Long Live Libraries

Posted by Howard on Jun 19, 2012

A few days ago I had the unsettling experience of chairing a Writers’ Union panel on the future of libraries. The expert consensus was that since you can now store the entire western canon on a thumb drive, there is no longer any need for large buildings on prime real estate stuffed with musty books. I appreciate the cold logic of such claims but I think they miss something.
Libraries have quite a history here on the Sunshine Coast. The Sechelt Public Library is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, having started as a centennial project but it is a mere babe compared to the Gibsons Library, which started in 1914. It’s instructive to think that in a settlement with no medical clinic, no bank, no curling rink, no financial advisors, no spas and very little indoor plumbing, someone had nevertheless felt the need to start a library.
It’s even more amazing for me personally to think this book thing has been going on that long because I came to the coast in 1950 and it was years before I saw anyone reading a book. It might have been different if I was lived in the sophisticated south end, but alas I was confined to the underprivileged north end.

Actually our logging camp did have one book.

Our family owned it and until the age of eight it was the only book I knew. It was called The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan. My parents weren't churchgoers, but their parents had been churchy enough to do for the next three generations and my father inherited The Great Controversy when Gramma Carmichael died. The Carmichaels had owned a large spread in the Fraser Valley and a lot of people in her place would have been tempted to will the land to her kids when she died, but Gramma was a woman of rare principal so she willed it to Phil Gaglardi's radio crusade. Instead of 160 acres of prime real estate we got The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan. It was a loving gesture to her way of thinking because that land was worth a lot of money and who knows what kind of sinful ways it might have led us into. And there was no way around it, The Great Controversy was a handsome book. It had tooled leather covers and gilt edging. It held a place of prominence in our cookhouse between the pile of old Hi-Baller magazines and the box of used sparkplugs. Everybody who came by ended up hauling it down at one time or another, probably hoping it might contain nude paintings, or maybe medical illustrations. Alas, the most exciting imagery it offered was the psychedelic marbelling on the endpapers. Dad used to refer to it bitterly as the hundred-thousand-dollar book and I thought it really was a precious heirloom. It was years before I realized the full weight of his bitterness.
To me the most interesting thing about that book was it had an actual bookworm in it which was diligently honeycombing the leather spine. It must have been lonely work. I'm sure he was the only bookworm of any kind up on the north end of the coast, for all that they had already been flourishing for forty years down at the Gibson end.
Coming from such a bookless background it has been interesting to watch the whole coast evolve into such a nest of bibliophiles. It seems every time I venture out of doors these days someone runs up to me to ask what I think of all this horrid talk about electric books, often clutching an old-style “legacy” book to their bosom as if they feared some technology proponent might try to sneak up and wrest it away.
I don’t think they have to worry. When archaeologists of the distant future are sifting the ashes of our civilization shaking their heads at the appalling idiocies that finally brought about our demise, one thing I am sure will loom large on the positive side of the ledger will be our love and respect for books. I grant the digital wizards all their arguments that eBooks are cheaper, fly through the air with the greatest of ease and can indeed be read in the bath if you purchase the $99 RainEread ™ accessory. But so what? Things as deeply entrenched in our psyches as books don’t disappear overnight just because some propeller-head comes along and announces he’s made a better mousetrap. If that were so art would have stopped the minute photography was invented. Instead we have more art galleries than at any time in history and a painting of someone having a bad hair day selling for $120 million. Sailboats didn’t disappear the minute the Easthope brothers announced their first marine engine. A ferry trip across Howe Sound on any sunny summer day will confirm there’s more rag-hangers afloat than ever, no matter they spend 99% of their time motoring. Bicycles were supposed to disappear at the appearance of the first motor car. Horses, too. I read somewhere there are more horses in BC today than there were in 1900, and they are living much happier lives. Dogs and cats were first domesticated for very practical purposes and I can show you vet bills to prove they account for a much larger share of the GDP now than when they actually earned their keep. When you think about it, we are surrounded by things that once we only kept out of dull practicality but we now keep because we darnwell feel like it. The very fact books and libraries have become obsolete may mean their best years are just beginning.