A mission for libraries

July 21, 2022   ·   0 Comments

By Anthony Carnovale

I remember a time, when I was about seven years old, playing in front of our house in Toronto. I was by myself, and I was trying to throw a tennis ball as far up into the sky as I could. I used what was around me as a marker: I made it past the roof of our house; I threw it past the top of the streetlight; I only just made it higher than the neighbour’s tree. It was a warm summer day. The sky was covered with clouds — my next target. I gripped that ball in my hand and launched it as hard, and as high, as I could. It was a glorious moment. Not only did the ball break through the clouds, it also broke through the earth’s atmosphere and kissed the margins of outer space. I watched the ball come back down to earth and bounce down the street until it nestled in the grates of a sewer.

That day popped into my mind as I watched the images from the James Webb Space Telescope being shown on TV. The pictures were hypnotic, mesmerizing. The picture of the five galaxies interacting with one another and stretching each other with gravitational forces was jarring; the image of the Southern King Nebula, a dying star sharing the same orbit with a younger star, looked like the whisper of a fetus inside of a womb. The NASA scientists said that looking at these images was like looking back to where time began. We were looking at the beginning of us.

The images, and the stories behind them, stayed with me as I visited the Orangeville Public Library. I was there to do some research, on the microfiche, for a new writing project I’m working on. As I scrolled my way back through time, skimming my way through 90-year-old editions of Orangeville newspapers, I toyed with the idea that I was one of those NASA scientists nerding out to all that data, going back through time looking for the origins of a story to tell (we all have to start somewhere). You can do this sort of thing from inside of a library.

In a few of his short stories, Jorge Luis Borges likens the library to a vast universe inside of which we can find all the books that have ever been written and all those that will ever be written, those that make sense and those that are completely nonsensical. If this is true, then all that we need to know, and all that we will ever need to know can be found in a library.

And yet, every few years or so, discussions ramp up about the relevance of libraries in our Google-mad world. Despite the fact that library visits are up — that libraries played an integral role in helping so many people through the various lockdowns, that libraries are one of the few civic spaces that everyone can access and utilize and not be pressured into buying a drink — libraries are still underfunded, under-valued and under attack. A few years ago, there was an idea being thrown around that it might make some sense (financial sense) to shut down the Alder Branch of the OPL.

 My family and I try to visit the OPL as often as we can. On a recent visit to the Mill Street branch my son asked me, “Daddy, why are there only old people in the library?” I told him that not enough people recognize how privileged and lucky we are to have two branches of the public library in town, and that like with most things, it has to do with perception. I reminded my son about those NASA images we saw earlier in the day and all the different parts that make up our universe — punchy galaxies, the birth of stars, dying stars. I tried to convince him that each shelf in the library was like its own galaxy with names like Biography, Philosophy, Fiction and History. I told him that every book on the shelves was like a planet, and every word written inside of those books was a star, or a particle of cosmic dust, and that the librarians were like the gatekeepers, like the NASA experts telling us what we were seeing and that if you put it all together you have something like a universe, our very own version of the universe — right here, at the corner of Broadway and Mill Street in Orangeville, Ontario. And that if we put in the time and effort, we could find answers to some of the most pressing questions of our time. Like: How did the universe become the way it is? Is ours the only planet with life?

Before I could pose another question, my daughter interrupted me and asked me one of her own: ‘Daddy, is that girl over there homeless?’

The Orangeville Public Library is a vital part of this community. Like those images that NASA shared with us, a library can help expand our understanding of who we are and what we are capable of. There is so much more that unites us than divides us —and that if we looked up at the sky a little more often, if we visited the Orangeville Public Library a little more often, we might one day see that.

Readers Comments (0)

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.