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By: Cornelia Penner
My first public library must have been the Gosling Memorial Library in St. John's, Newfoundland. I was one of its patrons until the age of eight when my family left Newfoundland. My memories of this period are of course fuzzy and incomplete, but what I remember most about the Gosling Memorial Library was its location: inside the City Hall building. I remember seeing a scale model of the building that impressed me by its small size and accuracy. I also remember cannons outside, but my mother was unable to confirm this when I asked her about it so it may be a memory of something else. Apparently I attended story-time at the library (I don't remember it, though).
Strangely enough, I don't remember much about the library itself or the books I borrowed there, other than that when I signed out Tintin books my parents would put them on top of the fridge (and out of the reach of children) because they disapproved of the violence.
I do have strong memories of the discarded library books that my parents bought by the boxful. They read them aloud to me, I learned to read and read them by myself, and when I babysat as a teenager I always brought along some of these books to read to the children. I still remember picture books like The Missing Milkman and Taro and the Tofu. Because of these library discards, as a child I did not just play house; I also played library. I used the little pockets and cards still in the books to set up my own public library, with my dolls and stuffed animals as the patrons. Little did I knew that I would one day attend library school with the goal of becoming a "real" librarian.
While researching this article, I was saddened to learn that the Gosling Memorial Library is now closed.
After we moved to B.C. my family lived for less than a year in a small town called Ashcroft. There I became a patron of the Ashcroft Public Library. It was a small rectangular building. (I didn't remember that it was painted blue, but if you take a look at the photo you'll see that it is.)
Once when I biked to the library to get my "book fix" there was a table inside on which someone had left his or her excess zucchini for library patrons to help themselves. (Apparently zucchini is so easy to grow that you always end up with more than you can eat.) Beside the zucchini were several recipes, with blank recipes cards for copying them. I chose a zucchini to bring home and copied out the only recipe that appealed to me: Zucchini Chocolate Cake. I biked home with the zucchini in my basket and the recipe in my pocket. I have made this recipe many times since then, and it is surprisingly good.
Use normal cake method. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes in a 9 x 13 or bundt pan. If desired, after cooling and turning out 15 minutes, top with glaze made from 2 cups icing sugar, 1 tsp vanilla, and 2 1/2 to 3 T. milk.
The Chilliwack Public Library in Chilliwack, B.C., which I visited many, many times from the age of nine to seventeen, is the yardstick by which I measure all other libraries. Other libraries may be better or worse than this one, but I always judge other libraries' services, policies and collections by this library. (That's why I think it's normal for libraries to be closed Sundays and Mondays.)
What I liked best in the children's department was the section of award-winning novels called, I think, the Enis Watson Collection, in memory of a former librarian. The books there were generally more interesting than those in the revolving paperback stands. I also borrowed Tintin and Asterix books, and this time my parents put up with them.
When I was in junior high I also attended a few author visits, although I usually needed a note from my mother to miss school. (The visits were scheduled during school hours to allow classes to attend.) That's how I met the Canadian children's mystery writer Eric Wilson; he said something to me while we were both hanging around waiting for the appointed time, but I was too shy to do more than mumble a reply.
The children and young adult books I discovered in the library inspired me to write to some of their authors. I received kind letters from authors such as Kevin Majors, Tamora Pierce, and Robert Westall (author of the Carnegie Medal winnerThe Machine-Gunners). I wrote to Canadian author Diana Wieler, and I was delighted to receive a copy of Bad Boy from her.
I have a vague memory of a card catalogue, but by the time I needed to start actually searching for books, as opposed to simply browsing for good books, there was already a microfiche reader and soon after that an OPAC (although I didn't know that's what it was called). I would like to say that one or more librarians had a great influence on me and inspired me to become a librarian, but that's not the case. I didn't approach a librarian until high school, when I asked one or two reference questions. I preferred to find books by myself, and generally I succeeded. In high school I started putting in Inter-Library Loan requests. Once I asked for Dorothy Day's autobiography From Union Square to Rome, and I was amazed to find out that they had got it for me from a library in Nova Scotia. I frequently requested books either from other branches or from ILL, and I instructed my family to be sure to ask for the title when the library staff phoned to say that a book had arrived for me.
Of course, I did read adult books eventually. I think that one of the first adult novels I read was Gone With the Wind, which impressed me because it was over one thousand pages in its yellow hardcover library edition. I also started to read Canadian literature, reading all of Margaret Atwood in grade 10. I read non-fiction as well. Because of books like The Machine-Gunners, I was obsessed with World War II, particularly the English home front.
I read so much that once when I went to the circulation desk to sign out some books, I was told that I had already reached the limit: 50 books per patron.
When I moved to Lemoyne, Quebec in 1997, I got a library card at the St. Lambert Municipal Library. I was shocked not only because of its small size (compared to Chilliwack, which, as I have said, is my standard of measurement), but also because it was not part of a regional library system, meaning that I was limited to the books in this library. (The Chilliwack Library, on the other hand, was part of the Fraser Valley Regional Library, and so the OPAC listed the holdings of all the libraries and those not in our branch could be requested.) I filled out a comments form about this, but the response I got said only that "unfortunately, the type of library system you describe does not exist in Quebec". My thought was, "Well, start it then."
Another thing that shocked me was the practice of charging patrons. When I registered, I was charged a fee of ten dollars, which surprised me because I thought public libraries were free. I also noticed that the library rented best-sellers for a few dollars to people who didn't want to be on a waiting list for popular books. I had an instinctive negative reaction to this, especially because in Chilliwack I was never charged for anything, not even for the book that was ordered from Nova Scotia.
One novelty was that the St. Lambert Library was bilingual. I had never seen this before, since in Chilliwack, the French books filled a few shelves at most. I was impressed. I also experienced library Internet stations for the first time.
Despite the relatively small size of the collection, I was able to find sufficient reading material. I borrowed many novels, and some non-fiction, especially cookbooks. The library underwent renovations and re-opened looking more spacious and more inviting. The periodicals area near the fireplace is a wonderful place to read.
I still think there should be a regional library system. I hope that this will happen with the upcoming municipal mergers.
Since July 2000 I having been working at the Westmount Public Library. I was impressed by two things: the beauty of the building itself, and the large size of the collection as compared to the size of the city. Since I am an employee, I will not comment further, but it is so interesting to find out what a library is like from the perspective of a staff member rather than the perspective of a patron.
And that's my life in public libraries.... so far.
By Cornelia Penner
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