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Libraries need to mind their own business

They should leave feng shui and grief counselling to others, and expand on what they do best -- the collection and dissemination of information

Monday, October 27, 2003 - Page R3

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Public-library week is over for another year, and despite the best efforts of public libraries across the country, few of us noticed or cared.

Such is the nature of our society. What can a library do to compete with such events as the International Festival of Authors at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre, the announcement of nominees for the Giller Prize and the Governor-General's Award, or the celebrity-cookbook author Indigo is bringing to a suburb near you?

It's possible, however, that society's collective inability to appreciate the public library as a vital institution is the library's fault.

Canadian public libraries are some of the best. The Toronto Public Library system boasts the largest circulation of books in North America and the second largest in the world. It has books in more than 100 languages. In 2002, the Halifax Public Library picked up the American Library Association's award for outstanding achievement in the promotion of library services. No doubt, other libraries across Canada have their success stories.

But libraries are also venturing into murky waters. They are attempting to be everything to everybody, particularly at a time when higher usage is often rewarded with higher levels of funding support from government.

Here are a few examples of the goings-on at public libraries in Canada: Now on show at the Central Library in Vancouver is the "Canada Taiwan Bird Fair." Currently offered at the Edmonton Public Library system are courses that range from "Feng Shui in the Bedroom" to "Living with Loss," a workshop offering ways to deal with bereavement. Last week at the Toronto Public Library, Benji Gallander spoke on "the primary reasons that small businesses fail and how to save time and money with a business plan." Coming up are talks by Toronto International Film Festival director Piers Handling and right-wing pundit David Frum.

As if this swirl of offerings wasn't complicated enough, libraries are also seeking to enhance their image with public-relations exercises. The Halifax system redesigned their logo and embarked on a "Tell a Friend" campaign, in which you get entered into a draw for a prize if you bring a pal to the library and have them register for a library card. Then there's Edmonton Public Library's recent "open house" (aren't all libraries essentially open houses?) and the Toronto Public Library's series of "strategic planning public consultations," which opened with a panel discussion on the future of the library (more on that later).

These are just minor events compared with the schemes libraries adopt to promote reading as fun and inclusive. These include Vancouver Public Library's campaign to get the entire city to read one book -- this fall it was Timothy Taylor's novel Stanley Park. Meanwhile, at the Edmonton Public Library a contest to choose the best 90 books ever -- conceived to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the library system -- just finished accepting nominations. Don't despair, you can still vote for your preferred winner of the Giller Prize at the Toronto Public Library, which, in a pilot project with the Giller, is setting up branch ballot boxes and giving its visitors a chance to choose from the five nominated books.

So, what exactly is wrong with all this? Well, there are two separate but intertwined problems.

First, let's address the issue of promoting literature through "one book" and "votes for the best book" type events. Libraries, as oases of non-commercial activity in an age where all things, including books, have become mere cogs in the machine of capitalism, should step out of what is essentially book-industry marketing. At the library, if nowhere else, all books should be considered equal regardless of how much press an author is getting, or what awards are dispensed. If the public library can't stay out of the fame game, it becomes an adjunct to the book industry, and not a last bastion upholding our collective right to free access to information. Libraries should be facilitating the latter, not acting as taste arbiters.

This brings me to the second concern: libraries offering a truly strange array of services and programs. What do Taiwanese birds, bereavement counselling, starting a small business, and bedroom feng shui have to do with collecting and giving access to information? Send the birds to the natural-history museum; return counselling to the doctor's office and spiritual centres; let government employment centres advise aspiring small-business owners; and those interested in feng shui can sign up for (and pay for) a class.

When public libraries hold events and informational sessions they should be related to the library's mandate: to function as a free accessible storehouse and dispensation service for information. Since information is increasingly to be found embedded in the mass media -- that interlocking world of books, articles, TV shows, movies, radio, pop music and Web sites -- libraries, in addition to acting as storehouses, should think of themselves as frontline facilitators for media literacy. They should focus on teaching us how to interpret and speak back to the media system that now dominates information dispensation.

While libraries should continue to act as repositories for as many books, magazines and newspapers as possible, additions to the collection in other media should be based on their ability to expose users to creative forms largely shut out of the mass media. Libraries should stock shot-on-video documentaries, avant-garde post-rock put out by Canada's most interesting record labels, and books on how to start your own lo-fi radio station. The kind of stuff, in other words, that slips through the corporate cracks, the kind of stuff you won't find at the local HMV or Blockbuster.

There are many places for individuals to access grief counselling or hear about literary-award winners. But there are almost no public spaces for learning how to access the media that dispense information.

At the Toronto Public Library panel discussion held last week to mark the opening of their "public consultation" process, McMaster University cultural studies professor Imre Szeman spoke passionately of the library system in Brazil. He noted that this system functions on far fewer dollars but offers far more initiatives based on the empowering potential of the library.

Szeman described libraries that offer, among other things, their own on-line radio stations, which patrons can sign up to host for an hour; galleries that patrons curate on a proposal basis; and a room that simply shows movies from the library's collection all day long. Three great, inexpensive ideas that would start our own public libraries moving in the right direction.

By trying to compete with everything from bookstores to community centres to literary awards, public libraries in Canada are in danger of losing their focus at a time when we need them more than ever. The library, and only the library, is in a unique position to help us become citizens capable of grappling with the media-sphere that dominates life in the 21st century. When libraries consolidate their position as free storehouses of information and places where we can learn how to interpret and dispense information in a way that empowers us as a citizenry, we will surely sit up and take notice.

Hal Niedzviecki is the founder of Broken Pencil: The Magazine of 'Zine Culture and the Independent Arts, which recently helped establish the Broken Pencil 'Zine Collection at the Metro Reference Library in Toronto.

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