Until recently, my father could have been considered the inspiration for Jonas Jonasson’s bestselling novel, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.
Like the fictional centenarian, my father had only a very few years of formal education, yet he relied on a keen intellect, fierce independence, risk-filled adventures and luck-filled opportunities to make a remarkable life. He survived Nazi-occupied Holland by living in hiding, spent time in the Dutch army during the Indonesian National Revolution and then indentured himself to a farmer for a year to start a new life in Canada. He enjoyed seeing new places; well into his late eighties, my father regularly traveled from Ontario to the west coast, Europe and even Russia. Physically active, he walked and swam several times a week, gardened, chatted with neighbours and kept up an active social life.
Ten months ago, just a few months shy of his ninetieth birthday, he decided to sell the house where he had lived for more than 40 years, and move to an apartment. And that’s when his life altered its course. Suddenly cut off from his familiar surroundings and caring neighbours, he began a rapid physical and cognitive decline.
In hindsight, that should not have been a surprise. We tend to underestimate the time and effort it takes to establish new relationships and a sense of community. And we sadly fail to recognize how essential those connections are to our health and sense of well-being.
Stories such as my father’s are common in all big cities. As was shared in the June 2012 Vancouver Foundation report, Connections and Engagement, people in Metro Vancouver said that what concerned them the most was a growing sense of isolation and disconnection. The report cites an astonishing finding that comes from work done in the U.S. into the benefits of connections and community engagement. Simply joining a club is as good for your health as quitting smoking, exercising or losing weight.
As a library, we have a critical role to play to strengthen our community by providing an essential and welcoming place for community-building. We care deeply about people and community and are in a position to support the development of meaningful connections. Through strong relationships, we can care enough to work together to make our community a better place for everyone. The opportunities provided by libraries for connection and engagement are key components in creating healthy, vibrant and livable communities.
Libraries support the individual pursuit of lifelong learning through interaction with our resources and collections. And yet we also facilitate opportunities to connect with others, to build our knowledge by learning with others. Book clubs provide an opportunity to dialogue with books, authors and readers. Finding out what others thought about a book can be enlightening and inspiring. Other people will see stuff that we don’t see or bring other perspectives to a story or a character, and that sparks deeper connections not only with the book, but with our fellow human beings.
Building on the idea that community members are equally valuable resources, our library has been experimenting with discussion groups. A general invitation was put out to meet neighbours and talk about whatever folks were interested in sharing. The librarian puts out tea and goodies, and facilitates the conversations and integration of new people as required. As an initial fuel for the conversations, people were asked to bring something to share – something they’ve read or watched or are thinking about. The group meetings have a nice relaxed atmosphere where conversation about different interests or current events is easy. Stories are shared. New interests and activities are sparked. Relationships are built. New people are always welcomed, the conversations are intellectually engaging, and the demand is growing.
They even stay connected in between meetings by sharing digital findings via email or arranging coffee get-togethers. Participants report running into other group members in other places in the neighbourhood, that it’s affirming that there are others around that they can meet, chat with, explore other interests with, perhaps go for a walk together. One conversation, one interaction, one cup of tea at a time, the social web is strengthening, friendships are forming and people are feeling more connected to their community.
The community conversations have sparked other events and activities – a bear walk, a yoga and creative writing program, a men’s singing group, an interest in learning about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – and these in turn have attracted other individuals and built more connections.
One of our regular patrons, Ross, theorizes that our whole culture tends to isolate us and leave us behind computer screens. He calls this a “low bandwidth experience”. He says that when you sit in groups the experience is high bandwidth. “With body language, so much transfers at a non-intellectual level, the limbic level, which is so important. Things evolve when you are making sense of it together. That’s how language and knowledge develops.”
MOOCs are a wonderful example of how this can work. More in my next blog.