We had an hour to kill. None of the trendy microbreweries were quiet enough to have a real conversation. My friend wasn't hungry; I couldn't stomach more coffee. I suggested the library.
"Like, hang out there? At the library?" Her laugh implied I was silly, naïve, or both.
I've spent most of my life hanging out in libraries.
I grew up being able to walk to the Thomas Raddall in Clayton Park. My visits frequently coincided with English classes for new Canadians. I sat in stacks of books, embracing the freedom to pick whichever I liked, and eavesdropped as they learned to pronounce hard As. This tradition continued as my second home moved and became the Keshen Goodman, but now we all had a cafe, a place for people to sit and chat instead of reading textbook sentences.
I was young when I went to the consultation process for that library, but I saw requests come to life. The library had always given me the power to shape myself, but now I felt the other side of freedom, as if I had built the new breakout rooms with projectors. When, at 13, I was given bus tickets and permission to use them, I would spend Saturdays headed to the Spring Garden Road branch or sometimes Halifax North Memorial just to go somewhere new but immediately familiar. North is freedom, uptown down home...
Although I love taking out more novels than I can read, I have a personal mission to fight the attitude that libraries are reserved for the bookish. The most important part of public libraries isn't the "library"---it's the public. For all the books I've taken out, I've spent summer afternoons sitting on the benches outside, eating foodtruck fries and using wifi to watch baseball on a laptop, then an iPad.
Technology changes but libraries can always be relevant. In addition to loaning out tech, staff can also teach you how to use it. These are just a few of the skills libraries have to offer. HRM's robust programing can teach you a variety of things, from hobbies like painting to how to do your taxes, for relatively little money, if not for free. I used to think I'd like to see more services based in the library; now I realize I just want to see people use them more.
I visited Cleveland during the US government shutdown. I thought the municipal library, which I of course had to visit, had picked up some slack in providing services but I was corrected. Information about health insurance, vaccinations and taxes were always a prominent feature. I saw why when my East Cleveland-based cab driver complained that Rush Limbaugh told him Obamacare was going to kill the elderly like him. I suggested a few websites for more fact-based information.
"I don't waste money on the internet." My privilege took the form of a deep flush as my partner handed him materials he had taken from the main library branch and nearly begged him to go visit and check out a site called Google which would confirm what his local newspaper, heavily subsidized by advertisements from fast food industries, wouldn't---that his inkling that more exercise did lower the risk of heart disease was entirely correct. He was incredibly smart and very well- read. His issue was access.
Libraries are information warriors fighting the digital divide that can be caused by age and income. As I travel up and down the province for work I'm always certain to check out the frequently old, frequently brick buildings in many places too small for much else. I have now been to most of them, and they have more in common than what sets them apart---invaluable access to programs and information that can shape the communities they sit in. The new Spring Garden branch will open in 2014 and will not look like a traditional library because it will not act like a traditional library. Most libraries don't anymore. I urge you to spend a lunch hour in one instead of a Starbucks and see if you don't learn something, even if you don't pick up a single book.
Allison Sparling is a communications person who once gave her father Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 for his birthday. He never forgave her. She thinks there are a lot of good things about Halifax and goes to the library every week.