Sunday, 23 October 2011

Libraries: the Cornerstone of Civilization

I am a library person. Even before registering the births of my sons, they were registered library card holders. We went home with favourites from my husband's and my own childhoods including lullaby CDs and our favourite stories and poems. When my youngest was born, we were such library "regulars" that the news of his arrival made the internal library staff's newsletter. While many people watch TV, play video games or go and hang out at the mall, you can find my family spending our few spare leisure hours at the local library, or back at home exploring our library loot.

I've read on various internet sites that evidence of libraries dates back to about 5000 years ago from clay tablets found in Mesopotamia. The first known public libraries emerged in about 400 BCE. If I could travel back in time, my first choice would be a visit to the library at Alexandria. Of course, I'd also like to arrange to be able to read ancient Hebrew, Greek and Coptic (and probably a few other languages as well) in order to actually gain anything useful from the experience, but imagine the treasures once housed there (or in any of the associated library buildings). You can keep your gold and silver, your gems and trinkets--I'll take the library thank you very much!

I would argue that the strength of a society can be measured best by looking at their libraries. But--remember that paper books and written words may not be the only form a library takes. The oral traditions of North America First Nation, for example, can be argued to be a form of library in which elders and storytellers become living repositories. Likewise, the internet is also a form of library. When knowledge is retained in retrievable format, this constitutes a library. When that knowledge is shared without limit, that becomes a public library.

Public libraries are an essential as part of a society's educational system. They allow for the spread of ideas, knowledge and information, and promote freedom of speech. They allow and promote a free and just society by giving all members access to vital information. Enemies to public libraries include those who would censor or destroy material, or limit public access.

Libraries should be free to use for all. This is perhaps one of the most crucial institutions for any government to maintain. When a population is educated and can find and share information and ideas readily, they are empowered to become better citizens. Reliable information built upon the work of many replaces guesswork and the need to "re-invent the wheel".

Libraries are also environmentally friendly. Imagine what the cost would be in money, ink and trees if every time you wanted to read a book you had to purchase a new copy. Now consider how much it would take for your town or city. For a family of voracious readers like mine, it would be truly phenomenal.

If you consider all the other materials that our libraries also provide, such as audio-visual materials, magazines & periodicals, you can see that the sharing nature of libraries is something that we might want to even consider expanding much further. Why not a power tool lending library? Or a toy lending library? In fact, there are places in which these are available too.

If you want to do some detailed research, you can explore the library at the closest university or college.

The sad part of this is that many of us have learned to take our libraries for granted. When government cuts are made, libraries should be last (or near last) on the chopping block, yet in recent years, that has not been the trend. When a library is closed due to lack of public funding, it is akin to a society throwing up its arms in despair. It is a defeat of the spirit of curiosity and exploration, the very thirst for knowledge, which gives us meaning and purpose. Such a move hurts the most vulnerable members of society.

Libraries promote literacy, and provide a means to this end.
Long live the public library!