By Anne DeGrace
The late, beloved Indigenous writer Richard Wagamese told a story about libraries that warmed the heart of this librarian, and many others. It began when, as a homeless youth, he went looking for a place to be safe, warm, and quiet — and found the St. Catharines Public Library. He thought he’d better be reading in case that was a requirement, so he picked up a book.
That book led to another and another, and then questions for the librarians. Librarians love inquisitive minds, and after a while a friendship emerged with one librarian, who, inspired by his curiosity, encouraged him to follow the places his mind wanted to go.
We are the beneficiaries of that encounter, that encouragement, and that remarkable, creative mind. Wagamese’s celebrated books include Indian Horse, Medicine Walk, Ragged Company and others, bringing new stories to the collective, ever-evolving narrative that tells us who we are.
Now, as the Nelson Public Library is poised to celebrate its 100th birthday, I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of libraries in people’s lives. One hundred years ago, when the first municipal library in Nelson opened its doors, there could well have been a moment — a welcoming space, a new idea found within the pages of a book, a librarian to steer you in the right direction — that subtly changed someone and, by extension, the fabric of Nelson as we know it now. We are the sum total of all of those threads.
Wagamese is not the only person for whom libraries have made a difference. When people tell me stories about what a library has meant to them, it makes me proud, and hopeful.
I recently asked Doug Jones, our official centenary artist, for a few words on what libraries mean to him. After all, his captivating image for our commemorative poster speaks to reading as infrastructure, learning, and leisure.
“It may seem quaint to people who have never known a world without computers, but I would not be where I am in my illustration career today without libraries and the art books that I obsessed over,” he said. “They were mostly art books, often rare and out of print, with obscure images that even now, may not exist online. They informed and influenced my work, inspired me, and helped me work for far-flung clients from this remote little city.”
In Greg Nesteroff’s library history, he describes the earliest efforts to bring love of reading and learning to our then-fledgling community. It’s astonishing to me to think that the library was not always as kid-friendly as it is now, but I’m happy that today our children’s library is often full of happy families. Programming and collections for kids are a vote for our future.
And that brings me back around to the library’s centenary, which is all about the past and the future. Love of reading, literacy, community-building, and lifelong learning aren’t going anywhere, despite the advent of attention-grabbing technologies and myriad demands on our time. As the world gets faster and a little more fraught, we’ll be the refuge, the haven, and the spark that builds the brighter future for us all.
Past and future collide this year at the Nelson library, and it all kicks off this weekend. Join us at the Capitol Theatre on Friday, Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. for a wonderful evening with an all-star line-up (more information and tickets are available at capitoltheatre.ca). Everyone is welcome to our Sunday afternoon open house, a free event that includes music, cake, and a historic re-enactment of the moment Nelson gained its first municipal library.
Here’s to libraries — warming hearts and minds yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Anne DeGrace is the adult services co-ordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week. For more information on All Things Nelson Library go to nelsonlibrary.ca.