I find myself at the Atwater Library. It’s one of the oldest library’s in Montreal, but one of my favorites for exactly that reason. It’s one of those offside, little known community libraries. You don’t often see college or university students here– the majority of the clientele are retired locals.
I went the Octagone Library, which is the public LaSalle library that I used to work at, a few days ago.
I have this thing for libraries. They tend to have a lot of history to them– and not even just with regards to the books inside of them. The buildings themselves, the people who work there– you don’t get many drifters going through libraries of this sort. You get the locals who live in the area.
There’s a huge contrast between this type of local library and the typical college/university library, or the BNQ (the Quebec National Library) further downtown– it’s really the small time local feel. And bookstores? Completely different.
It’s interesting that there is a different feeling between a bookstore and a library though– I mean, aren’t the words the same?
They are. What’s different though is the way that the words are read– who we offer the books, and who gets to read.
When I first started working at a public library back in highschool, it was the best job I’d ever had. Before that, I’d worked two different jobs on assembly lines, and one job for a pet store. I can’t exactly remember, but I was probably about 19 when I started working at the library. Those were extremely formative years for me– they gave me some of my first real-world experience.
It’s one thing to grow up not-rich. You live your circumstances, and they’re all you know– so they don’t seem out of place to you. It’s only when you get to see the basics of other peoples’ lives that you can really see where it is that you stand in society. When I started working at the library, I started off as a librarian’s helper, just doing some basic researching to help clients find what they needed. Eventually I ended up workin in the budding IT department.
I was lucky that as a kid, my parents got a computer at a pretty early age. I started programming on a Commodore 64, but as early as the 486DX generation of computers were out, we had one. I think that was pretty important because it got me comfortable with computing. Before the world wide web as we know it (who the hell even says world wide web nowadays anyhow?) it was all about dial-up Bulletin Board Systems, and Usenet mailing lists.
When I was leaving highschool, Netscape was the big browser on the block and I was just then getting curious about how to use Geocites. Internet access was far from accessible to all. Somewhere along the way, I carved a niche for myself and started working more in the library’s computer department. It was a delicious cycle for me– back then, if you hit F1, you actually got relevant help menus, because software was simpler back then. And plus– if that wasn’t enough, the library had books on Office ’97.
It was easy enough for me to learn how to use office, since I was a student. You just naturally get the hang of these things if the trend is that all your papers need to be typed up and printed. But what the library taught me was that these were changing times.
When you consider it, a lot of the people who were our clients were people who couldn’t afford computers. That, and they probably weren’t in school anymore– so where would they jump onto the internet wagon? How could they possibly get exposure?
It engraved in me a lasting lesson that makes me look at people sideways whenever they tote that technology and the internet are going to solve so many problems. It can, but it is a tool– and like all tools and all their usefulness, there’s a question of accessibility.
When Chapters, a huge bookselling chain in Canada, first bought out a bookstore in Downtown montreal, what they changed about the bookstore model was that they invited you to read. They put chairs in, so you could get comfortable with a book. Their business model was revolutionary because it sold not just the books like any other book store, it sold the sense of comfort and of entertainment, which you could experience in their store. In my opinion, in increased accessibility by making it easy to find things you like, and encouraging you to find it in their store– they’d even pull a chair up for you. I remember that in an early Montrel Gazette article, a photograph was taken of a client who had actually gotten so comfortable that they’d fallen asleep in one of the store’s armchairs.
Where does a bookstore get that idea? It comes from libraries. The move towards friendlier customer service and feeling at home– that might be difficult in the business world, but in libraries, that’s always been the prime directive.
The local libraries have always been about being there for a town. I remember that my tasks at the library started off as just someone taking computer reservations. By the time I resigned from that job to work in healthcare though, my job had developed into much more odds and ends, characteristic of a true institution of public service. Things like compiling recommended reading lists for young adults; teaching Microsoft Office workshops; helping people twice my age type up CVs; showing people how to access Revenue Canada sites for help on filing their income taxes.
On paper, a library’s purpose is to lend books. But any good local library finds itself using all of it’s workers at maximum capacity in any which way– to help the locals.
Going back to the LaSalle library is always a heartwarming experience. I haven’t had much chance to go there over the past few years since I moved to NDG, and since my working hours didn’t coincide with their open hours. I went last week since i’m on part-time employment from now until I start law school.
The place, frankly, used to be super ghetto, in the bad way. It’s done a lot to modernize though, and you can see that not only is there an improvement in the facilities, but that the cilentele has learned new tricks as well. One of the big things is that people come in with laptops and use the free WiFi (when I resigned, the WiFi project was too expensive to implement).
The library has undergone a bit of a face lift, but there are some things that are really nice to see as improovements of old things. The comics section, “bandes dessines,” has been expanded. Back in my youth, it was at the library where I first got into mangas– could never afford to buy any for myself of course. It’s there where I started out with mangas like Ranma 1/2, City Hunter, Dragon Ball, Noritaka, Gon, and yes, even Sailor Moon. The offerings were pretty limited back then. You could fill out a ‘request for purchase’ form at the library and if they bought the book you wanted, you’d have to pay 1$ to be the first one to borrow it. I thought it was a fair trade– I think that I probably built half of the early collections with my requests!
I also got to catch up on some old friends like Batman and Green Lantern, which I grew up reading from my uncles’ collections. One of my uncles collected Marvel and DC comics religiously for years, and I think that a lot of my sense of ethics and morals actually comes from those comics. The library didn’t have much Spider-man, or Punisher, but they did have a sizable collection of X-Men and Superman. I was one of the first in line whenever one of them was made into a movie, even though I always thought Supes was lame.
Anyway, the collection is much larger now. There are the new kids on the block, like One Piece and Bleach. I was surprised to find even more obscure (but great) titles like Hajime no Ippo.
What’s most important though is that there were kids everywhere. I mean… a saturday afternoon? Don’t kids have places to go play? But there were kids, sitting all over the place, reading comics.
Someday, they might all be heroes.
I think a lot of book-reading fanatics often shit on comic books because they consider them to be not as intellectually relevant as written work– sure, that’s one way of looking on it. Another way of looking at it is that if you want to specialize on the things you read in the way you want to read them, perhaps you should let other people get their entertainment the way they want– there are valuable things that are often overlooked if you just stick to a few genres. Mangas, for example, played a key role in making me into the man I am today.
Underlying all of it is this library sense that other people like reading what you like reading too. It’s a shared thought. Perhaps that’s where the sense of community comes from that you can’t find in a bookstore– in a bookstore, a kid goes in and gets to take home a book, but only if it can be afforded. At a library? There’s no such prerequisite– the books are for everyone.
A few years ago, the Atwater library was going to be shut down. It was around the time that the BNQ was on blueprints. The Atwater library was no longer going to receive significant funding from the City of Montreal, so it risked the possibility of being shut down. The local community saved it though. The local community saved it though– through fund raising campaigns, it managed to secure a number of private grants that would make the library self sufficient. It is now one of the few independant libraries operating in Montreal. You’d probably have a hard time finding any news about it, because Montreal wouldn’t like to be associated with letting a historic library shut down– but the truth is, when push came to shove, it was the local community that saved this place.
When I think about the reasons why, it reminds me of how there may yet be hope for us humans after all, despite the impersonalness of modern life.