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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Libraries make my day

I feel the need to make note on this blog that I’m 25 now. Since Saturday.

I started a blog post last week about how I felt to be 25. Essentially it boiled down to “I don’t feel like an adult yet still” and then digressed into morose ruminations on the cognitive dissonance of being Facebook friends with people from high school I never talk to. It was entirely too serious and lugubrious considering that, on the whole, I’m feeling like I’m in a good place with my life right now. Maybe at some point I’ll revise the post to have a slightly more generalized, philosophical tone.

Instead, to mark my 25th birthday, let me talk about something that has been a major factor in shaping me as a person: reading, and more specifically, libraries. It’s Banned Books Week in the United States, and that seems like as good a time as any to talk about my bibliophilia.

I went to the library today—my second time since moving back home. The books I borrowed on my first visit were due today. I didn’t really need more books—my dad gave me quite a few for my birthday, and I bought several used books from the Bookshelf as a gift to myself. Nevertheless, it’s impossible for me to go to the library without borrowing books. I have a problem, OK?

Today was the second consecutive very nice day we’ve had in about two weeks. Autumn has hit us hard since the beginning of September, with outdoor temperatures often below 15°C. But today it was at least a glorious 21°C outside, so I could walk to Waverley Library instead of being lazy and driving.

I was having a good day up until that point. After visiting the library, walking home in the sun with new books to read, I was having a great day.

It’s not just the fact that I always feel like I’m getting away with a crime when I borrow library books. They’re just sitting there, and the library staff let you walk away with them for free! And I want to run out of the library, book bag in hand, shouting, “Does anyone else know about this?! They give you books for free!” Because reading is powerful and books are magic, and if you are 25 like me but have forgotten this, it’s not too late.

It’s not just the fact that the library staff are always pleasant and helpful. They don’t mind when I mostly ignore them (because I’m there for the books). Until I can’t find something, that is, and then they are there for me. People like to run down Thunder Bay, but I love this city and chose to return here after two years abroad for a reason. And I wonder if those people have bothered to step inside one of our four library branches lately. The TPBL is doing an amazing job with what I’m sure is a very constrained budget to ensure they are offering as many services as they can to the community. Because that’s what libraries are: they’re a hub for community learning and recreation. They are so much more than a repository for information stored in a dead-tree format. The people who work there can make all the difference—and in the case of TBPL, I hope they know they are definitely making that difference.

It’s not just the fact that I discovered a new fantasy series that I had never heard of online. Normally I hear about most of the major new releases from io9, Goodreads, or other science-fiction and fantasy sites. At least, I hear about enough new releases to keep my to-read list growing at a healthy pace. The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences completely slipped under my radar, however. Waverley had book 2 and the new book 3 on its New Paperbacks shelf, and by some good fortune, book 1 was in the stacks. So now I have not one but three new books in an ongoing series to devour. That’s assuming I like them, of course. But that’s part of the gamble….

No, all of the above are important reasons to love our libraries. But I think it’s more than that. I was having a great day after leaving the library not because of what I had in my book bag, but because of what it represented: the potential. I love reading and the act of reading; I find it relaxing and entertaining—like doing drugs, only much healthier for you and also, generally, cheaper. Perhaps one of the few things I love more than reading is the sense of anticipation brought on by a stack of new, yet-to-be-read books.

Chances are I won’t like some of the books. I have a fairly broad reader’s palate but am also discriminating in what I like. This is particularly true when it comes to library books; since borrowing them is free (It’s free, people! Wake up and get some before they catch on and start charging!), I always feel like I can take more risks. But that only makes the anticipation prior to reading all the sweeter: there’s no guarantee that I’ll like the book, but because I don’t know whether or not I’ll like it, all I have is the excitement about reading it to find out.

The library lets me take risks. I can always leave the library with a bag full of potential. It lets me try on other personalities: I can be a pirate or a ninja or a crazy robot; I can be straight or gay; I can be a teenage girl or a middle-age Asian man fighting zombies. The library is a sanctuary of boundless imagination. Books are precious. Libraries are important.

Some people have forgotten this lesson, if they ever learned it at all. Some people believe it’s OK to ban books from schools and libraries (and, if we let them, probably from bookstores too). Usually they don’t equate such bans to censorship. They say they are doing it to “protect the children”, a laudable goal all-too-often pressed into service to rubber-stamp a less laudable activity.

The idea that we need to “protect” children from books is insulting, both to children and to books.

I was a child once, and you know what I learned when I was a child? We are pretty resilient. We know what we want and what we like when it comes to books. And you know those librarians in the children’s section aren’t there just for show, right? They are trained. They know how to shelve books so that they are, generally, age-appropriate. And they can recognize when that phrase—“age-appropriate”—doesn’t apply to the complex nature of a child’s mind. They can spot a kid who has read all the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews—twice—and might be ready for Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple. So let’s not shackle librarians by proscribing titles; let’s trust them to do their jobs, hmm? And let’s trust kids a little more too.

I was never a book (that I know of), but I’ve read a lot of them. They aren’t that scary. Ideas and new perspectives are not scary; they are wonderful. This is what the people who want to ban books don’t understand; the people who want to ban books are scared of ideas that don’t fit into their narrow worldview. That’s a shame. The world is a big place. The universe is orders upon orders of magnitude bigger. Has someone pointed that out to them yet?

I’m 25 years old now. I don’t yet feel like an adult. But I’m not a kid any more either. And I know a few things.

I know that banning books is censorship, and wrong, full stop. We need to stand up against any and all attempts to ban or remove books. In Canada, Freedom to Read Week is in February.

I know that reading is one of the most powerful activities in which a human being can engage. It is a way to learn, to be shaped, to remake oneself anew. I am underemployed right now, but every day I spend sitting at home reading is not a day wasted. It is a day put to good use.

I know that libraries are one of the most important parts of our community. Do not underestimate the power of your local library. You might be surprised what they can do for you if you just ask. Did I mention they let you take books away for free? You should get on that.

I know these things, because for 25 years now, I’ve been privileged enough to live somewhere that has a library and to have parents who were able to teach me how to read. This is not the norm for the majority of people on this planet. There are many organizations working to change this: Room to Read and World Literacy Canada are just two. Chapters Indigo has the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation, which targets school libraries in Canada.

Books. Libraries. Drugs. Wait, no—not drugs! But the first two, for sure. I’m 25 years old, a whole quarter-century lived … and I hope I’ll continue to use my library for at least twice that long.