What’s a library for?

The changing institution is a public space worth holding on to

It’s not hard to see why critics might write off a library as a relic of the pre-digital era, as a monolithic, tax-dollar-hoarding warehouse that could simply be replaced by a few servers and accessed, if at all, by the hyper-mobile masses on their iPhone 7s.

But this sort of assessment misses the point of what public institutions can do in the 21st century. It fails to recognize that not only are libraries changing to be more than just collections of books, they’re also one of the last bastions of public space in a time of ever-increasing corporate ownership.

Progressive initiatives over the last several years have made the Winnipeg Public Library a worthy recipient of ongoing funding and public support.

They’ve recently made headlines by eliminating late fees on kids’ books, providing therapy lamps for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, installing interactive and educational play structures, stocking video games, requesting funding to install phone-charging stations and taking to the streets in a mobile book bike.

In the last month they’ve hosted events, such as a support day for families of people who are incarcerated, a zine festival for local creatives to show off their wares, a public forum about the possibility of a downtown cycling grid and dozens of classes, lectures and drop-in programs.

Behind the scenes, the Millennium Library also has a social worker on staff who provides free support for people struggling with housing, employment, mental health and other issues.

This is all to say that the notion of a library as a simple depository of information is outdated at best.

Many of the non-traditional services offered by libraries can disproportionately benefit people in lower income brackets. For example, while at-home or mobile internet access is far from universal, more and more job openings are only posted online. Similarly, purchasing or renting a personal therapy lamp would likely be an unrealistic option for many users.

In this sense, libraries are democratizing institutions, providing broader access to resources and information that many people take for granted.

Aside from libraries, the majority of Winnipeg’s indoor public spaces are for-profit ventures. From independent coffee shops to the MTS Centre, the places where Winnipeggers gather are often predicated on cash transactions.

It’s a system in which access to public spaces is based on one’s level of disposable income and, in many cases, fills the
coffers of local and multinational business owners alike.

To meet in a truly public space, whether to take a language class, participate in a public forum, study for classes or simply read a book, is to rebut against the ongoing privatization of public space.

As it continues to negotiate the post-digital era, the Winnipeg Public Library deserves recognition as a central institution in Winnipeg’s social sphere and should be funded accordingly.

Tim Runtz is the comments editor at The Uniter. He once avoided Winnipeg libraries for several years to avoid the shame of paying a two-dollar fine.

Published in Volume 71, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 10, 2016)

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