We are all Torontonians: Philistines and the Battle for Public Libraries

Just back from a visit to the inspiring Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery.

This comes to mind because one of the paintings on display there is a self-portrait of an unappealing Caravaggio as the Philistine giant Goliath in “David holding the head of Goliath." I am unusually sensitive, accordingly, to the powers of Philistines, a word not much used in contemporary Canadian political discourse.

David holding the head of Goliath
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Rome: Galleria Borghese)

Perhaps it should be. Like many of you, I first came upon the word in the work of Matthew Arnold, who in an essay published in his Essays in Criticism (1865), suggested that "Philistine' must have originally meant "a strong, dogged, unenlightened opponent of children of the light."

I can think of a few of our politicians who qualify under that heading, but let’s not give undue credence to Arnold. Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say:

Ancient Hist. A member of a non-Semitic people occupying the southern coast of Palestine in biblical times, who came into conflict with the Israelites during the 12th and 11th centuries b.c. The Philistines were a people (suggested to have been of western Anatolian origin) who came into the Levant in the period c1370–1200 b.c. as one of the ‘Peoples of the Sea’ mentioned in Egyptian texts of c1180 b.c. They settled in south-western Canaan in the 12th cent. b.c. and from there expanded inland, establishing control over their neighbours (this is reflected in the biblical saga of the Israelite leader Samson, who was betrayed to the Philistines by Delilah). The Old Testament describes the defeat of the Philistines by David, who slew the Philistine giant Goliath (1 Sam. 17) and records intermittent conflict between the Philistines and their neighbours until the period of Assyrian domination.

In extended use, the OED goes on, a philistine is “An uneducated or unenlightened person; one perceived to be indifferent or hostile to art or culture, or whose interests and tastes are commonplace or material; a person who is not a connoisseur.”

Just in case it seems too elitist to quote from the OED, let us hear from Merriam-Webster, which defines a philistine as In “a person who is guided by materialism and is usually disdainful of intellectual or artistic values.”

And here is what from the populist google.com has to say:

· A member of a non-Semitic (perhaps originally Anatolian) people of southern Palestine in ancient times, who came into conflict with the Israelites during the 12th and 11th centuries bc

· A person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or who has no understanding of them.

So, yes, I’d say we need the word in our political discourse – and the current battle to save the Toronto libraries is a good case in point.

A photo of Margaret Atwood, for the benefit of those who might not recognize her

This battle came to national attention last week when Margaret Atwood posted a few nicely-worded Tweets urging Torontonians to sign a petition to prevent closings. The CBC programme The Current devoted time to the topic yesterday.

The debate over public libraries is not-

just a Toronto issue, however. The issue of public funding for libraries has galvanized the UK, and it prompted a Philadelphia man to burst into tears at the closing of his local library. This is a battle we will all be fighting, even if we have not yet begun to do so.

Public libraries are vulnerable because they don’t make money (unless of course you count collecting library fines as making money), because the services they provide are deemed “non-essential,” and because they are dependent on public funding at a time when government is looking to cut spending on non-essential services. They are, in short, an easy target.

And why do public libraries matter?

Let me count the ways, based some of the above, not to mention my own experience as a lifelong member of public libraries in numerous cities:

  • Public libraries help level the playing field for those who are less able to pay for the services provides;
  • They provide a safe, comfortable space for any member of the public who needs the services that libraries provide, including access to computers, the Internet, books, audio, video, group meetings, reference materials, information on job and educational opportunities, etc;
  • They are vital for children, especially for children who don’t have books at home;
  • They are vital for immigrants, especially for those trying to improve their language skills and integrate into their new society;
  • They are local, ideally within walking distance;
  • They are a community centre; and,
  • If closed, it is almost impossible to imagine them reopening.

The Toronto battle has not yet made its mark nationally, but it should. If Toronto library users and supporters lose this fight, you can depend on it that other municipalities will be encouraged to follow suit.

I am a Montrealer, not a Torontonian, but I know this is my battle, too. And yours. It’s a battle we should all be fighting. When it comes to the future of public libraries, we are all Torontonians.


Linda Leith
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