An Ode to the Libraries That Raised Me
In light of budget cuts that threaten public libraries in Ontario, what makes libraries so radical? Their openness, their access, and their heart.
The sounds of the local library are as familial to me as holiday dinners, my sister’s laughter, and my childhood bed. When I close my eyes and think of growing up in a close community of immigrants and hard workers, I can hear these sounds as clearly as if they were yesterday. Of teenagers giggling in the adult romance aisle, of aging men clicking loudly at the communal computers, and of the soft thud of a book being stacked atop another, becoming a pile too heavy for me to carry home. The public library had a hand in raising me.
At six years old, the library was a sanctuary by necessity. I was a confused Urdu-speaking daughter of immigrant parents who couldn’t afford daycare. I sat against the stacks, between the biographies and the cookbooks, where the carpet was the least trodden, and grew fascinated by the sharp edges and points of English. I learned the language and then fell in love with the language, not necessarily in that order.
At 13 years old, I was nobody in particular from nowhere in particular, looking for stories. I couldn’t afford the overcrowded shelves that served as the mark of a young bibliophile, complete with special editions and Harry Potter box sets. Instead, I hoarded library books like precious stones and placed holds on others greedily, like there was a clock somewhere ticking away my time. I accrued dozens of dollars in fines on my library card from holding on to books for too long, wanting to pretend they were mine. At recess, I sat on the bench at the edge of the field and flipped open to the dog-eared page, pausing at the words I didn’t recognize. When I was led to believe there was a shortage of success reserved for a brown Muslim girl from a low-income upbringing, the library turned this scarcity into a wide expanse. The library was my magic carpet.
At 17, I held a boy’s hand in mine on the third floor of the Toronto Reference Library. We crossed our arms over the ledge and watched as the businessmen and the teenage girls and the homeless and the immigrant mothers all became small as they descended the stairs, watched as they disappeared and reappeared among the shelves. He held my books as I collected them, wandering behind me patiently. Reading taught me this quiet and tolerant flavour of love.
Now in my twenties, I have come to know that libraries have always been about access, about giving without criteria. I think of those who have escaped abuse, found shelter, or applied to jobs with the library’s open, unquestioning resources. I think of the forged communities, the languages learned, and the stories shared behind the doors of the libraries that dot a world increasingly shrouded by things much darker.
Toni Morrison, speaking of libraries, writes that “of the monuments humans build for themselves, very few say touch me, use me, my hush is not indifference, my space is not barrier.” Neil Gaiman writes that “libraries are about freedom.” In Feel Free, a collection of essays that include one about her commitment to protecting her local library from closure, Zadie Smith writes that “well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.”
When the Ford government recently announced that it would be cutting funding to the province’s two library services by half, essentially calling for an end to countless community programs and resources, I was disoriented rather than surprised. For many, libraries are mainstays of community in its simplest, most accessible form. For many, they have become neither more nor less than flagships pointing home. It means that talk of politics and economy, of budgets cuts and party lines feels wrong alongside talk of libraries and their simple, constant giving. Like when we see our parents cry for the first time, it’s a jolt towards a reality we will always be unprepared for.
And yet, the push to close the doors of our libraries is at the helm of a much larger battle. Although to those who frequent them, libraries are far from the partisan issues they have become in recent years, it is this open-door policy that makes them so radical. Who are we to offer knowledge and resources to anyone who cares to wander in, without distinction? Without measures of value? Who are we, in this age of division and excess, to offer a publicly funded place of shelter and community and access to resources to anyone who seeks it? Who do we think we are if not the mirrors of the discord we live in?
I let the libraries of my childhood raise me, let the libraries of my adolescence give me warmth, and let the libraries of my adulthood make me resilient again. As this was happening, I learned a primary lesson that won’t fall prey to budget cuts and become a pawn in a political game. Between the stacks, reading often and reading ravenously, I learned that the world doesn’t have to be this way. That it doesn’t have to be what we have come to know. That the world can be better, more giving, more empathetic, if only we are willing to read into it. If only we can slide our cards across the counter and learn how.