I’m going to go out on a limb and say that public libraries are some of the best — and perhaps the best — things that our Western societies have got going for them. Every time I use one, I marvel that these places can exist in today’s highly consumerist culture: places where you can go and borrow almost any book you desire for free; places where the poorest kid can gain an equal intellectual footing with the kid whose wealthy parents bring home loads of shiny new books with unbroken spines; places where, if you so desire, you can learn what they’d teach you at Harvard or MIT, without having to endure the snobby atmosphere.
One of the things that I really miss about Vancouver is its library’s Central Branch, which occupies an entire block of downtown. It is modelled after the Roman Colosseum (see a picture of it here) and each of its floors have one wall of windows overlooking an atrium with shops and restaurants. It is exactly what a library should be: an oasis of peace and quiet, and extremely well-supplied with all kinds of media. I spent many happy hours here while living nearby.
This week, I decided to check out Zürich’s library system. I felt some trepidation — first of all, I felt that getting a library card did not rank as an “easy” task on the language-complexity scale. I figured it was bound to be a fairly involved, back-and-forth exchange that I didn’t want to fail at, so even though I’ve been wanting to join the library for some time, I kept putting it off. Secondly, I was afraid that I would be denied membership due to my L(oser) permit, and I was afraid that being thus denied would be a crushing psychological blow (given my love of libraries) and would make me feel as though I am truly regarded as a black sheep in Swiss society. And there was good reason to fear: L-permit holders are barred from all sorts of things in Switzerland, including cell phone contracts and credit cards.
The library, I am happy to report, welcomed my desire for membership. I also managed to navigate the registration conversation well enough. It was explained to me that membership in the Zürich library system is not free, but you choose between two main options: 30 francs/year gives you the ability to check out only two items at a time, while 45 francs/year allows you to take out up to 25 items at a time. Those who know me well will not have to ask which option I chose.
Being asked to pay for a library membership was foreign to me as a Canadian, but after some thought I concluded that it’s likely a result of the country’s very low tax rate: services like this have to be funded somehow. Besides, membership is free for people 16 and under — I like the idea that my dollars help to give kids/youth a free pass to the library, and I hope it will enrich their lives as much as it has mine. Finally, the amount of money that I will save by reading books for free instead of having to buy them…let’s just say that it will far exceed 45 francs.
So, with my new library card, I feel like a whole person again, and I also feel a greater sense of belonging here in Switzerland (oddly, the few hundred francs per month that I shell out for health insurance doesn’t bestow the same feeling). There is a branch down the street from me with a pretty decent selection in English, and I’ve already got two novels on the go, one in print and one in audio format. The bonus for you, dear Readers, is that I’ll start recommending more recently-published books — I am already making plans to share one of these with you soon.