I’ve been an obscure writer for a pretty long time. With some modest success I’ve managed to consistently get published writing about things that infuriate me, especially political and social issues.
Part of the deal obscure writers make with themselves is the willingness to take day jobs that can pay the bills while we toil away on our laptops. I’ve done everything from landscaping to kitchen work, all so that I can keep doing what I love.
Two years ago I saw a job listing for an assistant librarian position at the Madawaska Valley Public Library in Barry’s Bay. My wife told me to apply. Listening to your wife is a staple if you are an obscure writer, so I put together my resume, sent it off and within a week was called in for an interview.
I had imposter syndrome before I even walked through those library doors, but the interview seemed to go well, and a week or so later I was informed that the position was mine.
I started to think about the symbolic aspects of working at a library as a writer. It felt like I was getting a job on the mother ship of the written word, surrounded by the great literary works of the most brilliant writers in history, many of which were penniless while still alive, which to me seemed like the ground zero of inspiration.
Then something unexpected happened. Chalk it up to me being woefully uninformed about library culture, but my inspiration to write on my own time was heightened not by being so close to the great works of history, but by the people who regularly traversed our little library.
These days it is far too easy to be cynical about things we know very little about. The hyper-tribalism we cling to shields us from really knowing what our political opposites tend to value.
When Rob Ford was mayor of Toronto, he tried to axe library budgets and was met with a massive outpouring from famous authors and regular people alike, allies in the fight to preserve public funding. I remember listening to detractors talk about how libraries are a relic from the past, archaic symbols of tradition where physical books are desperately trying to remain relevant.
What I soon discovered was twofold; first, many people rely on libraries for more than just reading old books. They are often the underprivileged. These patrons do not have computers or a home internet connection. Of these particular patrons, I would estimate that 90 percent are seniors, special needs folks, and children.
The other discovery was more culturally eye-opening. I became familiar with that look in a child’s eye when they were flipping through a book they had never seen before. I conversed with various seniors who had made the library a centrepiece of their retirement, utilizing our province’s wide pool of books so they could read material that we did not have the space to carry.
Make no mistake, the inter-library loan program is a testament not just to a love of literature, but to the environmentally friendly concept of reusing and recycling.
The most pronounced example of inspiration comes from our patrons with special needs. I often tell my boss, head librarian and CEO Karen Filipkowski, that these particular patrons are easily my favourite people. They like to say hello enthusiastically, shake hands purposefully, smile wide and ask if it is OK to use our computer lab. “Of course,” I tell them. It’s there for them, after all.
I’ve been a lifelong cynic, the unfortunate by-product of specializing in political writing. I may have even rolled my eyes in the past if I ever heard a passionate plea for supporting libraries who were being threatened with budgets cuts. But I’ve been with my library for two years, and it has given me far more than just a modest paycheque. I feel like I am accomplishing something when I go to work. Those smiling kids, those lovely seniors, and the salt-of-the-earth folks with special needs carry me from one shift to the next.
It’s the kind of job that lingers long after your day has ended.
By now we have all heard of Doug Ford’s drastic cuts to provincial library services. Many people who are unfamiliar with the importance of libraries dismissed the backlash out of hand, believing that society has advanced far beyond the resources a good library provides.
When you are on the front lines witnessing all the benefits of a real community hub, you can see more than a provincial desire to tighten belts. You get to see how a library fosters culture for people who see it as a part of their identity.
In politics, many battles can seem unimportant to everyday people. We get caught up in overarching issues like deficits and cost-saving measures. But sometimes the impact of an institution is measured not in dollars, but through the smiles and integrity of the people those institutions support.
Because at the end of the day it isn’t just what the library does for its patrons, it’s what the patron gives back to the community those libraries serve.
So sign a petition, read about all the important services libraries deliver, and fight to keep them alive for another generation.
Photo: James di Fiore