Why Public Libraries Matter

I never feel more at home than when I’m in a library. Any library, anywhere. It doesn’t matter which cataloguing system the library uses, I can find the book I’m looking for. Even though I tend to experience claustrophobia in other enclosed spaces, this never happens in the library stacks. I love to browse the shelves, look way up and way down for hidden volumes, sit down on the floor or step stool and leaf through pages.

Since I work at a university I have daily access to the university library and I will always be grateful to it for giving me the research materials I need: books, journal articles in print and via the web, stuff in the rare book room and on microfilm and microfiche. But when I’m on campus, I tend not to work in the university library. I pick up my book (and maybe a coffee and a sandwich) and I leave. I leave the university library to the students.
When my job does not require me to be on campus, I head to the public library to do my work. In the public library there is just enough ambient noise to be soothing and not distracting. There are comfy chairs and big tables for writing. There are plugs for computers. The lighting is good and there are big windows offering views of the city. I love the strict no cellphones rule. Coffee can be procured downstairs. And people are constantly coming and going. Some, like me, sit for hours creating, writing, thinking, and reading. I like being in a place where my visual field is crowded with books. Paper things.

One of the best aspects of public libraries is that they are really public. There are no barriers (that I can think of anyway) to a person’s entry into a public library. You can be anyone and use this space. Even a young person in existential crisis as I suspect was the case with the teenager who was at the table beside me the other day–what better place for such a person to be? You don’t even have to be a card-carrying member to enter, use, and enjoy a public library. Public libraries feel like very democratic spaces where we can (silently) commune with a very diverse group of people. Where we can be alone and together at the same time. Where we truly experience the civitas.

Linda Warley is Associate Professor in the Department of English Language & Literature at the University of Waterloo and also currently Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, Faculty of Arts. When she’s not doing administrative work she’s writing about and teaching life writing texts in diverse genres and media, particularly texts created by Canadians and First Nations authors.

Warley photo

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