The Role of a Library

The essential nature of writing is that it communicates knowledge beyond the lifetime of any individual.

From the days of Alexandria on, the essential nature of a library has always been that it preserves writing for future generations.

That's why my father, a co-founder and early chancellor of Brock University, quoted Stephen Leacock to argue, successfully, that the first building to be built to found the new university be the library.

Much of the past library role of presenting today's writing has been taken over by the internet. Providing access to the internet is indeed a natural role for libraries today. So is hosting or encouraging activities that spread the knowledge, understanding and appreciation of writing.

The Ottawa library is doing an excellent job of presenting writing across our extended city despite the caprices of pre-amalgamation boundaries. It's failing at preservation.

When I came to Ottawa in the 1960's, the Carnegie Library had rooms full of books donated by Ottawans to be preserved for future generations. Two specific examples:

As a musician, I discovered with awe shelves full of books such as Leopold Auer describing how he had taught Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman discussing his approach to the Mendelssohn violin concerto... I got about a quarter of the way through them, eyes and ears open the whole time. Then, they all suddenly vanished. Disposed of, to make room for popular modern fiction and such. I could never find out where they went, to try to buy some of them to preserve myself.
My grandfather sailed on the Cutty Sark. The irreplaceable OPL collection of international square rig ships and Nova Scotia schooners vanished too.
The OPL is now to partner with Library and Archives Canada, both branches of which have a policy that the last copy of a document is never disposed of. But, they only deal with Canadian titles - we Ottawans deal with the world. Our new library should be designed so that the OPL can also adopt that policy.

Books less used would be in the catalogue, and would be requested as books can now be requested from other branches. However, they would be kept in inexpensive back storage rather than the prime real estate of active library shelves, or microfilmed or electronically scanned so that a much lower activity level would suffice to justify their retention.

By concentrating on the unique role of a library, the preservation of writing for all, the OPL would be positioned to carry on the essential value of libraries into the future for all of us. Sadly, it has refused to do so, preferring instead to try to replace our community centers.

John Sankey
other notes on community matters