EDITORIALS: Public libraries: they ain’t what they used to be !

Libraries in the past were invariably located in the oldest building in the city. My guess is that city councillors of that era would give libraries the most aged property the city owned free of charge. Likely their view was that the property was of little value now or of no further use to the city. Hence, the oldest building in almost every town of bygone days was likely a library. Today, these properties are seen as historical sites, often undergoing expensive restoration and seen as being too valuable to be used by the public on a daily basis as is a library. Libraries today are not the libraries of the days of my youth.

When I was young, my local library was a 15-minute walk away, over some train tracks, up a tree-lined street in a small town in Ontario. The library was in a very old building, again likely the oldest one in the city. Certainly, the oldest building in my area of town: as if an island isolated on a grassy triangle of greenery, it sat alone with a short asphalt driveway traversing its front and decade’s old maple trees guarding its sides like sentries forever on watch. The two story brownish coloured building constructed of moulded limestone had a gloomy, ponderous and haunting look on cloudy or rainy days, very intimidating to any 10 or 11 year old. On sunny days, it took on a whole new look, one of majesty and grandeur.

The entranceway, a three car wide expanse of smooth stone, reinforced the stateliness and splendour of the building. I felt a personal pride about my library whenever I ascended its steps. At the top, two huge green doors with large glass panels marked the first boundary of ingression to the library. The dark paint had an infinity of haphazardly lined ridges the result of repeated painting of poorly prepared underlying surfaces. The enormity of these doors undoubtedly overwhelmed most youngsters but on a sunny day, the majority of thes young patrons likely felt a great pride as they approached their library with its splendour and regal dignity. Now, this was a library!

The left door, the only entrance door that opened, had a long metal handle curving outward for grasping with a thumb-wide spoon of metal at the top which when pressed down released the door catch. Even though the handle had been painted numerous times, the internal mechanism still worked crisply and cleanly, clicking audibly when the catch was released.

Entering through the door, I faced a second, smaller set of stairs, wooden, curved in the center by years of patrons’ footsteps. Polished wooden balustrades bordered each side of the wooden staircase with a top railing to assist the physically challenged. However, the wear in the center of each step bore visual witness to the fact that detouring to the side balustrade was a nuisance rejected by the majority of library entrants.

At the top of these inner stairs, another set of wood framed glassed doors marked the entrance to the main floor of the library. These large doors likely shielded the inner sanctum from any possible outside noise.

As I walked in, I would see the layout of the entire main floor. The distant walls were too far away to really see what was on display there. On my right was a huge circulation desk, shaped as a quarter circle and usually staffed by two, sometimes three, older women, the ‘not-to-be-toyed-with’ librarians. Customarily dressed in sombre greys and browns, they looked more like receptionists for a funeral parlour rather than a library.

With the circulation desk on my right, I faced the main floor of the library proper. Steps away directly in front of me was a bank of book shelves about six feet high with shelving on each side, running the distance of the room right to the far back wall. This wall of shelving divided the main room, the left side for adults, the right for younger patrons. My age restricted me to the right side but I was always terribly curious as to what was available on the adult side. Both rooms had wooden shelving on every other wall, lined with books, some with spines displaying their titles, others facing forward so their covers became like magnets for young eyes. The central area of both sides held long wooden tables, positioned in military fashion, row by row, side by side, very regimented, very regulated. Abutted to these tables, upright wooden chairs, utilitarian in purpose rather than built for comfort. Still, the feeling the room engendered was not unfriendly, though not warm and inviting, still not unwelcoming or deterring to library users. The pale green walls, high plastered ceilings, hanging basketball-sized white globe lamps, and worn, polished, always freshly waxed wooden floors generated an atmosphere of study and academics. The lack of sofas or soft cushioned chairs clearly if not subtly whispered the library’s message: “Get your book, confirm it, check it out at the circulation desk, and leave…now!”

My library today is much different, a relatively new building, about 35 years old, with lots of glass and steel its revolving door entrance way suggests entry into a retail store in a the local mall, on each side of these doors, self-opening ones for the physically challenged. On the other side of the doors, a circulation desk greets each patron with a clerk or two, invariably female — some things never change — ready to assist those in need, to collect late fines and to help people check out their loans. Though modern technology dots various parts of the library, it is less obtrusive at the entrance. However, at the backside of the circulation desk, three or four electronic desk pods facilitate book check out with bar code scanning and library card code reading. No more index sized cardboard cards rubber-stamped with due dates for insertion into jacket pockets. Just slide your book over the scanner and a library slip pops out just like a receipt at a grocery store. Your book borrowing is registered. Nothing easier, always accurate and most importantly, quick.

Walk past the ubiquitous shelving, some displaying ‘quick read’ books with their four day borrowing limit, then, the ‘new arrivals’ books, a sampling of the latest books available for borrowing, a display echoing the library of the past, a bit further, each step a huge one in terms of time travel. On the right, an extensive selection of audio and video DVD’s, many being very current; in the center, a two-sided bank of  computers; and just beyond, a glass walled classroom for technology oriented workshops about iDevices, their accessories, their apps, computer software, internet browsing and much more. The two fellows who head the library’s technology team, Doug Mirams and Kayhan Boncoglu, amaze with their extensive knowledge in their area of specialization.

When I was young, technology was limited to typewriters, ones with manual carriage returns topped by metallic heads with font impressions that clacked letters on to paper by stamping ink embedded ribbon. No photocopiers — Xerox had not been conceived yet. As for Smartphones, computers, internet, scanners and bar code readers, these were not even science fiction fantasies in those days. They are the norm today. In fact, youth today simply takes it for granted that these things are available and are shocked, not when they are not available, but when the particular device is not in operation or malfunctioning.

My library is not what it was and I am glad for it. Today, I can access the world, maybe even beyond, just by going to the library. Not only can I borrow a book by Asimov but also I can view images as seen  by the Hubble telescope. Virtually, I can attend an opera with an audio DVD or attend the cinema with a video one and the librarian assistants, young males and females, each ready to assist me with new electronics devices instead of shushing me with an upright index finger touching their lips.

Going to the library no longer is an energy-draining trek. It has become a journey of delight, whimsy and awe!


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