When I was young and wandering around Europe with half a guidebook and much gumption, I would keep company for a day or a few with assorted fellow travellers, but just as often, I was alone. Happily, though much to my mother’s dismay, no one in the world knew just where in the world I was.
There were moments when I was lonely, lost, at a loss as to where to turn my steps. Much as an alcoholic probably finds himself serendipitously in a bar in St-Temperance-of-the-End-of-the-World, I wound up in innumerable libraries—university libraries older by centuries than the country I had come from, small-town stacks in which I could scarcely understand a word, monastery exhibitions of illuminated manuscripts, architectural wonders that had survived a litany of fires and wars, lending libraries in hostel kitchens…
The refuge, the sanctity, the sheer hungry joy—libraries have managed to keep that sense of the holy even as they increasingly, necessarily conjugate it with information, computer centres, workshops, electronic this and that. And, for the past 25 years, with the dirty money side of all those books by all those authors on all those shelves.
February 2012 marked the end of the year-long celebrations of the Canadian Public Lending Right (PLR) Commission. With its roots in Denmark around World War II, the annual compensation of authors for the public use of the their books in libraries came to this side of the pond a few years later and, in the winter of 1987, over 4,000 Canadian authors received a cheque. Twenty-nine countries now have similar programs.
Lest we take it for granted, it took advocacy and effort—from 1949 to 1987, writers, librarians and civil servants wrangled commissions, associations, arts councils, libraries and governments, for official endorsement of, as George Woodcock and Basil Stuart-Stubbs put it in an article in Saturday Night magazine, “the value we attach to the freedom to know.” There was apparently at least one fistfight involved. The only rights we truly have are the ones we have fought for.
Even then, it was probably about enough for a round over in St-Temperance, but the idea of lending rights is greater than the sum of its sums—a recognition of the reading public, the restoration of some measure of financial equality to a perpetually struggling métier, and the acknowledgement of the value of cultural capital.
The number of authors registered in the PLR has quadrupled and, although the funding hasn’t quite kept pace, there was something of a year-long love-in across the country, culminating in a recent celebration at Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque. Organized by the Union des écrivaines et des écrivains québécois, the Quebec Writers’ Federation and Bibliothèque et Archives nationales (BAnQ), with the support of the Public Lending Rights Commission, the BAnQ and the Canada Council for the Arts, the “L’Écrivain dans la bibliothèque” event was part cri de cœur against those who increasingly see culture as not capital at all, and part appreciation for our ever-renewed societal coup de foudre for libraries. In the musical interlude, in the conference presentations, and in the excerpts of work from authors including Normand de Bellefeuille, André Girard, Erin Mouré, Jacques Poulin and others, libraries were hailed as spaces of discovery, and especially of access to discovery. Michael Tremblay, in Un ange cornu avec des ailes de tôle, writes of a young boy handing over his quarter only to be told that all this—the knowledge, the silence, the dim light shining over hundreds of others just reading—is free, is his. In a poem from Ross Leckie’s first collection, the speaker’s very self is bound to that access to knowledge: “The first time he understands his own name is / writing it on library slips.”
In the must and age and rainy days of those European libraries many moons ago, I was in a place that was mine; I was home. I might have been in another time; I was outside of time. Back then, I hadn’t yet published a line, and now I wait, along with thousands of other writers, for a slip of paper that reminds me not only that my words exist in the world, but that they are alongside countless other worlds. In libraries we are utterly ourselves, and we are in the best company.
© Katia Grubisic, 2012
Photo of Katia Grubisic, Biblioteca nacional, Buenos Aires; photo: C. Santana
Katia Grubisic’s collection of poetry, What if red ran out, won the Gerald Lampert award for best first book; she is also the editor of Arc Poetry Magazine. All of the above can be found at any given moment in a library