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What is a Library?

The library is the temple of learning, and learning has liberated more people than all the wars in history. - Carl T. Rowan

Over the past week, I have thought about this quote a lot. I’ve always loved libraries, in my mind they are houses of infinite possibilities. But upon further reflection, I’ve realized that on its own, a library is nothing. It’s just a building or a part of a building filled with books. That, on its own, is unimportant. Does nothing. It is like half a magic spell. A map to nowhere. A library is not a temple of learning until you add just the right mix of ingredients.

In order to be a temple of learning, a library needs to be filled with a variety of books. There needs to be picture books, chapter books and graphic novels, there needs to be reference books, space books and joke books. There needs to be books to fuel the imagination and books in which to seek solace. There needs to be all kinds of books.

Even then, it’s still not enough. In these chapter books, picture books and reference books, there needs to be a representation of the different voices and viewpoints that make up the world. There needs to be authors, illustrators and characters that bring their worlds to the reader, and those worlds need to be authentic, diverse and powerful.

Then, there’s the realization that those books don’t get into that building on their own. Libraries are not bought ready made, books don’t self-select and nicely place themselves on the shelves. In order to have a library that is a temple of learning, you need to have a librarian who is devoted to filling (and refilling, and refilling, and refilling...) those shelves. A librarian who cares about books, stories and people and about bringing them together to build more than just phonetic literacy, but the literacy of the heart. A person who understands that we are each the sum of our stories and by sharing our stories with each other, by breathing in each other’s breath, we learn to love and accept our differences. We learn that reading is more than deciphering marks on a paper, it is deciphering the language of the spirit and the messages of the heart.

Now you can add the readers. The reluctant and the eager, the empowered and the lost. Bring forth the readers and let them sip from the cup of knowledge, let them dive into the rows of hard and soft covers and find themselves or lose themselves all over again. Here again, you need the librarian to encourage, to cajole and to lead. There is a book for every reader, the question is, can they find it?

That is when you really have a temple of learning. When you have all of those ingredients, libraries can be one of the most magical and educational places in the world. They hold mystery, wonder, suspense, drama. They are a repository of facts, ideas, of hope and of love.

This week I was told that my school’s library would no longer be a temple of learning. It will still be a room full of books in a building full of readers, but there will be no librarian. The shelves will have to learn to refill themselves, the books will have to learn to self select, because the alternative is that it will become a room filled with disordered piles of outdated books. It will become a lost treasure.

In an average six day school cycle around a thousand books are checked out by my students and in that same 6 day cycle, I read 40-50 books out loud and teach lessons about literacy and libraries. Children come in to the library excited to read, learn and explore. They do not know that these are their last few months of having access to a functional library. They do not know that what should be the foundation of a lifelong relationship that will help lead them on the path to diverse opportunities, is to end abruptly. They don’t know that these are not the things that our society values anymore.

Only a little more than a month ago, I was blogging about the closing of the Manitoba Education Library, . It was truly shocking to me that the province cared so little for literacy and education that they would cut off the supply of books, kits and materials from all Manitoba schools. (While they funded the provincial horse racing industry instead.) I couldn’t understand how teachers were supposed to teach the curriculum if they didn’t have access to support materials. The answer as far as I can tell is that the government will expect the impossible and then chastise teachers when they don’t deliver. Perhaps our leaders should spend some time in a library since reading promotes empathy and human connection. Maybe they could start by reading Something from Nothing, since this is what they are asking of our education system.

Now that it is my school library on the chopping block, I am not shocked. I don’t have the energy to be surprised anymore at how little public education is valued in our province. I am deeply saddened, maybe even heartbroken to think of what we are all losing every time a library closes. Everytime our government announces that sharing our stories and experiences is not what is valued.

What do we value then? Is it making lots of money and keeping it for ourselves? Should we look to the leadership of Ontario and teach our children to value beer instead of reading? Should we look to the Trump run United States and teach them to value guns instead of books?

I can’t even bring myself to start pulling up studies to show that having books is important to literacy. If you are literate enough to be reading this blog, it would feel like an insult to your intelligence to assume that you can’t figure out why books matter. As an adult, if you are a reader, there are many ways for you to get access to books. Kids, even if they are already readers, don’t have the same choices. Teachers will try to grow and supplement their own classroom libraries, but, who will pay for those books?

As much as I am deflated and broken hearted by the destruction of our education (and healthcare) system, I still believe that most people care. I still believe in you, reader, I believe that it is possible for us to come together to make a difference. If you care, take time to have conversations with the people around you about what you value. Not just on a surface level, but the core values that you feel are essential in life. There are elections coming, even if they are not soon enough, (if you live in a democratic country, they will come again!), and we need to wake up some of these core values so that when we vote next time, instead of voting with a scared and small part of our mind, we can vote with our heart.

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