Opinion: Paying more attention to the health and social benefits of libraries is overdue

Open this photo in gallery:Handout photo of the Toronto Reference Library, designed by Raymond Moriyama.

Toronto’s public library system is one of the world’s busiest, with 100 branches, including the landmark Reference Library in Yorkville (pictured).Shai Gil/Moriyama Teshima Architects

“The only thing you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.” Albert Einstein spoke these words almost a century ago, but they are as true as ever.

While Einstein was primarily concerned with access to knowledge, libraries today have become much more than mere repositories for books.

There were dire predictions that brick-and-mortar libraries would become obsolete in the digital age. Yet, they have become even more important in recent years, as essential community hubs that offer not only cultural events but also health and social services.

Where else can you find a public bathroom in the downtown core of cities? As climate chaos grows, libraries serve as warming and cooling centres. They offer free WiFi for those who can’t afford it, a bit of story-time respite for overwhelmed parents and caregivers, language courses for new Canadians, free technology training courses, job training for hundreds of thousands, cooking classes, and a place for students to study, and gig workers to work, as well as social interaction for the growing legions of the lonely.

While COVID-19 exposed many of the holes in our health and social safety net, it also shone a light on how invaluable libraries have become. During the pandemic, libraries were responsive to community needs in a manner few other institutions were.

They distributed rapid tests. They used their 3D printers to produce personal protective equipment for health workers. They provided laptop loans to students forced to learn remotely. Portable toilets were installed outside, and snacks and menstrual products were distributed to the unhoused. Some opened temporary food banks.

They “leaned in,” to use popular business jargon.

Yet, as libraries do more and more, they are struggling to meet all these new demands because of stagnant or shrinking funding.

A new report from the Canadian Urban Institute and the Canadian Urban Libraries Council makes the point that libraries are as essential a service as other municipal services such as transportation, sanitation, and policing, but are not getting their due.

”Overdue: The Case for Canada’s Public Libraries” makes for fascinating reading, beginning with how libraries are taken for granted.

Libraries as we know them today were born of a massive gift by American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who, between 1883 and 1929, funded the creation of 2,509 libraries worldwide, including 125 in Canada.

Today, across the country, there are 652 library systems and 3,350 library branches. They receive more than 100 million visits each year, according to the report. In the digital age, libraries are actually more popular than ever, as one of the last public spaces open and welcoming to all.

Canada has some spectacular libraries. Calgary’s Central Library is an architectural gem. It was also the catalyst and cornerstone for the development of the city’s East Village neighborhood.

The centrepiece of Halifax’s downtown is its Central Library. Edmonton’s Stanley A. Milner Library is state-of-the art, with creative programming to match. Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque is a favourite of library rats. Toronto’s public library system is one of the world’s busiest, with 100 branches, including the landmark Reference Library in Yorkville and the marvelous Lillian H. Smith branch downtown, which focuses on children’s literature.

We should be building on these investments. But every one of these facilities is facing financial and social challenges, sometimes verging on overwhelming. Because they are philosophically committed to openness, libraries often struggle with the concomitant crises of homelessness and toxic drugs.

Library workers are routinely called upon to treat overdoses with naloxone; in Edmonton’s downtown branch, there were almost 100 last year alone, the report notes. Violent patrons, many with untreated mental illness, are a challenge, too: Workers are assaulted, sexually assaulted, spat upon, yelled at and more. It’s not what bookish people signed up for.

Security guards are now essential to daily operations. Some branches have metal detectors. A growing number of libraries employ social workers, who try to work with other social service agencies, from homeless shelters to hospital emergency departments.

Libraries are also at the heart of culture wars, from readings by drag queens to the newfound zealotry for book banning.

There are, unfortunately, few concrete recommendations in the Overdue report, other than a passing call for a national task force on the future of libraries. It makes the case that more funding is needed. But every institution wants more funding.

The discussion we really need to have is about the role of modern libraries and how can we help them not just survive, but flourish. There is no doubt libraries are good for our health, individually and collectively.

The author R. David Lankes says it well: “Bad libraries build collections; good libraries build services; great libraries build communities.”

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