An ode to our forgotten communal sanctuaries

Graphic by Jenny Kwan

I’m ashamed to admit that I did not visit the library often when I was young. It didn’t even have its own building: relegated to a forgotten corner of the public complex, and often overshadowed by the hockey rinks and swimming pools, most children only went when forced by the school.

Graphic by Jenny Kwan

How could I blame them? The books were too high, the lights too artificial, the ambiance too quiet for someone who just wanted to run around outside. It wasn’t – isn’t – the best library in the world. I will be the first to admit to its failure, and my own.

Still, the few times I was forced to wait for my sister’s swimming lessons to end, it was a welcome calm from the shrieking and splashing coming from the pool. I didn’t understand half the titles on the spines I passed, but that’s not what mattered.

What was important was that it was a respite. I had found a place where I curl up at (or under) a table with one of my favourite things (a book) in my hands. The librarians didn’t ask me if everything was okay. The man at the computer didn’t care if I didn’t have many friends. The tall, metal shelving units—who always seemed to straddle the fence between ‘imposing’ and ‘protective’—wouldn’t judge me for getting picked last.

I could slip into my book and forget. I was a kid, and I was running from the normal problems kids have: social life (or lack thereof), sports (or lack thereof), insecurities (in abundance). I needed the library as a hide-away from my fairly small issues. If it could give an awkward, gawky kid like me a breather, what was it doing for those who were doing much worse?

What section does the unemployed man go to when he can’t pay his rent? Does the single mother wait with bated breath for another storytime reading? What about the new Canadian – who doesn’t speak much French or English, but can recite more national history than any of us—what about him, who checks out children’s books and tries to stammer a thank you to the librarian? To the boy who sat across from me that one time, whose stack of books towered over my own and read with terrifying furor —what were you hiding underneath the long-sleeved shirts that you wore even in the summertime?

The library isn’t just books. The library is safety, community, hideaways, and silence when everything else in life is so loud.

A Kindle isn’t going to drown out the sounds of your family fighting, and you can’t close the door on an iPad. You can’t do that with a book, either. You can get lost in a veritable palace of books, and in there you can study, or draw, or cry, or strum an invisible guitar. Our libraries, even our dusty, god-awful libraries, even at their worst, they are our best.

I don’t need my library like I used to. In fact, I barely visit that one anymore. I’m still a reader, and there’s no greater joy than being surrounded by free books. It’s no longer a shield I put up between me and the world. Now, it’s just a footnote of my life, like countless other people and places I’ve come to know.

Some people have the strange idea that libraries are obsolete. They call them wastes of space, wastes of money, wastes of time. Libraries are publically funded, which means that it takes much more than one person to keep them alive. I want to protect the place that protected me, but I can’t do this alone.

So, I’m begging. My sanctuary is dying. It’s not a church, a synagogue, or a mosque yet it saves people. Grab your neighbours and your leaders by their collars. Point them to the awkward-year-old, the new Canadian, the single mother, and show them who they’re failing. Look them in the eye and dare them to say these places aren’t worth keeping.

The library is quiet, but we don’t have to be.


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