Published: Globe and Mail
February 19, 2022
A note to librarians and public libraries: Please feel free to republish this column as needed. If you do so please let me know, or send me a copy, and make sure to credit myself, the Globe and Mail, and my website https://appalbarry.com.
In 1968, when I was 12 years old, my world was almost entirely defined by the science fiction that I read at the Kelowna, B.C., public library. I could name all of the spaceships in Robert Heinlein books, was intimately familiar with Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and had read and reread I, Robot and The Martian Chronicles.
Inside the small one-story red-brick building on Ellis Street was a magic world that protected and comforted me. On those shelves I first discovered the seeds that germinated into almost every idea and belief that I have today.
I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t remember the names or faces of any of these librarians. But I remember the smell of the library, and the dust motes in the sunshine that streamed in from the big windows above the bookshelves. As I write I can feel myself pushing through the big double doors, turning left and walking into the big reading room for adults. I remember the counter where the librarians, with their ink pads and date stamps, waited to check out my books.
My family had moved to Kelowna from Calgary a few years earlier. I was the new kid. I wore glasses. I was picked on and bullied and was chosen last for every team. So I did what so many children like me do: I lived at the library, and inside the books that I brought home from its shelves.
I was a voracious reader. I’d burned through everything in the children’s section and was searching for something new. That’s when I asked one of those un-named librarians for help, and she led me out of the children’s room, and showed me the shelf of Robert Heinlein’s books for adult readers. She quietly explained to me that my library card was equally valid in either the children’s or adult section and that it would allow me to borrow any book in any part of the library. That librarian changed my life.
Twelve-year-old me couldn’t have expressed it in words, but I was overwhelmed by the honour, and the responsibility, of being told that, despite my age, I was allowed to read anything and everything in that library. For the first time in my life, I was being treated like an adult. I knew this was something special.
I remember beginning with Mr. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury and then moving on to other authors with a spaceship sticker on the spine of the book. As I scoured the shelves, I discovered that science fiction was not just about rocket ships and aliens, it was about societies and cultures.
Philip José Farmer took me along on The Fabulous Riverboat, and that twisted version of Tom Sawyer prompted me to discover the original Samuel Clemens. Ursula K. Le Guin upturned my understanding of politics and opened my eyes to characters that were neither male nor female, and surely prepared me for the coming decades of gay liberation, and now trans acceptance.
When I discovered Harlan Ellison’s groundbreaking Dangerous Visions and the sometimes drug-addled authors in that series, I realized that the world was much stranger and more fascinating than what I read in Kelowna’s The Daily Courier. And I learned that some books – such as Gore Vidal’s 1968 Myra Breckinridge – were best kept under cover for fear of outraging my father.
I stepped into the adult side of the library at a time when a seemingly endless stream of books not only explored “deviant” culture but also celebrated it as well. Reading about these dangerous and damaged people showed me that I wasn’t alone. That wasn’t something that I could learn from my family or friends. I had to learn it from books.
Being young means being unfocussed. At the same time I was devouring countercultural science fiction I was also throwing myself into non-fiction, scouring the Dewey Decimal system from the 100s – Witchcraft and Bulfinch’s Mythology – all the way down to the 900s and the Holocaust.
At 12, I already knew the horrors of Nazi Germany, and about the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Auschwitz. It never occurred to me that I might be too young to learn this part of our history.
Unfortunately, this path to enlightenment has been obstructed in McMinn County, Tenn., where the local school board recently removed Art Spiegelman’s landmark graphic memoir, Maus, from its curriculum.
McMinn County is not an isolated case. Across Canada and the United States, there are groups who demand that one book or another be removed from public view, from school curriculums, or from libraries. In the U.S. there have even been threats of criminal charges against public librarians.
Freedom to Read Week, which begins Feb. 20, is the time when our local librarians stand up for the books and authors that some people would ban. It’s also the time when some of us stand up to defend our librarians.
Every book in a library is there because a librarian believes it is worth reading. Unlike the self-appointed censors in Tennessee, my librarians in Kelowna were willing go the extra length to open doors and share the joy of learning with young people. Unlike the school board members in McMinn County, my librarians understood that reading widely and with abandon makes children stronger, and wiser, and sometimes kinder.