An event featuring three of the city’s top poets last week doubled as an occasion for library supporters to raise their voices in demanding an improved public library system for the capital city—and the province.
The second event in The Once and Future Library series—organized by the St. John’s Public Library Board—took place on March 14 in the AC Hunter Public Library, and proved to be as lively as it was literary. All three poets, and the writers and librarians who introduced them, read from their works but also reflected on the value of libraries to themselves personally, as well as the role libraries play in the broader community.
George Murray is a well-established poet. Author of eight books of poetry, as well as a published author of fiction and children’s literature, Murray has served as poetry editor for the Literary Review of Canada and contributing editor with Maisonneuve. In 2014 he was named Poet Laureate for the City of St. John’s.
But Murray grew up in Brampton, Ontario, where libraries provided a critical source of safety and solace.
I was a nerd as a kid,” recalled Murray. He experienced abuse growing up, and bullying in the school system.
“I was very little, and I got beat up. Physically beat up. The only places that I spent time were in the science room and the library. I ate my lunch in the science room because I couldn’t go outside at lunch because kids would beat me up…The librarians knew how to shelter nerds.”
The city’s public libraries also served as safe spaces, Murray recalls.
“The public library…was neutral ground. Everybody was there. So if I was in the library and the bully was in the library with me, there wasn’t any problem. The library was a neutral ground, it was a special place where everyone came to do one thing, which was—at the time we didn’t have DVDs and VCRs and all this other stuff back then in the libraries—it was books. There was some programming, there was story hour, there were these other kinds of things, but it wasn’t like the library is today. And the library still maintains, as far as I’m concerned – and this is part of its importance – that same neutral ground. It is what the pub is to England. It is the public living room.”
In addition to serving as a safe space, it also ensured Murray—and other kids like him—had access to the sorts of books they didn’t have in their home environment.
“The first time I ever did a New York Times crossword was in a library. Because I had never seen the New York Times before. There was no other place to get that. And the first time I learned about—I’m sort of a closet amateur astronomer—the first time I read anything about space [was in the library]. It’s not the kind of books my parents would have bought me. I got Hardy Boys books at home and that was it…But at the library I could get any book, on any subject.”
“Where I grew up, there were libraries within walking distance of everywhere you lived. I’m really shocked that we’re considered a capital city and we don’t have a downtown library. Like why isn’t the Colonial Building a library? Why isn’t that being turned into a library? The ideal is having these things right near public places.”
Murray laments that because St. John’s is one of the only provincial capitals without a network of libraries within easy walking distance of major neighbourhoods, his children are unable to access libraries as easily as he did while growing up in Ontario.
“We’re losing something in society when kids have their library in their school but they don’t have other libraries in their neighbourhoods.”
Fighting fake news
For Maggie Burton, published poet and Councillor-at-Large for the City of St. John’s, libraries are a vital tool for ensuring an educated public.
“What I think is the most important current use of our library is for factual information for young people. And for old people. And for everybody in between,” she said.
“It’s an age of misinformation, of untruth, of lots of really sketchy things on the internet. You can read all your news on Twitter and have these opinions of people who put out their opinions right away before they even have time to think about what they’re saying. Or you can come to a library and read a newspaper or read the New York Times or read something that is…a good source of more global perspective.
“Coming to a library is also a place where people of all levels of class in our city can come and access the internet, and also read the news there. So having a central location like a downtown library or a centre city library or somewhere where people can easily walk to [is important].”
Growing up in Savage Cove
For Meg Coles, accomplished playwright and editor of the province’s arts and culture journal Riddle Fence, living within access to a library was a childhood dream.
“When I was a little girl growing up in Savage Cove, we had no public libraries in my area. The only libraries we had access to were in the elementary school and the high school. And the library in the elementary school was my absolute favourite place. There were no bookstores. There were very few places where you could even purchase books. So in the summer time you had no access to books at all.
“I dreamed of a day when I would live somewhere, like the little girls on television, where you could walk to a library and a swimming pool. Those were the two things that I wanted, in my future, in a city—I would be able to just leave my house and walk to the library that had the books and walk to the swimming pool where I would swim. That was my imagination fantasy.
Like Murray, Coles found that libraries were an important safe space for a child growing up.
“When I was in high school it became a safe space for me, because I was a child in a very large very loud bay family. [I] was also very loud—there’s no point in me pretending that I am gun-shy—but there are times when people want to be the quiet version of themselves, and inside a very large, boisterous bay family you’re not really permitted that space. But inside of a library you can be the quiet version of yourself…that’s where I could escape to lose myself inside of books and just kind of imagine the future and what that would look like. So not only is the book itself the safe protective space, but the library that houses the book is also the safe place of protection.”
Agnes Walsh, an accomplished poet who also has extensive involvement in the province’s theatre community, also served as poet laureate for the City of St. John’s in 2006. For her, libraries have also become a lifelong love.
