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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Public Libraries: Essential for a Democracy

Library closures have come to my attention recently.  Back in April, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador, in its provincial budget, announced that over half of its public libraries (54 of 95) would be closed in the next two years in order to save money.  There was great public outcry, and the government has suspended the closures until an operational review of public library services is completed by a consulting firm.

Closer to home, the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Library Board recently voted to close 3 of its 18 libraries by the beginning of September.  One of those slated for closure is my local library in St. Andrews West.  The closures were announced without the public consultation which had been promised so people are obviously upset.  One Library Board member even resigned in protest.

Why are libraries often the first to be affected when financial cuts need to be made?  Perhaps people do not understand the value of public libraries. 

Public libraries encourage literacy.  They provide access to books in all genres and on any conceivable topic; if they don’t have a particular book, they will get it for you via interlibrary loan.  Audiobooks are usually available, useful for busy people who have little free time to read and a need for those with visual impairment.  Ebooks, DVDs (including those for very expensive interest courses with professional lectures geared towards lifelong learners), language-learning tools, and digital newspapers can be accessed. 

In our digital age, there are still people who do not own computers or reliable, unlimited internet access; libraries provide both.  They are the great equalizers, ensuring that everyone, regardless of economic status and area of residence, has equal access to accurate information. Equal access to correct information is, I think, a right in a democratic society.

As a former teacher-librarian, I know that there are many users who cannot search the internet correctly.  Most people simply select the top result in Google rather than ensuring that the source is reliable. Entries in Wikipedia are not always of high quality.  Librarians are trained in using the internet properly to find reliable information for patrons and can teach internet literacy skills.  Libraries also provide access to online encyclopaedias and research databases, reliable information sources which are not available without costly subscriptions.  Many libraries will have sections specializing in local history materials not available elsewhere. 

And then there’s the sense of community that libraries can help develop.  Many libraries provide meeting space for community groups.  (I will certainly miss my library’s book club - St. Andrews Lassies Book Club.)  Most libraries have specialized programs (e.g. teen services, children’s summer reading programs, seniors socials, craft nights, board game nights) which foster learning, provide fun, and facilitate social interaction and the formation of friendships.  (When I first moved to SD&G a couple of years ago, the local library’s book club gave me an opportunity to meet people from the area.)

If libraries are closed, we increase the likelihood of a society that is poorly equipped to succeed in our information age.   An ill- or misinformed society is a dangerous prospect for a democracy.  (I can’t help but make reference to the current American election and the need for fact-checking of political speeches.)