The Public Library: Something Worth Saving from the 20th Century

By Angela Bischoff and Tooker Gomberg, Edmonton, Alberta.

The library is a special and unique institution, based on sharing and intelligence.

Jay Walljasper, editor at Utne Reader Magazine, dropped us a line the other day. “What’s worth saving from the 20th Century” he asked?

Ange and I discussed it. She said: Women’s Liberation. In my mind, a library card flashed. I said: the public library.

My memory reminds me that the Edmonton Public Library lent me the words and thoughts of Emma Goldman, famed anarchist, advocate for women’s emancipation and birth control.

Anarchism, birth control, emancipation. A hundred years ago, such ideas seemed dangerous to many. They still are: the mainstream, corporate media aren’t interested in talking about them in much depth.

But walk into a library, and such ideas jump off the shelves at you. Libraries are subversive. They are a place where you don’t have to buy anything – you can use the goods, or even borrow them, for free. Everybody shares. Where else can you do that without latex or chlorine? No risk, unless mind expansion is risky.

In our city of seven hundred thousand people, the library is the second most popular destination (after the mega-mall that has everything). Maybe the library is attractive for what it doesn’t have. We are so jostled and jaded by incessant noise. The library hums without the sound of muzak or the drone of weed whackers.

It’s home to all kinds of crazy ideas, sometimes in languages that nobody speaks anymore. With your card, you can check out video docs, foreign mags, or cello concertos. The potential for expanding the library’s inventory is endless. Our library lends a gizmo to measure how much electricity your fridge uses, or any other electrical device for that matter. Why not a tools library? Mother Nature would smile if we didn’t buy every darn thing we wanted.

In the library aisles, Groucho Marx and Sol Alinsky rub shoulders. You can take Billie Holiday home with you. Where else would you find such a cast of characters under one roof?

With their favourite picture books, kids curl up on couches; elderly gentlemen gesticulate over an intense game of chess; and street people travel to distant lands through the looking glass of glossy ‘zines.

It wasn’t always this way. Until the turn of the last century, public libraries were a rarity. A movement won the support of steel robber-baron Andrew Carnegie who bankrolled the construction of almost 1700 public library buildings across North America. Any institution that can melt the heart of a hardened capitalist must have some intrinsic, powerful value.

A place where intelligence, beauty, and inspiration are freely shared – if you’re looking for renewal, the library is the place to go.