed fetish. Whenever he visits a town or village on either side of the border, he visits the local library. Yes, the library.

For Mr. Broadbent, libraries are an enduring passion. He came from a family that didn't read much. As a boy, though, he discovered the library, where he devoured Plato's Republic and Time magazine.

It was the beginning of a brilliant career in which he would teach at a university, enter politics, lead his party to its greatest electoral success, and shape the discourse of his day. For much of what he has achieved in life, he thanks the library.

Mr. Broadbent isn't alone. Study the lives of great men and women --
especially those who were poor or immigrants -- and you'll see that they begin at the library. It was their cathedral of curiosity. It meant the world to them because it opened the world to them.

They believe, as do so many others, that the library is the most democratic of civic institutions. It is, you might say, the essence of our citizenship.

So it is astounding that Ottawa should be considering closing three of its 33 libraries. It is a sad, small-minded debate that reflects who we are as a people. This is why Mr. Broadbent and hundreds of others protested the closing of their branch the other day, and why many of them marched on City Hall last night.

By now, the city councillors know all the facts about libraries here. They know that this city spends less per capita than the average of major cities in Canada; that the city saved $2.1 million on libraries and reduced its full-time library staff by 32 after amalgamation; that Ottawa promotes itself as a "knowledge-based economy'' trumpeting libraries as its competitive advantage.

They also know that more people are using libraries every year. And they know that Ottawa's Central Library is the worst of its kind in the country, an ungainly, concrete carbuncle of frayed carpets and steep stairs held together by duct tape and determination.

It wasn't always this way. There was once a majestic Carnegie Library in Ottawa, where curious children such as the young Adrienne Clarkson, newly arrived from Hong Kong, became the voracious reader she is today. That library was razed to create someone's misplaced idea of modernity.

Other cities understand libraries. Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal have invested, or are investing, in new central libraries and are expanding their systems.

In the United States, they also understand. Mr. Broadbent gushes about the libraries he's seen in Vermont; in Maine, there are gems in every village and hamlet. In Bath and York, on the islands of Vinalhaven and Monhegan, books find a happy home in weathered, white-washed clapboard captains' homes and neo-classical, red-brick churches, where the floors creak and the shelves groan and the air is perfumed with salt.

They are staffed by volunteers and sustained by contributions from the community because they are the community, which isn't limited to New England. In Portland, Oregon, for example, they raised millions of dollars to renovate their magnificent 19th-century library. When it closed for two years, an army of volunteers moved the books to a warehouse and then moved them back again.

Our libraries do not evoke that depth of affection -- much as we like them and salute our dedicated volunteers -- and too many libraries are merely functional. Still, they are a landmark in neighbourhoods where people can walk and bicycle to them.

And that's the point. Libraries, you see, aren't just about books alone, and never have been. They are oases of quiet. They are places for the soul to loaf. They are for seniors, for new mothers, and for kids of all ages, many of whom now visit them during school hours.

Libraries are unashamedly egalitarian. They are free, they are open to all, and they deal in the most basic of rights -- the right to know.

They are the great leveller, and yet today there are those who would level them. They say that we don't need libraries anymore. That libraries are passé in the Age of the Internet. That we have too many of them.

But the cost-cutters don't understand. When you close a library, you stifle curiosity. You narrow opportunity for someone of modest means who may become Ed Broadbent or Adrienne Clarkson. You erode your community and your democracy. Most of all, in a thousand ways, by a thousand cuts, in ways unknown and unknowable, you diminish your humanity.

Andrew Cohen is an associate professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University.

E-mail: [email protected]

© The Ottawa Citizen 2004

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