The importance of public libraries in the 21st century
I was 7, 8, when I spent every week dragging a bag of near 50 books out of Vancouver Public Library’s West Point Grey branch (still there, as small and cosy as ever), towards my piano lessons down the block. I did reading programs there, and won prizes for figuratively devouring books during the summer — an excited kid spinning some wheel for a free picture book.
Public libraries sparked my lifelong love for reading, and with that, learning and writing, and I would not be the person I am today without them.
Today, I see them as much more than places where children’s imaginations are born and where new passions are found — though those two reasons alone are more than enough. Now that I’m older and spend just as much time as I did as a kid wandering libraries around the city, I see them as what they are, community centres, cultural touchstones of towns and cities.
There are a lot of different kinds of people you see in libraries. Students studying, adults browsing after work, kids playing, poorer folks using the computers and resources or simply resting escaping the whims of rain and cold, older folks learning new technology — libraries are one of the only consistent places where people from all different backgrounds and experiences gather comfortably in peace without judgement.
There’s no pressure to get in and out as quick as you can, no long lines at customer service, no pressure to spend money that you may or may not have. It’s simply a space, for you, and for the people around you, and it’s a space of knowledge and potential and accessibility.
It offers what genuinely helps and connects others to each other and the community, including but not limited to:
Lessons to teach folks how to use computers and software
Resources to borrow or use on site such as instruments, software, and recording rooms
Free packets of seeds for gardens
Events for new immigrants
Resources on job searching, technology, learning languages, seeking support
And those are only a few examples. Libraries have always been a communal space of support, and for many people who frequent there, it is the only space of safety and support they have.
I’m a fairly privileged individual in terms of class and education and access to resources and opportunities. Yet the library — whether it was here in Vancouver during childhood or adulthood, or in Hong Kong during my teenage years — offered a refuge to study when I couldn’t go home, a place to stay and rest when I wasn’t feeling well but I was far from home, a place I could read and heal when I was in some dark emotional places in life.
If there is one thing that grounds a city’s people, it’s the city’s public library. Even as the internet and technology explode exponentially, even if books become more redundant over time (and I sure hope that isn’t the coming reality), libraries are such key foundations to communities.
If there’s a public library near you, support it, even if you don’t go there often yourself.