Lately I have been feeling like public libraries are full of all kinds of “stuff,” things like off the wall programme stuff, digital stuff, print stuff, space stuff, community hub stuff… Just a lot of stuff! Maybe too much stuff? Perhaps, our patrons are not “getting” libraries because there is no one clean message as to what it is that libraries do. Perhaps in our efforts to be vital, to be competitive with book stores and the online and digital worlds, we are trying to be too much to too few to attract too many while forgetting about the basics, our fundamental core? Maybe we are drifting away from old values and we should at least revisit them before letting them go.
For me, first among these values to remember is we are free! We have to ensure that we remain free – that our services, collections, spaces, community hubs, programmes and events and anything else we can think of, are free. Secondly, that we are rooted in protecting our (our patrons’) intellectual rights and freedoms and in ensuring access to these rights and freedoms in our libraries through our collections, internet access and programmes. And thirdly, I guess I have always thought that libraries are fundamentally about reading and moreover, that the act of reading, whether alone or together, is a cultural and political act as well as a cultural glue and safety net – meaning that our primary role is to provide access to reading in whatever format or subject matter it is in. Access includes the children’s rights and freedoms as well. It’s access for everyone regardless of age, race, ethnicity. It includes opening the door to whoever needs us. It includes providing the tools for learning. And above all access includes the principles of equity and equality. Public libraries are radical at their core.
Recently, the Mississippi Mills Public Library Board hosted a public forum for feedback on our Pakenham Branch – a small but rich branch of the library situated in the hamlet of Pakenham within the Town of Mississippi Mills. What struck me most about the feedback I heard was that it was really about appreciating the basics and enhancing what was already there, that is, people wanted things like more audio books or to find a full series of a popular author together without having to wait for inter-branch transfer or for inter-library loan. They wanted not necessarily more computers but higher speed and more reliable service. They also wanted not more meeting space but brighter, better equipped space – that is, what we have now but fresher and with more amenities. They were happy with our collections and programmes and didn’t seem interested in what’s trending for public libraries right now. I found this process and these results so interestering!
So for me, as I try to navigate a path for our public library, I balance a constant return to core values coupled with supporting the radical act of reading, and responding to what our community wants in their library, all without losing touch with public library trends. After all, I would like our public library to be cutting edge – and I look to the upcoming Libraries 2025 and Lead the Change events for inspiration in this regard. But, I also stand firm in striving for the basics! And doing the basics well, in the best way we can, before looking at how “cutting edge” fits in as an enhancement to service. It’s actually no small feat to provide a community with a public library that is welcoming to all, ensures a free, safe space with equitable access to the internet and collections in all formats; a place, call it what you will (community hub/centre; cultural space, even maker space, diy… a public library), where all are truly welcome, where it’s not too far a stretch to say that opening the door to a public library is opening the door to freedom – intellectual freedom, creative freedom, the freedom to read and engage in our world and in our community. If we do that well, can we, should we, ask for more?