The Fight for Libraries

The spectacle playing out in Toronto this week has been interesting, to say the least. In the city’s quest for fiscal balance, controversial Mayor Rob Ford and the city council have explored a myriad of service cuts and other austerity measures. The most notable debate (so far) began as a suggestion that funding for libraries be cut back—and perhaps some branches closed—and has now rapidly devolved into a very public battle between a Canadian literary icon and a now infamous city councillor.

There is a certain expectation that people who aspire to elected positions have a degree of intelligence. History has proven many times that this is not the rule, of course, but the general assumption remains that a person holding democratically anointed power should be somewhat enlightened. Thus, to hear Doug Ford—councillor and brother of Mayor Ford—publicly declare libraries to be a wasteful frivolity while openly insulting the venerable Margaret Atwood should (and has) come as a profound shock to many.

It was a simple enough situation: as the city debated the proposed service cuts, Ms. Atwood stepped forward and public announced her opposition to cutting library funding and branch closures. Mr. Ford’s response that he had “no clue” who Atwood even was elicited, quite swiftly, a wave of outcry across the country, and unfortunately, much of the world. Ms. Atwood is, of course, a prolific wordsmith, widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in Canadian history, internationally recognized and respected in her field. That a public official would profess to not knowing of existence her is pathetic enough—but to further the insult by then declaring that she should remain silent on the matter unless she is “democratically elected” took things over the edge.

It is, of course, the central tenet of any democracy that the people have the right to speak their mind on matters that concern and affect them. Indeed, the notion is ingrained in the very word itself: democracy originates from a Greek term meaning “power of the people.” Such blatant anti-intellectualism, the assertion that one of Canada’s most respected minds should, essentially, shut up, is an affront to our national democratic principles. Ms. Atwood was quite within her right to best online casino add her opinion to the debate over libraries in Toronto; she is a taxpaying resident, after all, and she of all people ought to know a thing or two about the importance of literacy.

Literacy has always been a means for those of a lower class to become upwardly mobile. The world’s most successful and prosperous states have always been those with highly literate populations. A library is a central part of any community simply because it is a place of learning, and over time libraries have become so much more. The rise of technology has forced libraries to adapt to new and ever-evolving roles. Modern libraries are so much more than just book lenders. They now serve as community centres, Internet cafés, cool refuges during heat waves. They are an unimaginably valuable resource for children, seniors and new Canadians, as well as the population at large, of course. Libraries are an essential public service—not an expendable waste of tax dollars.

It is strange what happens when people talk about the value of libraries. They, like books, are just objects, after all. A library is nothing more than a building, beautiful or plain. In its walls are the books, many blocks of bound and covered paper, organized neatly on shelves, row upon identical row. Yet books and libraries always seem to cause an emotional response when discussed, and particularly when threatened. They arouse our passions and emotions because inside those brick and mortar structures, all those blocks of paper hold everything we are and know in their ink. They’ve come to represent our dreams, discoveries, laws and everything else we think or imagine. They represent our collected history, the transmission of one generation’s realizations to the next, so that all who come after may learn and grow from those who came before. The representation of knowledge, the ability to hold it and see it as a tangible thing, is an acknowledgement of the human mind, the thing that makes us unique on this planet.

Yes, funding for these things libraries and literacy is an invaluable investment, and it’s troubling to see that funding tampered with. The current trend of anti-intellectualism, however, is far more sinister and bodes a far greater long-term threat than any single government administration. The resulting tide of support for Ms. Atwood and her fight to preserve and enhance Toronto’s public library system is heartening. Whether it will do any good, though, remains to be seen.

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