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VANCOUVER—The weather was miserable, and the event was up against Writer’s Festival readings throughout the city, but that didn’t stop more than 100 people from showing up at the Vancouver Public Library’s Central branch for Thursday night’s CUPE 391 writers event, “Public Libraries: Keep Them Local.”

The panel discussion, hosted by CUPE 391 president Alex Youngberg and moderated by author and CUPE Communications rep Daniel Gawthrop, featured local authors Caroline Adderson, Carellin Brooks, Larissa Lai and Stan Persky, as well as political columnist Bill Tieleman.

The purpose of the event was to highlight the importance of public libraries’ acquisition and cataloguing services in protecting the local integrity of library collections. Youngberg set the tone with her opening remarks, which addressed the concern library workers have had for years about threats to collection development.

Acquisitions and cataloguing are the latest services to come under threat of possible contracting out, and Youngberg highlighted the current trend of “Chapter-izing” libraries in which privatized acquisitions lead to “cookie cutter” collections that don’t reflect the rich diversity of local cultural history. The CUPE 391 president told the crowd that the evening’s event had received the support of noted literary critic and essayist Alberto Manguel (A History of Reading, The Library at Night), who just this week donated a brief essay, “Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Library,” to be published by CUPE 391 for the cause.

An indispensable resource

For the panel discussion, the authors shared their own personal experiences with public libraries and the people who work in them.

Adderson (Very Serious Children, A History of Forgetting) began by pointing out that a “bestseller” in Canadian literature is only 5,000 copies, and public libraries are often the only place to find local titles. As the VPL’s writer-in-residence last year, Adderson also got a first-hand look at how important the Central branch is to people as a community space.

Brooks (Bad Jobs, Wreck Beach), also an editor for New Star Books, noted that public libraries are often the only place to find controversial books that get pulled from supermarket shelves or don’t appear on BC Ferry bookstore shelves at all. She also praised public library workers for being committed to the people they serve.
Chariandy (Soucoyant, Brothers) described how he wrote his entire first novel in the VPL’s Central branch, just upstairs from where the evening’s discussion was taking place. Libraries are the only place to find ancient texts, and are places of creativity themselves, he said, noting that he even created a character in his book based on a librarian he knew.

Lai (When Fox is a Thousand, Salt Fish Girl) waxed nostalgic about her childhood relationship with her librarian, and spoke of how important the library has been in researching her books. She added that she was shocked to learn that acquisitions and cataloguing might be contracted out.  “Outsourcing would be a massive mistake,” she said.

Persky (Then We Take Berlin, The Short Version), spoke of the difference between a parochial and a cosmopolitan intelligence, and how this could be determined by the extent to which one can appreciate the local in the context of the world. “A library is a place to take refuge in hard times,” he said, “and we certainly know about hard times.” Persky also praised the vision of architect Moshe Safdie in designing the VPL’s ancient Roman-style main branch (“He understood that the library is a fantasia”) and quoted Manguel on the late great Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, who once said, “I have always thought of paradise as a kind of library.”

Tieleman, the well-known 24 Hours columnist, brought the temperature up a notch with a blistering attack on the BC Liberals, whom he referred to as “bastards” for slashing funds to libraries, BC Bookworld and the province’s book and magazine publishing associations even after promising to make B.C.“the most literate jurisdiction in North America.” He drew cheers when he said that Gordon Campbell should be banned from all public libraries and he called for a new organization called Former Premiers for Libraries. Tieleman urged public library defenders to make better use of Facebook to spread the word about their cause, noting that his own page dedicated to the fight against the HST has 128,000 members—one of the largest in the world.

The panel presentations were followed by a lively discussion involving several members of the audience. One comment about “Chapter-ization” prompted Adderson to recall her own shock when she arrived at a downtown Chapters bookstore, shortly after winning the BC Book Prize, to find that there were no copies of her books in the store. “I showed up with my stickers from the Book Prizes, to put on the books, and they told me there was only one copy in Surrey,” she said.

Time to take action

Youngberg urged audience members to attend an upcoming meeting of the library board to urge them not to contract out acquisitions and cataloguing. And library trustee Stuart Mackinnon urged attendees to write him a letter as a member of the board.

I was very disturbed when we lost the bindery,” he told the crowd, “so I wouldn’t want the library to have to make another decision like this for financial reasons.”

Youngberg also urged audience members to take out subscriptions to BC Bookworld, while New Star Books publisher Rolf Maurer made a passionate plea on behalf of People’s Coop Books on Commercial Drive—the latest independent book retailer to fall upon hard times. Maurer urged audience members to pay a nominal fee to become shareholders and attend meetings to prevent the store’s possible closure.