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Opinion: What are libraries for?

Libraries have remained one safe place for the discussion, or at least reading, of a broad range of ideas in our polarized society.
PG Public Library WEB
Prince George Public Library Bob Harkins Branch.

My regular readers will know that I do not often speak up in favour of public institutions. My reason is that too often public institutions forget they are in the service business; their duty is to serve their clients, not their faceless government benefactor, and to serve the folks who need their services, not the ones who directly pay their bills.

Libraries have, by and large, managed to avoid losing sight of their role in a democratic society. They have kept their strong stance against censorship to remain in service of the broad and diverse people they serve with books and information for every legal taste and style. It has also helped them withstand the extremists on both ends of the political spectrum that regularly try to get books banned. Libraries have remained one safe place for the discussion, or at least reading, of a broad range of ideas in our polarized society.

Not only do they support diverse ideas, they also support the mental health of a broad range of people. Whether you are young, old, in the middle, rich, poor or struggling, religious or agnostic or in between, educated or not, homeschooling or sending your children to public schools, our Prince George libraries, both the Bob Harkins Branch and the Nechako Branch, have managed to support our community through innovative programs designed to be helpful. It was Ruth at the Bob Harkins branch that helped me navigate my fears of books I didn’t want my children to read. Her gentle and educational answers helped me grow up as a young mom. Our libraries provided my children not only with piles of books to take home, (we loved the compiled educational boxes that addressed one subject, like Music or Horses) but also a refuge from bad weather beyond our four walls. Our library’s service to our community’s mental health is significant.

Therefore, it was a surprise to open my Twitter feed this week and see this beloved institution the target of a small TOM (Twitter Outrage Mob.) How had the library managed to get into hot water with this small group of folks? The offending policy appeared to be the rational decision to keep the library safe for their staff (and patrons, I would say) by locking their bathrooms and checking them in between each use. This seems like a very reasonable thing to me, in light of the ongoing illicit drug use/overdose, mental health problems people are dealing with especially downtown.

As a young mom, I didn’t think twice to send my children to the bathroom at the library. It never occurred to me that they may happen upon someone smoking crack or finding discarded needles on the floor. This has become a problem and the library needs to be congratulated for staying focused on its mission: “The Prince George Public Library connects people and ideas inspiring the community to read, learn and discover.” It is not reasonable for anyone to think that “discover” means to discover illicit drug use happening on the premises. The library is not, and should not, become a “safe injection site” as some of the Twitter mob was suggesting.

Libraries are more important than ever with the ever-increasing polarization of our society. They are one protection against the extremists, and they have to be safe places for people who come to use their service, within their mission statement.  Let’s leave libraries out of our cultural, social, and political battles.