Chronicles of a writer abroad

An Ode to the Library


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.

9 thoughts on “An Ode to the Library

  1. I so agree that libraries are way up there in providing social capital and are good places to spend time and people watch. Specially so if they allow library patrons to have kaffe while watching and reading (e.g. Starbucks is ‘in’ the John Kelly library at U of T but you can’t leave till you’re done!)

  2. When I first moved to Vancouver in the mid-80s I visited the main library branch so often I felt like I lived there. This was long before the construction of the new romanish (pun intended) building. Indeed this frowsy old building on Burrard Street could hold only a fraction of the library’s collection, with much archived in the basement vaults, never to see the light of day… hence the drive to raise enough money to build the new library in the decade that followed. But even in that old building I remember doing some research about a sailing trip I was planning on taking through Puget Sound to Seattle. Along the way I got (happily) distracted, and before I knew it, I was in the walled-in research section on the third floor from which nothing could be taken out, and into which everything was brought by a librarian for you. “My” librarian duly showed up, carrying what turned out to be one of Captain George Vancouver’s original log books. Original! I got to peruse it for as long as I wished. I spent hours going over it that day, and came back another day to absorb more. This document was sitting in some subterranean room beneath a hopelessly tiny building in a backwater city, just waiting for an interested pair of eyes. I was astounded that documents of such historical value were located in Vancouver, not London, but also that our city could fund a library system where librarians and their technicians are available face to face to serve anyone and everyone who passes through the doors. Amazing.
    One more story: about 10 years ago I was visiting with Nana and Boppy over Christmas and they recommended a book they were enjoying from their library (whose name now escapes me). When I went home I placed the book on hold via computer. I discovered none of the local libraries had a copy of that book in their collections, so I clicked “first one available” on the inter-library loan page. A week or two later the book came in, and to my amazement it had come from Nana and Boppy’s library on Vancouver Island to my local library in North Vancouver… it was the very same copy I had held in my hands over Christmas at their house. Indeed, I had had to wait for them to return it before I got to read it! And this inter-library loan is similarly free. Talk about user-friendly! Libraries are wonderful institutions!

  3. Captain Vancouver’s log! That is astonishingly enticing even for a committed landlubber and dabbler in pond-sized bodies of water.

  4. I guess this family comes by its love for libraries as part of the gene pool. I can remember the first visit I made to a little library in Owen Sound when I was 7 – that was the age when one was allowed to borrow books from the children’s department – and I have been a committed borrower ever since. If anyone enjoys English historical fiction, I recommend Cynthia Harrod-Eagles tour de force, called the Morland Dynasty which follows a family from the civil war through to the 20th century.

  5. I’d like a recommendation for a compact, read-aloud book to take on the two week canoe trip. Last year it was A Bird in the House by Margaret Lawrence, just the right length. Any ideas?

    • I love recommending books! One of my favourite CanLit picks is “Unless” by Carol Shields. It’s excellent and shorter than the Stone Diaries, for which she is most famous. I think that you would also enjoy Jhumpa Lahiri — she has a number of really good short story collections, as well as one novel. A truly wonderful book whose narrator is an autistic child is “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” by Mark Haddon. If you want something fun and quirky, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” (translated into English, French original by Muriel Barbary) is a good read. I don’t think you can go wrong with anything by Ian McEwan, who is one of my favourites right now, and his books tend not to be huge. “Atonement” and “On Chesil Beach” are two that I have liked best. Finally, I think the two of you might really like “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett, if you haven’t read it. Sorry if this list overwhelms — too many good books!

  6. Thanks so much, we will have to shortlist!

  7. Pingback: I read this news this week — oh, boy | Milchtoast

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