Libraries are special in my books

This week, I had the pleasure of visiting the Fort’s impressive library to hear a presentation from Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons on the role of libraries in the digital age (see page 19).

I’m pleased to announce Simons and I are on the same page when it comes to the importance of libraries.

Much of Simons’ presentation examined the changing roles of libraries, how they’ve become community hubs, and how patrons are just as likely today to rent out a disc or an e-book versus an actual paper book.

But within the lining of the presentation was a tremendously powerful anecdote that spoke to the importance of books for youth, particularly for the children of immigrants and the disadvantaged.

Simons spoke of an incident about 10 years ago when she gave a talk at the Rundle School in Rundle Heights, a community that has historically faced significant socio-economic challenges.  She had a large pile books slated for donation that she decided to hand out to the students. She was surprised when the teacher called a week later in tears, telling her that every student had returned their book after a week because they thought they were on loan.

“The teacher told me that not one of those students had ever had a book of his or her own before,” Simons said. “She was calling me for making such a difference in their life, and I was embarrassed, because I had only grabbed the books on a whim.

“I was both humbled and horrified to think of children in my prosperous city who have never owned a book before. These weren’t kids with iPads …these were kids for whom a simple paper book was a treasure,” she added.

And what a treasure indeed.

The story made me think back to my own childhood, when books were one of my greatest sanctuaries. As a child, I was always the shortest one in the class and had asthma late into my teenage years. I was, to be frank, terrible at sports.

My family also faced some economic challenges growing up, and while we always had clean clothes and food on the table, sometimes the newest console or video game was not a priority. So books, particularly the fantasy and science-fiction novels my brother left scattered throughout the house, became my escape.  It got to the point where I would devour whatever kind of binded paper I could find. I soaked up my sister’s university-level textbooks on abnormal psychology like they were the weekend funny pages, and to this day still have a keen interest in the topic.

I know this early foray into reading fostered a life-long appreciation of literature. In some ways, I owe this to my siblings more than to the library. But I have no doubt that books in general played a pivotal role in my intellectual development and continue to do so today.  So it worries me when I see the role smartphones, tablets and video games play in the lives of young people today. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I find it hard to imagine a child being swept away in the same way by reading literature on a tablet.

As parents, we need to recognize the magnificent ability of books to cultivate a healthy imagination and love for literature. And that’s whether they come from the library, a forgetful sibling or a thoughtful city columnist.

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