The Sunday Magazine

Michael's essay: In praise of librarians

“Librarians are the trail guides who move youngsters through the thickets and forests of books in the uncharted world of the imagination.”
"If knowledge has become a secular religion, public libraries are its parishes, mosques and synagogues." (Shutterstock)

Our American cousins have just finished celebrating National Library Week. We don't do it until October.

Celebrate is the correct verb. If knowledge has become a secular religion, public libraries are its parishes, mosques and synagogues.

The Toronto Public Library with its 100 branches is the largest neighborhood-based library system in the world. In North America, it has the highest number of visitors and the highest circulation.

I'm rattling on about libraries and librarians this morning for a reason, because of something that happened a few weeks ago.

Two librarians tweeted that I had belittled their profession, calling their jobs menial.

Vast puzzlement ensued. Why would I ever denigrate the one secular institution that has had a greater formative impact on my life than any other?

Nobody on the production staff could remember me saying anything remotely derogatory about librarians.

Then the penny dropped. During my conversation with the sparkling Canadian poet Pino Coluccio, the subject of day jobs came up.

Coluccio, author of Class Clown, works in an office downtown and at Nordstrom's department store to support his poetic life.

I said that great poets often had mundane jobs during the day: Wallace Stevens worked in an insurance company and the British poet Philip Larkin "was a librarian."

It would never occur to me to call the job of a librarian menial. The point I was trying and failing to make, was that poets often take straightforward, ordinary jobs so they can write extraordinary things at night.

In truth, librarians and elementary school teachers are the most important non-parental figures in a child's life.

Walk into any public library in the country and you will see a children's section overflowing with kids reading or being read to.

Librarians are the trail guides who move youngsters through the thickets and forests of books and literature in the uncharted world of the imagination. 

"Librarians and elementary school teachers are the most important non-parental figures in a child's life," writes Michael Enright. (iStock)

My first library, a second home really, was called the Wychwood Public Library and was built along the lines of an English country chapel. If I wasn't at the movies on any Saturday morning, I was at the library. 

My earliest book was a slim volume called something like The Story of William Tell. I loved it so much I memorized it.

Later there was the high school library, which sparked the appetite for bookstores and actual book buying.

In the hierarchy of librarians, I would put children's librarians at or very near the top — people like Ken Setterington, an international authority on children's literature and the first Children and Youth Advocate in the Toronto library system.

One of the awful realities in life is that when things get tough, economics always trumps culture. And libraries are usually high up on the list of cuts that politicians want to make.

Last November, I talked to John Pateman, the CEO of the Thunder Bay Public Library.

He argued that libraries are about a lot more than books. They are community builders, shelters, outreach centres — in short, vital components of any social grouping sharing common goals and interests.

And librarians are the guardians of that shared mission. Long may they flourish.

Click 'listen' above to hear Michael's essay.