A terrible thing has happened in Newfoundland. One of my all-time favourite provinces (it’s true I have several) is going through harrowing financial times, but still: close 50 per cent of the province’s libraries?
As our society gallops into the future on a stampede of new technology and changing needs, libraries have kept pace. Anyone who visits a library sees that the mistaken perception of the “dusty warehouse of books” is just that.
Libraries are where families come for storytimes and early literacy programs. It’s where people come to look for jobs, polish resumes, prepare for interviews. It’s where teens get off their phones and find their friends. It’s where newcomers get connected, meet people, learn English, become involved. Special programs might teach tax preparation or dealing with dementia or how to get the best from your garden. And yes, you can borrow or download books in all sorts of formats.
Libraries are about connection, community, and literacy. In Newfoundland, past government policies went a long way to wipe out the first two: resettlement of residents of small outport communities into larger centres saw 250 coastal villages become ghost towns, and a way of life — think of all those gorgeous Newfoundland and Labrador commercials on CBC — became to a large extent a sad, quaint memory.
Now, it’s literacy on the chopping block.
According to Statistics Canada, Newfoundland suffers the lowest literacy levels among Canadian provinces (the Northwest Territories and Nunavut are lower, a topic for another column).
Closing Newfoundland libraries so that a reported 85 per cent of the population can access remaining libraries within a 30-minute drive does little for those without transportation, never mind the other 15 per cent. Many of those affected will be children who, had they been able to attend library storytime, would receive the literacy jump-start to become life-long learners, get a better job, and raise literate families of their own. The closures are a tragically short-sighted answer to what is undeniably a difficult situation.
We are truly all in this together. The British Columbia Library Association has joined other provincial library associations in writing to the government of Newfoundland and Labrador, urging them to reconsider, and to “find ways to strengthen libraries so that they can continue to be transformative institutions that build citizens, communities, provinces, and the country.”
Maybe being perhaps the friendliest province in Canada has something to do with having been a perennially have-not province; there’s something friendly in the sharing of the little you have with your neighbour in order to make Jiggs Dinner for everyone. But just as people who have enough to live on have the energy to make things better, people who develop a love for learning find ways to spread it around. Knowledge is a power that touches everyone — and keeps it up, generation after generation.
The only upside of the tragic tale of Newfoundland’s lost outports can be found in the books those stories inspired, among them Sweetland by Michael Crummey and Sylvanus Now by Donna Morrissey — books I’ve loved (although I’d rather have the outports).
There is no upside to the closure of half of Newfoundland’s libraries, because there are now fewer books, poorer access to the ones that remain, and eventually, fewer people who can read them, let alone write them, the better to tell our stories.
As for seeking that job, learning that language, meeting other families or researching your roots? What about those teens for whom a library is a refuge? We need only look to Attawapiskat to see how truly bad things can get. You don’t ever lose by improving resources that empower people.
All over the world libraries, at one time or another, have had to fight for the right to provide the services that make our communities — and the lives of the people within them — better. Now, it’s simply come closer to home.
Anne DeGrace is the adult services co-ordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week. For more information go to nelsonlibrary.ca.