Comedian Paula Poundstone once remarked: “It’s funny that we think of libraries as quiet demure places where we are shushed by dusty, bun-balancing, bespectacled women. The truth is libraries are raucous clubhouses for free speech, controversy and community. Librarians have stood up to the Patriot Act, sat down with noisy toddlers and reached out to illiterate adults. Libraries can never be shushed.”
The Calgary Public Library may once have conformed to Poundstone’s first image, but times have clearly changed. When it was established 100 years ago, it probably wouldn’t have welcomed children reading to dogs, concerts, or a “living book” people could check out entitled “It’s OK to be Gay.” But today the library hosts all of these things, along with storytime for noisy toddlers, one-on-one assistance for illiterate adults, and support for free speech with appearances by authors such as Irshad Manji.
Calgary’s library, says CEO Gerry Meek, doesn’t seek to be “just” a library. It wants to serve as the community’s living room as well
“This is where the community comes to meet, to learn, to share. And it reflects all of the diverse elements of what is that very diverse and exciting community that we call Calgary.”
Libraries still offer a quiet place for research and study, Meek stresses, but they’ve moved far beyond this role. This is partly out of necessity; with more content now available online, libraries have had to re-examine their purpose. But as the Calgary Public Library has learned, they haven’t become any less important. Indeed the range of services it offers has grown, whether it’s helping people keep track of their walking by loaning out pedometers, or keep track of their money by attending a presentation on budgeting.
“We see literacy broadly as being important to the community,” he says, “and in that area of that broad umbrella of literacy, there are things such as health literacy, what people can do for themselves to promote a healthier lifestyle. I would talk about things like financial planning and literacy: how do you manage the resources you have in a world of change? Environmental literacy: how do we all learn to walk as softly as possible on this fragile planet that we occupy.”
While technology has been important on these fronts, one of the library’s newer initiatives only requires two people with an interest in talking. This is the living library, where members of the public can “borrow” volunteers for a 20-minute conversation about topics ranging from the Canadian immigrant experience to life after a stroke. Carolyn Pogue, a volunteer with the program since it started in 2009, has happily shared her stories of being a peace activist and the granddaughter of a British home child — poor and orphaned children sent abroad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — but she has gained much from participating as well.
“You’re not only meeting the general public, who sort of check you out, but you’re also meeting the other living books,” she says. “And they’re all fabulous people who want to give to the community.”
An author, Pogue has written several books on peace, as well as a fictional account of her grandmother’s experience. But while a conventional book might seem less dynamic than a living one, she says the two forms don’t compete with each other.
“If people want to know more about those British home children who came, they can check the actual book out of the library and take it home. Me, they can’t take home.”
But even if some of the library’s services have to stay within its walls, their impact doesn’t end there. Many of the people who checked out Pogue for a conversation on peace weren’t just interested in hearing about her work as an activist, but in learning how to become one themselves.
“The thing about talking to people about peace that was so inspiring to me,” she says, “was talking to young people, like in their teens and 20s, who had questions like ‘How do you do it? Who do you connect with? How do you find people who are also interested in peace?’ So it was really fabulous to be able to explain how the networking has worked for me, and give them some names to get them connected with other peace-minded people.”