I wrote a guest editorial for the Raincoast Books site, in honour of Freedom to Read Week. It’s called “Libraries, Hackspaces and E-waste: how libraries can be the hub of a young maker revolution,” and it’s about the role of libraries in the 21st century:
Every discussion of libraries in the age of austerity always includes at least one blowhard who opines, “What do we need libraries for? We’ve got the Internet now!”
The problem is that Mr. Blowhard has confused a library with a book depository. Now, those are useful, too, but a library isn’t just (or even necessarily) a place where you go to get books for free. Public libraries have always been places where skilled information professionals assisted the general public with the eternal quest to understand the world. Historically, librarians have sat at the coalface between the entire universe of published material and patrons, choosing books with at least a colorable claim to credibility, carefully cataloging and shelving them, and then assisting patrons in understanding how to synthesize the material contained therein.
Libraries have also served as community hubs, places where the curious, the scholarly, and the intellectually excitable could gather in the company of one another, surrounded by untold information-wealth, presided over by skilled information professionals who could lend technical assistance where needed. My own life has included many protracted stints in libraries — for example, I dropped out of high-school when I was 14 took myself to Toronto’s Metro Reference Library and literally walked into the shelves at random, selected the first volume that aroused my curiosity, read it until it suggested another line of interest, then chased that one up. When I found the newspaper microfilm, I was blown away, and spent a week just pulling out reels at random and reading newspapers from the decades and centuries before, making notes and chasing them up with books. We have a name for this behavior today, of course: “browsing the Web.” It was clunkier before the Web went digital, but it was every bit as exciting.