This is a guest posting by Dave Obee, author of The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia.
British Columbia’s first libraries came in several shapes and sizes — although, for the most part, they were minuscule compared to what is available today.
The first libraries were basically just reading rooms, usually created by groups of individuals who wanted to share their resources, or by business owners who were anxious to give their employees something to do that would not involve the local saloon.
Later came commercial lending libraries, where readers who paid a monthly or annual fee could borrow the latest bestsellers.
And for every person who went to a library to read a book or a newspaper, for every person who took a book home for a few days, for every person in a remote area who had a book mailed, then dutifully mailed it back, there was a story.
It could have been a story about someone experiencing the classics for the first time, thanks to the generosity of a local business leader. It could have been a story about someone keeping in touch with the news from home, or about someone discovering new opportunities to make money, or about someone learning in a newspaper that the local post office had unclaimed mail.
It could have been about how access to books — the source of information, enlightenment, entertainment and much more — kept people from going stir crazy as they endured the long, dark winters in the days before radio, television and other diversions, living in areas where neighbours were few and far between.
It could have been anything.
There were new stories in the summer of 1913, a century ago, when the public libraries in Vancouver and Victoria opened the first children’s libraries. Before 1913, the presence of children in libraries was actively discouraged, but in that year, attitudes changed for the better.
Suddenly, then, the stories involved younger people, who found new joy in the local libraries. They were introduced to the world around them, thanks to the librarians who wanted them to read and learn.
Those children grew up with books, and understood the benefits that they offered.
They might have been parents themselves by the 1930s, when regional library systems were introduced. During the tough years of the Great Depression, parents were willing to pay higher taxes in order to ensure that their children would have access to information.
Given the economic pressures of the day, it must not have been an easy choice. In the end, though, it was the right one.
During those desperate years, libraries offered a refuge to hundreds of unemployed men and women. They could use the reading rooms, drying their socks on the heat registers as they read the latest newspapers or wrote letters to loved ones.
The libraries gave them a sense of normality, something that was desperately needed in those abnormal times.
The years flashed past. In the 1960s, with post-secondary options expanding, it became apparent that technology could be harnessed to manage library catalogues. As library service expanded and was empowered by technology, all library users were winners, and all of them had their own stories about how libraries had helped them.
Through the history of libraries in British Columbia, there have been millions of stories of how libraries have helped us — at least one story for every library user. And surely, at least one story for everyone who has worked in a library, as a professional librarian, as a clerk, as a volunteer, or whatever.
Today, and every day, there are more stories about the positive role that libraries play. We need to acknowledge the impact that libraries have, and understand what we can do to make things even better for all.
Libraries are not just about new buildings, as gorgeous as many of them are. They are not about the number of books circulated, the number of patrons with cards, the number of downloads, or the budget.
They are about people — the people whose lives have been transformed, enhanced or otherwise changed because libraries do what they do.
We should never lose sight of those people, and their stories. Those stories are at the very heart of what should motivate libraries. Libraries have made a huge difference over the years, and will continue to do so for many, many years to come.
And with that in mind, what are today’s stories? Today, take a moment to ask some library users why they are there, and where they would be without libraries. The answers will be revealing, and will almost certainly be inspirational.
Those answers are important. It’s why we do what we do. In the end, it’s all about the stories.
Dave Obee’s The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia is published by the BC Library Association.