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Escaping poverty through the library

By: | June 4, 2016

If you think they’re outdated and due for cutbacks, it’s a sign of your good fortune and privilege. Libraries remain vital for the poor.

Joshua Keep
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"To [decision-makers] a public library is a relic of the past, of limited use in the best of times. They never get to see it as we do, as a necessary tool to leaving poverty behind," writes Joshua Keep. Photo by Niklas Morberg.

Twenty years ago I was a teen of two sides: the part that was in the library after school, accessing a computer and the internet I was too poor to afford at home, reading books at a rate I couldn’t possibly hope to afford to keep up with otherwise. Then there was the part of me on those days when my small town Catalina library wasn’t open, which was most days: the kid who was out causing mischief, up to the usual trouble-making many young boys were involved in.

Fast forward 10 years and I was an impoverished young man with my university years ending, and a crushing burden of debt weighing down on me. I’d had a promising but troubled academic career thanks to health issues and the burdens of being poor, but 10 years ago I was cast out. Time to get a job and get to work.

Work wasn’t really falling into my lap though, not even with my fancy historiographical training. Who’d have thought? I took on some work for an investment company as a researcher, found myself earning a mediocre living doing freelance work, taking on tutoring jobs when able.

As I struggled with PTSD, crippling anxiety and an absurd student debt, the public library became my office, my work place. I’d make the long 20-minute trek there to do research or tutor clients, each and every day — the kindly faces of the librarians working there always an upside to my day, and the clean, work-friendly spaces of the A.C. Hunter Library a welcome and needed reprieve. I certainly felt at home with the helpful and friendly workers, and the other poor souls using the library’s resources to apply for jobs or write resumes or handle their online banking. I loved seeing the faces of groups meeting there, the library their only free and available venue for group activities.

My wife moved here from rural Ontario and was less impressed by the A.C. Hunter Library than I was. Even her farm town library put most of our libraries to shame. For her, public libraries were like some shrine, something her parents never wanted her to go to because it was too inconvenient, too far of a drive.

  It made us more tolerant and open-minded people.

For both of us, it was where we cultivated a passion for writing, for understanding. Not just understanding of the written word, but of places and people too far away for us to have ever experienced. It helped us understand cultures and sights that boggled our minds. It made us more tolerant and open-minded people. Books moved me to tears when I read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which so reminded me of the plight of many Newfoundlanders, sent scrabbling across the world in search of work. They moved me beyond tears when I learned of tragedies like the Holocaust, and made me want to commit myself to protecting and bettering other people’s lives.

In the end, public libraries had an immeasurable benefit on my life, as I’m sure they did many others. But in the end, too, they helped elevate me out of poverty and into a life I’d dared not dream of as that poor mischievous kid twenty years ago.

Last year my wife and I received royalties for 400,000 stories sold. We’ve been invited numerous times as guests to speak about our books and the writing process. We got to see one of our books hit the top 10 for all of Canada, 22 for the U.S.! So far this year we’ve already outdone last and were interviewed twice by local and national news on our success as authors.

It’s a dream we never dared have before now. And none of it would’ve been possible without our local libraries. None of it. In very real, material ways that even the most crassly financial politician should understand, we’d not have gotten through life and working-poverty to see this success today. The debt we owe our public libraries is one we’re loud about, and for good cause.

The Liberal’s 2016 budget, in a very real way, is going to deny that opportunity to other Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. Other authors that’ll never be. Other troubled poor kids who’ll have not much else to do but make trouble after school. Other unemployed young people in a struggling economy who will have fewer tools in their kit to get out of poverty.

 They never get to see it as we do, as a necessary tool to leaving poverty behind.

It’s a situation the people making decisions don’t seem to understand. To them a public library is a relic of the past, of limited use in the best of times. They never get to see it as we do, as a necessary tool to leaving poverty behind. Not just a tool of the past either, not something we authors of today reflect on as a stepping stone of the long-ago past that’s defunct for future generations. What of poor kids whose families can’t afford the monthly internet fee or a device to use it with?

All of this is to leave without mention the effect of the book tax on local publishers. My wife and I sell internationally, and local stores don’t carry us yet. But for Newfoundland authors writing on issues of local concern, for the authors who dedicate themselves fully to sharing our traditions and our history with the world, it’ll be big. For Newfoundland bookstores it’ll mean customers turning to mega-website Amazon for better deals in greater numbers.

It’ll mean even those Newfoundlanders and Labradorians lucky enough to contribute to our written culture will suffer. All of this combined is an assault on not only literacy and culture, but an attack on the poor. A dismissal of the needs of the impoverished as irrelevant because our rich representatives don’t understand why or how we hurt, or how we escape that cycle.

Libraries may be a thing of your past, something you rarely or never had to turn to, but they’re still very much in use, especially by the most marginalized in our society. Not everyone has a smartphone or an eReader or a home computer. Not everyone can afford the oligarchical fees charged every month for internet access, or an extra 10 percent on the books they wish to own.

And if you can’t see that, then perhaps you shouldn’t be making decisions about these people’s lives.

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