Mainly because of the recent provincial budget in Newfoundland, where literacy rates are the lowest among all provinces in the country, around half of the public libraries are slated to close to save money. On the show Because News, Rick Mercer called the closures “an attack on literacy.” I don’t like military metaphors, but I agree in the sense that the closures are, like most wars, stupid. They seem highly unlikely to improve our collective intelligence. Maybe, as the library board's chairperson reportedly said, we once had even more libraries but unsatisfactory literacy nonetheless. I can accept that libraries are not magical except to those who already love to read, but I would add that they are only part of the story of literacy, just as literacy is only part of the story of libraries.
On the same show as Mercer, Aisha Alfa said that we might not really need libraries anymore, because we can get a lot of books in other ways: e-readers, radio, the Internet. But Tom Henighan explains that, unlike music playing on the radio or streaming on the Internet, "it’s impossible to put a book in the background and turn it on" (qtd. in Mackey 10). Although I agree that literacy now requires competence in multimedia, Alfa's suggestion doesn’t account for enough of the details. Yes, we can get a lot of books on the Internet, but the libraries under consideration (or lack of consideration) tend to be in rural and often remote areas where people tend to have less money and less Internet access—except in public places such as libraries.
Another rejoinder is that reading online or on screen and reading a book are not the same. When you look at people read on a computer (e-readers being an exception), you probably don’t see it as reading. They are just “on the Internet.” In Literacies across Media, Margaret Mackey writes that, in any situation, we can't look at readers and "see what is going on inside" these reading minds (6). (I was drawn to Mackey's work on the weekend because she was speaking at the Newfoundland and Labrador Book History Symposium organized by my colleagues, an event at which the library closures were often discussed.) In the case of online reading, they could be looking at anything—an online book, yes, but also the image of a chair to buy or a music video or, most likely, the mosaic of distractions that is the typical webpage.
The problem with literacy here and probably anywhere is that, unaware of the pleasure of concentration, too many children don’t care to read, and, obviously, it’s not much fun if you can’t do it and haven't seen others enjoy it. The conventional wisdom now is that having books in the home and reading to your kids are big boosts to literacy. Mackey explains: "We learn how to read in and through the company of other readers" (6). I also read an essay by Daniel Coleman recently, “Beyond the Book: Reading as Public Intellectual Activity,” that prompted me to realize that reading a book shows people an intellectual activity and promotes it by familiarity. We should read books to our kids, and we should read them around our kids.
Yesterday, my partner and I borrowed a car and drove up to Pouch Cove, where we sat in the park across from the library, ate a snack, and admired the amazing view of the ocean and a massive strip of fog hiding the horizon. On some concrete wedges serving as a fence just below the view, some kids had painted images of the cove, including the same kind of fog. Inside, although the library was closed (just at that time of day), we peeked through the window and saw a long set of shelves filled with children’s books. The library also had a large health and wellness shelf, plus a big fiction section that included not only Danielle Steele but also local authors such as Elisabeth de Mariaffi. There was a desk in the centre of the room where a librarian could welcome people and help them find books and information, and—crucially—probably also serve a liaison role with the community centre upstairs.
This is the crux of so many public spaces: you can go there and benefit from them without having to be screened by a bureaucrat, asked prying questions, reminded of what you need that you might not be able to supply for yourself. On the weekend, we were having brunch with some friends, and our friends gave lots of examples of what libraries offer. They offer librarians (experts on how to avoid the problems of reading on the Internet, for example), warmth in winter, air conditioning in the heat of summer, safe space, public washrooms, Internet access, and books—and people from all walks of life go there, at least in my experience. When you learn at a library, you learn how to be more self-reliant with information and knowledge. You can go there with dignity, even gain dignity (e.g., a sense of pride in learning). When people rightly criticize the proposed library closures as likely to hurt poorer people more than richer people, we should all remember how it feels when our pride, self-respect—dignity—are hurt.
The individual consequences, of course, are often badly rationalized by monetary savings in the grand scheme of things. So, the proposed library closures coincide with a new tax on books, the only one in the country, so that the government can not only save, but also make, money. But Chad Pelley at The Overcast seems absolutely right in his prediction that the tax will deter book buyers and thereby raise little money through book sales—“10% of nothing is zero” (6)—while damaging the publishing, distribution, and local retail industries.
For my own part in the grand scheme of things, I fear that I am not going to enjoy my teaching as much if or when I am teaching literature to people whose literacy has suffered partly because of the new book tax and proposed library closures. But, sad consolation, I will probably not have to teach many of them; they will be less likely to meet entrance requirements, regardless of our oft-mentioned special responsibility to the people of the province. The accessibility of the university will worsen. The university will be, for people who might once have benefited from a public library, another closed door.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “'The Dignity of the Library.” Publicly Interested. 10 May 2016. Web. [date of access]
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.