I couldn't help wondering during this current round of cutbacks what would happen if the idea of a publically funded collective repository of books, a "public library" if you will, were floated for the first time today.
If a flotilla of copyright lawyers didn't scuttle it, the chortles of public budget chiefs would, and this symbol of Western civilization's utopian project would be a dream of rebels and hackers. And what a loss that would be.
Even the hippest bookseller can't match the library, whose mandate is not that of the tastemaker but of the mind-expander, to stock not things that will sell, but materials of value where they're needed.
Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges "always imagined Paradise to be a sort of library," though his famous The Library Of Babel, which posited the universe as a near-infinite library, was an ambiguous paradise at best, with volumes of nonsense outnumbering the readable."[Some] thought the primary task was to eliminate useless works," Borges wrote. "They would invade... skim through a volume with annoyance, and then condemn entire bookshelves to destruction."
A kernel of such antiseptic fervour resides in all public budget crises. And while no cataclysm threatens the Toronto Public Library, cuts for the last quarter this year affect 14,000 materials. Sixteen branches will close on Sundays. These were the cuts that made me emotional, threatening a gutting on par with lost transit routes.
Libraries and streetcars both bring stories together. I value a dog-eared book circulated through people's lives over a stiff new volume signifying an atomized public all wanting solitude. Chapters may sell books, but it doesn't deal in knowledge.
I felt something close to pride when, discussing city budget cuts, the mayor said it was the library he felt for the most. "Our libraries are where people become Torontonians," he said. But these words weren't sufficient balm for the anger evoked by Police Board chair Alok Mukherjee, who called cuts to libraries "inconveniences."
He didn't mean we don't need libraries (one hopes), but as one of 1,238,358 cardholders (that's about the number of calls police responded to in 2004), I take the implication that libraries are mere conveniences personally.
In the town where I spent my youth, the library stood over a small stream, a natural stop at the end of bike rides. Years later, I like to order library books. The automated phone call when they arrive makes me feel briefly important and scholarly.
It could be better: the newspaper and scholarly archives linked from the TPL site could actually, you know, work; branches could be open later and designed with a less "civic" aesthetic. But I find refuge at the Reference Library, where the studious masses remind me there are still curious, thoughtful people.
Then there are the many newcomers seeking settlement information or language collections, or the third of Canadians without home Internet access, or the children whose parents can't afford books.
And in a city where "youth crime" is so feared, you'd think closing libraries would be a public safety issue.
"We need to think about the library as an essential community resource," says library board member Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler. He points out that the public library system is part of the city's Community Safety Plan and "puts out a lot of its own resources, without additional money, to implement that." Many branch auditoriums are opened after school for youth; open mics and teen parenting workshops are common; artists work with kids in youth shelters at the TPL.
Cheryl Skovronek, a youth program specialist in the library system, says its Youth Advisory Groups have allowed kids to imagine shaping their city, not just being shaped by it. "The library tends to be a neutral place to hang out," she says. "The kids come together in a way that they don't otherwise."
New South Wales, Australia, studied the relationship of "libraries and social capital." Libraries are, their Safe Place To Go report said, "places in which those on the fringes of society can ease themselves into a fuller participation within society." Some libraries, the document points out, also provide community policing (high on the community, low on the policing) by dealing with problem behaviour "as transgressions rather than crimes."
In many ways, library staff are frontline workers. "It's a population service and so much more than getting a book," says TPL board chair Kathy Gallagher Ross. "We're talking about the gap between the rich and poor, and that gap is tied to information. I'm a nurse; it's a primary prevention measure that we have created and nurtured the strongest library system in North America."
If Borges can imagine the universe as a library, perhaps we can see the city as one, a repository of the best living knowledge about all our desires, noble and cruel. Libraries, like transit, in their commingled nature, allow translation between all the cities our city is.
In libraries there's a rare chance for private and public universes to interact. Think on the effect of having access to the hidden, thoughtful faces of strangers as they study or mull language. Reflect on the importance of a place where you can peacefully loiter.
As both council and the Toronto Public Library embark on budget consultations this fall, we'd do well to remember that this is the sort of "public-private partnership" that builds cities. The others are just imitators.