When I was in grade 3 I had to do a presentation in front of the class on tornadoes. I got to choose the topic and at the time I was pretty scared of being killed by a tornado. Even back then I knew that learning about a subject would probably make me less scared of it. I didn’t know how to tackle a presentation like that so I asked my dad and his first suggestion was that we go down to the library together.
I know it sounds absolutely otherworldly to say it but this was PRE Internet times. These were the last days of the card catalog. Do you know what a card catalog is? It was these tiny drawers with cards in them and the drawers were alphabetically arranged. If you were doing a presentation on tornadoes then you would find the Tornadoes section and then there would be different cards, each with a different book about tornadoes on it. If I’m explaining this wrong it’s because I was 9 at the time and what the heck is a card catalog anyway?
So my dad and I found really good information in some of these books and I became less scared of being killed by a tornado. We also found this cool experiment that I could do in class involving a glass of soda water and some steak seasoning. You swirl the water around and then add the steak seasoning and gives the swirling water some colour to it and makes it look like the funnel of a tornado.
I did my presentation in class and had lots of useful information to present the class that was very Edutaining and also made me feel better about probably not being killed by a tornado. Everyone loved the club soda and steak seasoning presentation as well and I got an A+ or whatever the Canadian equivalent of that is. This was my first library experience.
I’ve been reading Just Getting Started which is Todd Babiak and the Edmonton Public Library’s book about the first 100 years of the Edmonton Public Library. It’s basically like the library’s birthday present, but it’s also a present to the citizens of Edmonton. It’s so wonderful to read a history of your own city told from the perspective of that city’s library. An institution that has worked for over 100 years to strengthen the intellectual infrastructure of its city. From Edmonton’s first library, which was built in Strathcona in 1913 to the first streetcar library, the first bookmobile, the first computers in the library, new membership fees, radio tagging of books to allow members to check out their own books (my personal favourite), new innovations in the Writer-in-Residence programs, to Edmonton’s newest and coolest looking library branch in Jasper Place opened in 2013; the history of the maturation of our city’s public library system is also about the maturation of the city itself.
Babiak is the perfect tour guide for a book like this. Sure, you always assume that writers will be good at talking about libraries because they probably spent so much time in them when they were younger but that’s not really it. It’s Babiak’s love of (and possible infatuation with) Edmonton and our mythology that makes him such a good tour guide. He’s knowledgeable about this city because he knows that loving something isn’t enough to make you an expert. He knows that you have to get to know everything about something and what makes it tick and most importantly you need to know about how to make it better in order to truly love something and have knowledge about a place. In the first chapter of Just Getting Started, Babiak paints a brilliant picture of what our city looked like, and what our first library looked like 100 years ago. There are two possible reasons why Todd Babiak knows so much about our city: The first reason is that he walks our streets and actually listens to people when they talk about the way things used to be. The second reason is that he is actually in fact a 150 year old vampire. While the latter would explain his impeccable hair, teeth, body type, and dress sense; I believe it’s the former that is the real reason.
When I say that Babiak walks our streets I really mean that he walks the streets. Like actual walking. With his feet. Even in the winter. He just walks around all the time. He touches our city with his feet and he touches its trees and lamp posts and doorknobs. He’s very touchy feely in that way, but that’s the kind of person you have to be to truly live in a city. People like me live in the suburbs and just drive around a lot. I see the city mostly through my windshield. There’s always glass between us. Babiak’s way of interacting with our city is the same way that people still interact with our library system to this day. Mostly they use their feet and walk inside one of its branches. They talk to people, ask questions, sit down at a desk and open up a book, learn how to use an iPad or speak Cree. The public library just might be the new public square, Babiak argues. A place where the same universe of information and technology and entertainment is available to anyone, no matter how much money they make or what type of job they have or what their politics are. Everyone gets access to the good stuff. All you need is a library card.
This year the Edmonton Public Library tried to sign up every man, woman, and child in the city to a FREE library card. People like free things. They’ve set up booths at the airport, football games, shopping malls, farmers markets, you name it. Even though my regular $12 annual fee was waived, I still had over $20 in late fees from last time. See, that’s how they get you at the library. It’s those late fees. When I was in University they must have loved me over at that library. I used to check out dozens of books at a time and they’d almost always be returned late. Late fees were $1 per day per book back then. I don’t even know how many bit coins it costs today. That was a lot of money but I just had to have all that sweet sweet literature!
As an adult, and a wannabe writer and publisher, I have many new interactions and relationships with the Edmonton Public Library. Babiak talks about bringing his young daughters to the Strathcona branch and trying to enforce some Draconian “one book per week” checkout rule his wife and himself made up for some reason. He watches how his girls behave in the library. He watches them flip pages in the children’s area while others read newspapers or check Facebook from the library computers and then he and his wife and daughters walk back home together. They walk home together from their neighborhood’s library branch in 2013 with a cloth bag full of books in a world full of text messaging, and eReaders, and Wikipedia knowing that there will always be a need for everything that a public library offers.