At times our world seems headed for the new dark ages that urban sage Jane Jacobs warned about. Here at home we are confronted by an ill-conceived war on crime, increasing foreign military adventure, the erosion of our country’s image as a compassionate honest broker and environmental leader, economic uncertainty, growing inequality and the ethical challenge of tarsands development.
In the book Dark Age Ahead, Jacobs identified the public library as one of the indispensable assets of any community — as important as water and sewer systems, fire protection and public health. The public library, sometimes called “the people’s university,” plays an essential role in providing an inclusive place for citizens to engage in lifelong learning while ensuring that all have access to information.
Calgary’s new central library will give physical form to what is already one of the most successful public library systems in North America. Between 1994 and 2010, per capita use increased by 80 per cent to 35 million virtual and in-person visits to 17 branches. It circulated over 16 million items, behind only Toronto, New York and Los Angeles. At over 5.4 million in-person visits alone in 2010, the Calgary Public Library (CPL) had more visitors than the Stampede, Calgary Zoo, Heritage Park, Science Centre, recreation arenas and all professional sporting events combined.
The library is much more than books, magazines, videos and music. The CPL provides low-income Calgarians with tickets to arts and recreation opportunities including dance, music, theatre, festivals and rodeos. In 2009, over 11,000 kids improved their reading skills through the library’s Summer Reading Adventure. In 2010, 156,000 people attended programs and tours offered by the CPL, and for several years the CPL directly supported sustainability literacy by co-hosting Sustainable Calgary’s monthly book club.
Among the constellation of cultural institutions — not to take anything away from the thriving arts community — the library is uniquely important to Calgary’s vitality and sustainability. In a time where economic inequalities dictate access to the benefits our city has to offer, the library is a pillar of social inclusion. In a world where the ability to purchase access to knowledge or even social connection — whether via university tuition or the latest technological gadgets — defines our ability to participate in society, the library is almost alone in its promise of universal access.
For example, 40 per cent of adults in Alberta do not have the literacy skills to function effectively in society. Functionally illiterate Albertans are far more likely to live in poor households, to have served jail terms and to have misinterpreted medical instructions, reinforcing the need for libraries to be at the forefront of achieving universal literacy.
But as the campaign for the new library gathers steam and the creative class rallies its support, we have to be vigilant to avoid potential dangers. Big shiny projects in the “cultural districts” are a centrepiece of the national arts initiative Creative Cities, but let’s not make the mistake of assuming that creative cities are necessarily inclusive ones.
Serendipitously, our new library will be situated on the threshold of the East Village, its location a symbolic opportunity for Calgarians to embrace the twin promise of a public library as a celebration of the best of our culture and as a symbol of a caring, inclusive society. The East Village faces the challenge of reinvigorating itself without gentrifying and driving away “undesirables” to the point of making the central library an exclusive place enjoyed by the cultured classes, but where the disenfranchised are alienated. If you have bad teeth, a tattered jacket or Safeway bags for your belongings, will you still feel comfortable stepping inside our new library?
As Jacobs writes, community institutions like the library encourage us to “deal civilly with people whose upbringing, cultures and personalities are at odds with the traditions and customs of one’s own nuclear family, and teach children to be both cosmopolitan and tolerant.”
It is hard to overstate the importance of a library. In 2006, after almost 2,000 years, the world’s most important library of the ancient world — the Bibliotheca Alexandria in Egypt — was resurrected from the ashes. The Bibliotheca Alexandria Declaration recognized the library’s mission to advocate for reason over ideology, cultural expression over censorship and social justice over oppression.
We need our new central library to foster compassion, wisdom, learning, understanding and the deep currents of change that can create healthy and creative communities, a better Calgary and a more just world.
Geoff Ghitter teaches urban studies at the University of Calgary. He can be reached at . Noel Keough is an assistant professor in the faculty of environmental design at the university, and is co-founder of Sustainable Calgary Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.