Maybe we should let librarians run the city
As Canadian Library Month draws to a close, we’re reflecting on the good work that libraries do, and how maybe we should let them do even more.
The cinematic image of libraries as staid collections of dusty tomes are beautiful in their own way, but bear little resemblance to today’s dynamic and vibrant community spaces. Today’s public libraries provide free use of computers and internet; spaces for parents and tots to meet up; storytimes, STEAM programs, and homework clubs for kids; job search workshops, information and referrals to settlement services, financial benefits, and other social services for youth and adults.
This didn’t happen overnight. The Toronto Public Library, for example, is one of the busiest urban public library systems in the world. Over the last few decades, it made large scale system-wide changes, including from analog (remember card catalogues?) to digital, and from English-with-a-sprinkle-of-French to a multilingual collection made up of 40 languages. An institution this big does not change on a whim; over time, it made choices to adapt based on changing conditions and on a heightened awareness of the people and communities it serves.
Libraries welcome people who are looking for help and connection, who need help financially, who need a safe place to spend the day, who are homeless. People can warm up or cool down, use the washroom and get a drink of water without buying anything. Some branches have settlement workers on site to help new immigrants and refugees. Four branches in the Toronto Public Library are piloting on-site crisis services for people who are homeless or having issues with mental health or addictions.
Perhaps this is why libraries are often considered the last truly public space.
Which begs the question, what about our parks?
In name, parks are public, as in “for everybody.” But in reality, we know that this is not true. Not everyone is welcome. So-called “hostile architecture” is designed to discourage certain kinds of activities, such as skateboarding, and to prevent people from sleeping or even lingering. People have to fight for the kinds of things that bring them together, such as community ovens. Washrooms, where they exist, are not open for much of the year (or even all day). People who have set up tents in the parks, because they don’t have anywhere else to call home, have been evicted by force and had their belongings destroyed.
Like parks, the libraries fall under the umbrella of city services, though libraries are generally arms-length agencies of their city. Is it that distance that allows the leadership of the public library to quickly adapt to changing needs of the community, while cities themselves have been slow to act? To adapt even in the face of opposition from city councillors and political pressure to cut budgets? Or is it that libraries have a vision of themselves as a place for everyone, combined with the gumption and pragmatism to back it up? Whatever it is, we need more of it.
What the public library is doing is important, for two reasons. First, its approach to serving all people in the communities, in effect, supports people’s access to their human rights, be it literacy, education and culture, employment and training, connections to social services, or dignified access to washrooms. The library is a critical support for communities across Canada.
Second, as an agency of the municipal government, this is what the library is supposed to do. All levels of government, and all departments and agencies of government, have a duty to support the human rights of every person. At the city, this means parks and libraries, and it also means transit, child care, social housing, tenant protection, public health, employment services, police, and everything the city has a hand in. The whole city should work in ways that make people and their dignity its first priority.
Perhaps if governments took their duty to uphold human rights more seriously, libraries would not find themselves in this position in the first place. If our social protection systems were functioning, and if our housing systems worked for everyone, maybe libraries wouldn’t see so many people come through their doors seeking shelter and connection.
But our social safety net is frayed, our social protections are inadequate, and our housing systems put stable housing out of reach for a growing portion of our population. Our governments are failing to respond with the urgency and scale necessary to make a meaningful difference to the root causes of poverty.
Consequently, libraries do find themselves here, and they are rising to meet the challenge in a way that we rarely see from other institutions.
So maybe we should let librarians do more than run the library. Maybe we should give them a go at running the parks. And the rest of the city, while we’re at it.