This article was originally published in the summer of 2012.
From the beginning of recorded time, librarians have stored and protected knowledge to stave off the plague of ignorance that, like other plagues, doesn’t distinguish between poverty and opulence. I’ve just finished reading Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. The lead character struggles to understand the world in a time when books and ideas are thwarted by religious belief and superstition. It is a terrific novel about life during the black plague and has me thinking about the amount of knowledge our librarians have collected over the generations and how important this knowledge is to understanding the world.
My family and I are currently visiting Costa Rica where the division between the wealthy and the poor is extreme. The house we have rented is high up on a mountainside (Del Congo de Uvita) and it looks out over the coastal town of Uvita. The town has a small one-room open-air school; its windows lack glass and the shelves are empty of books. There isn’t a library in the town, but further north Librarians without Borders built an elementary school library in El Hum. Things move much slower here; roads are rough, most of them are unpaved, and in some places knowledge and the advancement it brings haven’t taken hold – there are internet towers and cell phones almost everywhere, but even this technology hasn’t had a huge impact on daily lives in most of the coastal towns.
While there are libraries here in Costa Rica, they are nothing like the public library system we have in Toronto, which has had much more investment, both financially and socially. The Toronto Public Library system grew out of a campaign by city alderman John Hallam back in the late 1800s. It has become the largest public library system in Canada and has higher circulation per capita than any other public library system in the world.
But as Toronto’s city government reviews all areas to cut spending, this precious and priceless gem of a system could get whittled away by budget cuts so that its true value – not only the books, data, and information, but also the hundreds of librarians that protect and pass on the knowledge we’ve accumulated – disappears. Too many people now mistake data for knowledge and wrongly assume that the internet can provide all the necessary information society needs. But it is the desire to further ourselves through literacy, and understanding, that our librarians, our custodians over knowledge, work to nurture and feed.
When I ran for mayor of Toronto, I learned quickly that the opposition hires fake writers to post bogus “articles” made to discredit their competition. The internet allows almost anyone to pose as a “journalist,” or to create fake “news” sites that distort the truth. One site went so far as to falesely report that I had suggested privatizing libraries – which goes against my core belief that having a strong public library system is essential to protecting knowledge from being distorted by private enterprise. And it is precisely because the internet enables both truth and misinformation to co-exist that the need to maintain a strong library system is so vitally important to our city.
Libraries must continue to collect and protect knowledge, and, as a society entering the internet age, it is essential that we continue to fund them. Toronto’s public library system is one of the most important long-term investments our city can make. And it is our librarians who serve as custodians to protect our history and inform our aspirations.
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