Opinion

Demise of libraries affects us all

Imagine the following (hypothetical) MAD Magazine scene: Alfred E. Newman lies semi-vertically in a reclining chair. Beside him is a surgical nurse in scrubs. Newman says tersely, “Scalpel!” and the nurse passes him the instrument. He grasps its handle carefully, then plunges the blade into his own head between the eyes.

Absurd, you say? Of course. The kind of nonsense one would find only in MAD? Not at all. Canada is powered and governed by just such foolishness.

How does one destroy the intellectual foundations of a culture or society? First one minimizes the significance or importance of research and academic culture through mockery and replaces it with trivia: professional sports, flashy entertainments and celebrity. Then one destroys the repositories of knowledge and data, and hobbles or eliminates those with the expertise to catalog, preserve, and maintain it.

Social critic and author Neil Postman explored the first of these methods in startling, eloquent books like “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” The second method is a gradual but accelerating erosion brought about by the governments we should be able to trust to know better.

For millennia, libraries have served as storehouses of knowledge and data. The books in ancient libraries were scrolls made of papyrus and more durable parchment, and scholars organized them by subject. As the technology of reproducible print took hold, publishers bound books in leather covers and librarians organized them on shelves.

In ancient times recorded information was rare and comparatively expensive. A rich man’s library might be his most valuable possession. Today data is plentiful and cheap but is also easily corruptible, and because of its ubiquity it is difficult to assess for accurate interpretation and truth.

Public libraries store information freely available to whole literate populations. As knowledge and literacy spread, public authorities made libraries integral parts of the education system.

In his book “Cosmos,” noted astronomer Carl Sagan referred to the destruction of the ancient library at Alexandria as “a kind of self-inflicted brain surgery,” through which many, if not most of the “memories, discoveries, ideas and passions [of the ancient world] were extinguished irrevocably.”

Welcome to 21st century Canada where same is happening.

Upon the Liberals’ election in B.C. in 2001, their suppression of education budgets led nearly immediately to school districts’ scaling back or altogether eliminating library services. When libraries were not closed, budgets were so limited that most purchases for collections were funded by bake sales and book sales, not direct support.

More recently our federal government’s zeal to be fiscally “responsible” has led them to close seven Fisheries and Oceans libraries, as well as libraries run by Natural Resources Canada, Environment Canada and Health Canada. Although this action has been called a “historic loss,” and “a disaster for science,” and compared to the infamous Nazi book burnings of the 1930s, the closures have proceeded apace.

Material stored in these libraries provided historical baseline data incalculably valuable for research. Such data are inconvenient to a government that wishes no objective, referable impediment, past or present, to industrial development in Canada (particularly pipelines), no matter how destructive it might be.

Although the government claims that information was to be “digitized,” much material was simply discarded.

In the last municipal election a local candidate (who failed to be elected) gamely proposed putting a coffee bar into the public library as a projected means of shoring up inadequate budgets. Whether such a step would in any way serve the purposes of the library is debatable, but the whole proposal illustrated the chief preoccupation of our political élites: money.

A recent article by Annalee Newitz argues that the major cause of the decay and destruction of the great Alexandrian library was budget cuts by governing officials. However ignobly, history repeats itself.

Al Lehmann is a retired English teacher living in Terrace, B.C.

 

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