This is a love letter to libraries. I’m not sure how I would have survived this pandemic without the Richmond Public Library, which has provided almost all of my reading material. And I read a lot.
Since the pandemic began, the library has taken me to places beyond my imagination. For example, I went to Shakespeare’s house with Maggie O’Farrell in her novel Hamnet and Judith. I experienced the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic with Emma Donoghue in her novel The wake of the stars. I went back to ancient times with Sue Monk Kidd The longing bookher book about Jesus’ wife.
There is so much more. I’ve been to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and BC’s Dorms of the Past with Michelle Good in her book Five Little Indians and I went to the Okanagan in BC during the depression with Kate Pullinger in her book forest green. Ancient Egypt was the setting for Jodi Picoult’s novel The Book of Two Ways while Denise Mina took me to the worst night in the life of Mary Queen of Scots Rizzio.
I could go on — I’ve checked out 139 books from the Richmond Public Library since the pandemic began in March 2020. Don’t forget that the library was closed between mid-March and the end of May this year. That’s about seven books a month, which is about my speed. Imagine the budget I could have broken buying all these books!
But that’s just me. The Richmond Public Library loaned a whopping 2.67 million items to more than 1.4 million visitors in 2019. And libraries don’t just borrow books—they also provide computer and Internet access for people who may not have it at home, as well as host reading and other literacy and community support programs. In 2019, nearly 150,000 computer sessions were hosted and approximately 300 people participate in library programs at RPL every day.
And of course, librarians answer questions, lots of questions. In 2019 they answered around 125,000 questions.
Libraries are social levellers, opening doors to books, technology and services that are otherwise expensive and often beyond the means of many people. For that reason alone, we should all treasure them.
School libraries are important too – when I was in elementary school, the library was my favorite place. So many books, so little time. At the university, sifting through the library stacks and studying in a secluded carrel were part of the initiation rites. Now that I work at a university, the support and knowledge of librarians enriches my work.
The pandemic shook things up everywhere. When RPL first reopened in May 2020, users had to make an appointment to collect their books from a pickup desk at the back of the library. Social distancing was in place and like everything in the time of COVID it was a little awkward knowing which way to go or whether to scan your own card or give it to the librarian. But it worked and it made people connect with books and reading, which is always a positive. Today, almost everything is back to normal in the library from a consumer perspective, albeit with masks, social distancing and hand sanitizer.
It’s hard to believe libraries were ever conceived at all, but I’m grateful they were. Apparently they have been around for more than 2,500 years, with the first library dating back to the seventh century BC according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. in present-day Iraq. Such early libraries were not created for borrowing books, but were more like knowledge banks where people could visit, learn, and ask questions. Over time, as more and more people learned to read and write, libraries grew into the organizations we know today. As the world has gone digital, so have libraries, making life easier for university students and researchers everywhere.
Most of the library budget comes from the city, that is, from ownership. Next time I have to pay my taxes, I will remember my gratitude for city services like the library. I couldn’t live without her.
Tracy Sherlock is a freelance journalist writing on education and social issues. Read her blog or email her at [email protected].