Put Your Money Where Your Books Are

There’s one place in the world where I feel simultaneously humbled and empowered: the library.

Our public library system is an essential element of our social, academic and economic systems. Our libraries enrich London and bring cohesion to communities and neighbourhoods by bringing people together under the banner of improving one’s lot in life, whether through study, job searches or community and cultural events.

I feel it is essential for the healthy development of our city that more support go toward the public library system and I support funding our collective base of knowledge.

And when it comes to choosing between raising police and fire department budgets over providing more funding for libraries, I choose our libraries.

As essential as these services are, they lack certain criteria which the libraries have, but I will get back to that later in the post – I know we’re all thinking about how much this all costs taxpayers, so let’s get to that point.

In 2013, the City of London spent more than $18 million dollars on its library system. I think it’s well worth it when we consider taxpayers’ return on investment.

Yes, the library taketh, but the library giveth away.

The library pays its dividends by helping people access vital information via hardcopy, e-books and other formats such as workshops.

These resources – and librarians, let’s not forget the librarians – play an instrumental role in helping people with job searches, the chance at graduating and settling into a new city or country among other opportunities the library affords, such as basic literacy.

Although I may not be a fan of the Liberals, I do commend the provincial government for its plan to invest more money in Ontario’s public libraries. This will improve access to digital services which can encourage skills development, continual learning and innovation, which is really what it’s all about.

The London Public Library’s 2014-2017 Strategic Plan really captures a lot of what makes the library special. I’m glad – and one could say relieved – to see how our library is gearing up to tackle the challenges of improved technology by looking to provide better WiFi access, more power outlets for devices and more quiet and social spaces which help raise connectivity in the “traditional” sense as well – yes, I am a traditionalist, can’t hide it ; P

When I think about some of the reasons I prefer increased library funding over police/fire department funding, the story of Yale University Professor Carlos Eire comes to mind.

In Professor Eire’s own words:

Public libraries saved my life and made me who I am. The first one was a shabby little branch of the Miami Public Library, on Northwest Seventh Street, not too far from the Orange Bowl site. It was 1963, and those who lived in that neighborhood were poor. That library no longer exists, but I remember every detail of its interior, especially its shelves and treasure trove of books. It was a few blocks from the group home for juvenile delinquents where I’d been dumped by social workers, and it offered me refuge from constant abuse by my house parents and from the pressure to join a gang. Above all, that little library opened up many other worlds, including that of the past. It was at that rinky-dink outpost of culture and learning, sparsely stocked with tattered books, where I spent nearly every evening in 1963, that I decided to become a historian.

The experience that I had there made a huge difference, not just for me, but for the thousands of students I have taught over the past 40 years and the countless readers reached by my own books. That humble library taught me to seek similar portals elsewhere. Ever since, I’ve spent my life in libraries and archives all over America and Europe — including some of the very best in the world — mining their treasures.

Without that throw-away little branch library in Miami, I shudder to think what might have become of me, a fatherless and motherless young Cuban refugee sent to the United States as a part of the Operation Pedro Pan exodus. I shudder to think what could happen today to those who depend on public libraries as escapes from the desolation of their lives in Miami and elsewhere, and especially those young minds and readers whose entire lives are still ahead of them.

Instead of funneling more money to the Police, why not work at preventing anti-social behaviour by providing a safe haven for at-risk-youth like Carlos Eire had been?

Reading is fundamental to a healthy life and our library system is a fundamental part of London’s social equation. When you read you become enlightened; when one is enlightened they behave in an enlightened fashion.

As a teen, I once had a summer job at a local library and found it very enriching to read when not busy with patrons. It helped set things in motion for me and got me to where I am today.

I do have to admit that I lied at the beginning of the post: there is another place where I feel simultaneously humbled and empowered – the synagogue. But that’s a whole other story…

Here’s to enjoying a good book, and appreciating the role our library plays in the life of our city!

– Paul


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