As I’ve mentioned before, I had the good (and bad) luck to grow up in small-town Newfoundland. I don’t know anyone whose childhood was more rural than mine. We had no hospital – one doctor served five different communities and wasn’t always in town. We had no police station. When a cop (always some poor sucker serving time in an isolation posting) would appear anywhere near Robert’s Arm, people would call and warn each other: “cops are down today, don’t do anything stupid”. The nearest book store was an hour down the highway. We only went there when my mechanic-moonlighter father needed to pick up a car part he’d ordered or when one of us needed to visit the dentist or optometrist. I was a voracious reader. I went through at least two books per week. Even if there was a book store in town, my allowance wouldn’t have covered my reading habit. Enter the public library.
Our library wasn’t big or architecturally arresting, but there was a nice variety of books. Everything from sleazy romances to historical fictions to classics to encyclopedias. I did homework there. I met project groups there. (It was during one of those group sessions that I first had my bra strap snapped by a boy – but that’s not necessarily a tender and glowing recollection.) I went there every couple of weeks to pick through the offerings. I pounced on new books like a starving lion on a lame gazelle. Sometimes, the librarian would save a book for me if she thought I’d like it. I always went to the section for people a few years older than me, and that was ok by the librarian. There was a limit of six borrowed books per visit, but the librarian was always lenient if I just couldn’t leave one of my precious finds behind. Every summer, my family went on a big-ass road trip – my father was a teacher, so we could disappear for up to two months in our motorhome. One of the last things I’d do before leaving town was visit the library for a stack of books to carry me across the continent. The librarian would gently remind me of the six-book limit, and then allow me to borrow a dozen books or more. I loved that place.
I don’t know what it’s like there now, but when I was a child Robert’s Arm wasn’t exactly encouraging when it came to education. In some ways, it was downright discouraging. I got teased for my obsessive reading. I got teased for using big words. (I didn’t know how to pronounce those words, having learned them from books. So I pronounced the P in “psychology”, and pronounced “akin” with emphasis on the A, and pronounced “midget” as two separate syllables. But the seed was planted, however haphazardly.) I got teased for writing poetry. I got teased for achieving good grades, and for being interested in science. I was the kind of kid who chafed at the word limits set by my beleaguered English teachers, and got docked marks a time or two for being unable to resist adding that last paragraph or two. This is one reason I love the concept of blogging. I can write thousands of words and nobody can do a thing about it. I found out, years later, that I suffered mightily from big-fish-in-a-small-pond syndrome, and I’m not as bright as I thought I was – but even my level of academia was an object of envy to be snickered over and snuffed out.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Robert’s Arm Public Library, beloved childhood landmark of mine, was a refuge for me when I was young, and had a hefty hand in shaping who I am today. Which is why I’m heartbroken to hear that it’s closing – along with about half of the public libraries on the Rock. I have not been as much of a library user in recent years. And I know that the ubiquitous internet makes knowledge more available to people, and that we’ve got e-books now. But, even in the age of the digital superhighway, I relied on libraries when my children were little. I brought Fiona and Bridget to our local library once per week to choose books to supplement their own voracious reading appetites, and we attended readings, information sessions and a weekly playgroup the local library. They still love the library today, and so does Ryan.
Incidentally, the city of Ottawa has just made a decision about how it’s going to use a stretch of land called LeBreton Flats. Ideas included green space, an urban beach, a Canadensis walk (not sure what that is, but it sounds interesting), a public library, a YMCA, a beer museum and an aquarium – and a quirky-but-possibly-charming offering, an automobile museum. But we’re getting a giant arena, some condos and a whole lot of shopping opportunities – because that’s the bid that city hall likes best. Because we don’t have enough arenas, condos or stores in Ottawa, right? Because we need a new venue where people can make money hand-over-fist on overpriced beer, reheated junk food and NHL merch while fans pay exorbitant prices to see millionaires chase a chunk of black rubber up and down the ice. Bread and circuses have won again. But what shall we feed our minds and hearts?