Two of my librarian tweeps were outside Roy Thompson Hall for Jack Layton’s state funeral Saturday. Jack Layton was the recently deceased leader of the Canadian social democratic party, the New Democratic Party (NDP). Noting their presence, I tweeted, “Librarians love Jack Layton.”
This observation set me on a path to the realization that the loss of Jack Layton and the threatened loss of public libraries were both capturing a incipient mood in the public. Jack Layton was admired as a man of the people. Remembrances of how he touched so many lives, meeting needs and serving people, dominated the tributes. He believed in and practised generosity, sharing, and the principle of equality, and did his utmost to move Canada in this direction.
Public libraries were born of this spirit. Every person has a right to knowledge and education. In the February 2007 Student Library Journal, A.S. Popowich wrote: “19th century Scottish essayist, Thomas Carlyle, founded the London Library as a model for an egalitarian institution serving the common man.”
Jack Layton’s death triggered a recognition that we need to return to Carlyle’s ideal, the same ideal that those who fought for representative government espoused. The outpouring of grief at this champion of the people was as deep as it was swift, and should be a lesson to the current crop of more vituperative (as Stephen Lewis worded it in his eulogy) politicians, who tell Canadians what they want, rather than listening to them.
Similarly when some politicians cut from the same cloth tried to cut libraries in Toronto and the Windsor-Essex Catholic School Board attempted to virtually eliminate libraries and librarians in their schools, the public outcry was swift, sure and deep. I suspect many of the people who said libraries are outdated hadn’t set foot in a library in a long time. Libraries are emblematic of the common man and provide services that many may not be able to afford.
Modern libraries also have a social service component – a refuge for those who seek quiet, or the homeless and beyond. McClure and Jaeger wrote, “… [T]he social role of the public library has matured from a repository of texts to a marketplace of ideas (Heckart 1991)….For all people, the public library is now seen as a social and virtual space where all ages and walks of life can mix, exchange views, access materials, and engage in public discourse (Goulding 2004; Jaeger and Burnett 2005) ” (p. 17) A modern library is a hub of community activity, information seeking and social intercourse.
Perhaps our citizens* (and I use that word deliberately, as we are more than taxpayers) on both sides of the border are beginning to tire of politicians in the grasp of the rich and the idealogues. Something is missing in government today: civility, service, a genuine concern for the citizens you are governing, and compassion.
These are the qualities the public responded to in Jack Layton. And when people rallied around libraries facing cuts, they were responding to politicians and school board members who were so out of touch with the people these institutions serve that they thought libraries could be cut with impunity.
While I don’t have any information about Jack Layton’s view on libraries, I do know that libraries represent the spirit of Jack Layton: generosity, service, and equal access. The public response to the loss of a beloved politician and threatened loss of libraries are hopeful signs if they signal a return to the ideals that both represent.
* For an excellent series on citizenship and what we need to do in our current political climate by former MP Glen Pearson, see: