When I became the Edmonton Public Library’s 2013 writer-in-residence in January, a little girl asked, “Does that mean you live in the library?”
Not quite, I told her. Though there were some long stretches of writing in my office when I wished I could just roll out a sleeping bag and dream my story’s problems away.
What the library writers-in-residence do (there’s a second who services surrounding communities) is help nurture other storytellers with mentorship, feedback and public programming, while nurturing their own stories with the time and space the library provides. I will miss that.
However, as I pack up my Canadian Oxford Dictionary and make room for my successor, writer Jason Lee Norman, it’s watching the modern library at work that I will miss most.
That libraries aren’t just about books and reading anymore has become a tired truism.
I never saw a librarian shush a talky patron. That too is an old cliché. But I have watched a librarian help a grandmother contact her grandkids on Facebook; organize a community group meeting; and borrow change from the staff coffee jar so that a down-on-his-luck man would have bus fare for a job interview.
One librarian I met at the Lois Hole branch even helped a Nigerian immigrant bring his daughter to Canada because he struggled to understand the paperwork. She thought it was her duty to succeed where customs had failed him.
“There has always been an element of social work to my job,” she told me.
Seeing librarians at work, and this institutional evolution, has been fascinating and humbling, especially at the Stanley Milner branch.
It’s no secret that from the minute the downtown library opens to the second it closes, it’s a home to the homeless. But this, too, is only a small picture. Truly, the central branch is the city’s most egalitarian space, a place that nobody is too rich, or too poor, or too uneducated or too privileged to need.
One-hundred years ago, the Edmonton Public Library was born with a simple goal to make knowledge democratic. In its centennial year, it continued to reinterpret what that means by adding a makerspace, a video game lounge and an outreach worker for youth.
Some might say that this is the library trying staying relevant in a digital age, but in fact libraries have never been more popular and never been more relevant.
In our hyper-consumerist society, we’re running out of free public spaces. Edmonton’s public parks are only hospitable for half the year and at our many malls there’s pressure to spend. But without asking you to open your wallet—not even to retrieve a membership card—the library allows you to access all its resources, whether it’s a computer, book or resident writer.
To have spent a year playing a small piece in the library’s mandate, to share, is a privilege. But the best thing it shares is its space.