Like children from many towns and cities in Canada and a dozen other countries, I spent formative chunks of my childhood hanging out at a Carnegie Library.
Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish-American businessman, donated money to build 2,500 libraries around the world, including 125 in Canada, mostly in Ontario. Many, like the one in my hometown, were built from red bricks with pillars flanking a central door.
I read so much that, at one point, I had pretty well exhausted the children’s library, even going so far as to read all the Hardy Boys books after finishing the Nancy Drews. The children’s librarian, Mrs. Rudiscilla, decided I could start a “grown-up” serial of books and took me upstairs to the adult library, where children were not allowed to roam unaccompanied lest we get into Something Inappropriate For Young Eyes. She pulled The Building of Jalna, which is the first book, by story chronology, in the 16-book epic written by Canadian author Mazo de la Roche covering 100 years of history of the Whiteoak family, Brits who settled in Canada. I was still in grade school, and that took care of that summer’s reading. It was also my first real exposure to Canadian literature.
That library was also where I had my first ongoing job, first as a library page part-time during my last two years of high school and then filling in as the children’s branch librarian, for several weeks my last summer before leaving for university, when the full-on adult who held that role was ill.
Even though many people have moved away from print books, and the shelves upon shelves of reference books and printed encylopedias have been overtaken online sources, libraries are more crucial than ever in our towns and cities. They provide a dignified and safe space for anyone to access the internet, allow people to meet and work together, provide videos, magazines, and, yes, still many books for those who cannot afford them or who would prefer to borrow and share material, rather than buy and clutter up their homes. Pundits go on now with great frequency about how “the sharing economy” is our zeitgeist; libraries are fundamentally founded on a sharing economy, supported as a public good by philanthropists and government money, long before business monetized sharing via Uber and Airbnb.
In Canada, libraries also form urban hubs that energize and enliven their cities. Here are my three favourite.
Toronto Reference Library, Ontario
Halifax Central Library, Nova Scotia
Vancouver Public Library main branch, British Columbia
Main photo of Elmira Branch of the Waterloo Regional Library: Kelley Teahen
Main photo: Kelley Teahen