Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Why I Love Our Public Libraries

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When I was growing up our family didn’t have much money. The public library was our cheapest and best form of entertainment. My mother and I visited our local branch often, and my mother took me around the city to other branches for special events. As a child, having a library card in my own name was a badge of honour and a sign of respect, and probably the reason I took my own daughter to the library when she was only one and insisted she have her own card too. The first authors I met in person when I was child, Jean Little and Beverly Cleary, left me star-stuck as I had never been before – nor have I been since. Listening to writers whose work I enjoyed read aloud was magical. Being able to speak with them and realize they were real people did a lot to demystify the role of The Writer. If they could do it, I felt, then so could I.

Visit your public library on any day of the week and you will find a microcosm of our society. New Canadians gathering in small groups to study for ESL tests, homeless folks and people with mental health issues in from the cold, flipping through magazines or hanging out at the computer stations, high school and university students researching, children running circles around the stacks, watching a puppet show or listening to an adult read a picture book, retired men and women reminding us all that learning is a life-long pursuit. The library brings us together in one place.

For these reasons and others I have sought paid work in the libraries whenever possible. I have thrice been a writer-in-residence - at the Kitchener public Library, the Oshawa Public Library, and most recently at the Toronto Public Library (which, as a Torontonian, I like to boast, is the largest circulation system in North America.) As Writer-In-Residence for a public library my job was to provide a number of workshops and seminars, to offer constructive feedback on manuscripts submitted by the public, often by people who would otherwise have no access to feedback from a professional writer. Also, as WIR it was my job to meet one-on-one with those aspiring writers and talk with them about their work and how to develop their technical writing and editing skills.

Over the years, a number of writer friends of mine have asked me whether I don’t secretly dread reading what they assume must be poorly written stories. Isn’t it a waste of your time, they suggest. My answer is always a resounding ‘no’. Working within the library I’ve often received gems, inspired and inspiring writing from people who have no idea how good they are. Also, I don’t see my role as that of judge. I’m there simply to help voices become clearer, metaphors stronger, images sharper, language more precise. I am there to help people sound more like themselves, regardless of the stage of development. Being a writer-in-residence within the public libraries is a democratic gesture of solidarity with anyone who has tried to rise above circumstance. It is a political act that goes towards creating a more just and equitable society. It levels a playing field so that anyone who wants to try their hand at creative writing, and at expressing themselves, can do it. Anyone can be heard. I believe in that right. If there were such a thing as a permanent writer in residency within a public library I would be first in line to apply for the job.

Finally, librarians and library staff are some of the most literate, well-read supporters of books and literacy anywhere. In many ways these folks are leading the charge when it comes to keeping Canadian literature alive. They buy our books en masse. They understand e-books and the role of digitization in the brave new world of books, and they provide venues and audiences for writers across the country to read from our work and connect with new readers. In fact, at 7PM on May 15th, I will be at the Metro Toronto Reference Library as part of this year’s Eh List Authors Series. It will be my first opportunity to speak meaningfully about Matadora. The fabulous Susan G. Cole (NOW Magazine Books and Entertainment Editor) will interview me. If you happen to be in town please join us in the Beeton auditorium. The event is, of course, free.

Not too long ago, Torontonians had to endure yet another public embarrassment from our current Mayor and his brother, when they insulted one of our country’s greatest writers, Margaret Atwood, and threatened to close many library branches, claiming they were unnecessary. But they got an earful, and from all directions. Because, like me, Torontonians love our public libraries. We need them. We depend upon them at every stage of life, and if we are poor, isolated or struggling they offer hope for change. Libraries are sacred. They are free and accessible. They are the first line of knowledge and information for many people and they must be protected at any cost.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Elizabeth Ruth

Elizabeth Ruth’s first novel, Ten Good Seconds of Silence, was a finalist for the Writers Trust of Canada Fiction Prize, the Best First Novel Award and the City of Toronto Book Award and was named a top 10 book of the year by NOW Magazine, the Vancouver Sun and the London Free Press. Smoke, her second novel, was chosen for the One Book, One Community program and also named a top 10 book of the year by NOW Magazine. Her most recent novel, Matadora, will be published in April, 2013 by Cormorant Books.

Go to Elizabeth Ruth’s Author Page