“The first time I walked into a library what sucked me in was the smell. It smelled like warm bread, stale warm bread. Like the warmth that you could smell from books. I grew up in Placentia and there was a small library there and it wasn’t used that much so the books were really musty and when you opened the up—you know that old smell from books? Then I started to read them, and that was something else too, that was wonderful.”
While her childhood in Placentia differed from the other speakers, libraries also played a key role in the process of growing up.
“I didn’t come from a big family—and we were pretty quiet—but there were no books at all. There was no art. So I couldn’t get over going into a library and actually being able to stay in there all day and not have to talk, to me it was heaven.”
“My first book was dedicated to…my first serious boyfriend. He was an American sailor who was at the base in Argentia and he wrote—he was a poet, a young poet—and he used to sneak books off the American base library, because he wasn’t allowed to take them out. So he’d come in with these big bags, brown bags full of library books of all the poets, all the early poets that I could never get my hands on, and he would read Shakespeare to me and he would read Yeats to me, and it was just wonderful. And he read my poetry and he really encouraged me, so that’s why that first book is dedicated to him.”
What next for the city libraries?
The future of the city’s libraries, like that of the provincial library system as a whole, remains a significant question mark. The provincial government, forced to backpedal on proposed cuts to the system in the wake of province-wide protests in 2016, has been silent on whether it intends to pursue cuts again, or whether it intends to reinstate the significant amounts of funding that’s been cut from the provincial library system over the past decade.
A question mark for many library advocates in St. John’s has been whether the municipal government will start stepping up its support for the St. John’s library system. Several grassroots initiatives have proposed an expansion of the St. John’s library system, including calls for a downtown city library.
Burton, who is on City Council, reflected on both the opportunities, and the challenges, for growing city libraries. She feels it’s important to start serious dialogue about what library growth would look like.
“I feel like we need to look at where in our city the lower income brackets are and build a library around that area. So I’m not sure what that even looks like – does that mean that we have a bunch of small pockets of libraries in this city? Does it mean we have one large library with a really great transit system that links to it?…That’s a question I would like to put out to everybody.”
She said another idea might be using the city’s adaptive reuse policy to convert heritage buildings in the downtown area into libraries. She said the policy could also be used to repurpose larger heritage homes, or parts of heritage homes, into libraries. While Murray highlighted the Colonial Building as a prime candidate for a library, Burton pointed out the Railway Coastal Museum on Water Street West as another potential site to pair with a library.
“I think that the conversation around where do we put the library or the libraries, is where do we need people to be able to walk to in order to access the internet and in order to access books?”
Provincial government’s role
Burton said that a major barrier to improved municipal funding is the city’s fiscal relationship with the provincial government, and in particular the province’s taxation policies.
“Everybody always says to me, why can’t we just do it like the Halifax library? Why can’t we just do that? Well St. John’s is the only capital city in Canada that doesn’t receive grants in lieu of property taxes from the provincial government. We are literally the only capital city in the country that gets no funding that way. So we don’t have this big part of our budget that is grants in lieu of property taxes. So if you want more money in the municipal budget in this city for libraries, the pressure has to be put on the provincial government to start paying its fair share in property taxes. Confederation Building is a great piece of farmland.”
She said that while the idea of establishing a separate line item for library funding in the municipal budget has been proposed by various library advocates (at present, libraries must compete with other community organizations for broad-based community grant funding), she fears it would quickly become a ceiling and barrier to further growth.
“I’m scared about adding a line in that way because I would rather there be no ceiling on the amount of support that we can do for libraries, and I think that the focus right now needs to be on pressuring the provincial government to start paying us more money for the land that they use in the city.”
She said that with the municipal government about to enter three-year budget talks at the city level, the need for determining how libraries will be funded is at a critical stage. She proposed it might be time to strike a task force on city libraries to help facilitate that process.
Murray: “You have to be bombastic”
Murray has made a name for himself as an outspoken advocate for both libraries as well as arts and culture funding more broadly.
“When I famously—or infamously—offered my resignation [as the city’s poet laureate], it was for the cuts to the arts grants, and I would have done it again with the libraries.
“With the libraries, I came here for the consultations and they were a farce. An absolute farce. And I made a big stink about it and left.
“It’s my opinion that the government has a tendency to decide something and then do theatre around consulting people, and then go ahead with whatever they decided in the first place anyway. I would encourage everyone to be aware of that, especially around the library arguments in the future. They make the decisions first, based on recommendations from staff and budgets and all these other things, and then they try to justify it based on talking to you.
“You can’t just talk in normal language to these people. You have to be bombastic and do big things…quitting was important for the arts and culture grant because if I had written a letter to the city saying I disapprove of this, they wouldn’t have had me on As It Happens in Toronto. But quitting is a big gesture, so when we’re advocating for libraries…we need to be more bombastic. You need to be louder…You have to be black and white. There’s no ‘Well maybe we can work with you on this.’ You tell them our position is that there should be a library in every community, and then stick to that.”