The Fundamental Importance of Libraries to Civilized Society

I rarely comment on municipal affairs in Toronto as I am not an official resident but eventually there comes a time when the assault on reason grows so strong and offensive that one cannot stay silent. June Callwood once said that “if you are an observer of injustice you are a participant”. I would add that if you are an observer of ignorance you are a participant. Ignorance is bliss only for the ignorant. It is hell for all students of rational thought.

But remember that the Captain belongs to the most dangerous enemy to truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh God, the terrible tyranny of the majority. We all have our harps to play. And it’s up to you now to know with which ear you’ll listen.

– Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


Councillor Doug Ford, brother of current Mayor Rob Ford, has suggested that in order to tame the municipal budget of Toronto, public libraries may be on the chopping block. The Ford brothers have attacked intellectual institutions and persons before and the proposed scrapping of libraries comes as no shock. As revealed in a Globe and Mail article:

Mr. Ford, a rookie councillor who has quickly gained a reputation for headline-grabbing statements, said Tuesday he would close a library in his ward “in a heartbeat,” characterizing a growing movement to save branches backed by Margaret Atwood as an “over-reaction,” led by “library groups.”

Yes, those reactionary library groups, stirring up trouble as they have so viciously and violently for centuries. Please.

The Spark

What could he say in a single word, a few words, that would sear all their faces and wake them up?

~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Libraries have been around for thousands of years, first beginning as archives for city states. At their beginning, libraries were meant to be collections of information to be referred to and passed down through the ages. The continuation of knowledge this allowed for is directly responsible for every great achievement in human history since. The recognition of the value of libraries began at a personal level when Greek citizens began to keep private collections. This came on the heels of the construction of beautiful and epic libraries began all over the world. Library building, compiling and appreciation dates back as far as the emergence of the first truly great civilizations and that is not by accident. Libraries, whether we recognize it or not in modern day society, are the most important institutions we have.

With the invention of the Gutenberg Printing Press, perhaps humankind’s greatest invention, the printed word was able to reach more people than ever and an explosion of library building occurred that is now commonly known as the golden age of libraries. The presence of an impressive library was the mark of a great nation during this time. The wider availability of cheaper books expanded the intellectual pool in society and created a golden age in art, music, literature and philosophical thought. It is not surprisingly that the mass availability of books for the first time in history and the construction of the world’s most magnificent libraries came at the same time as the Renaissance. Libraries and the books they housed were integral to that cultural and intellectual leap forward.

The Flame

In the 20th  Century, the library has been a staple of society. Publicly operated and accessed, libraries have remained that way despite the privatization of almost every other aspect of modern society. I have heard it been argued that if public libraries as an institution were not created in the 1500s but instead in today’s society, they would be private. Thankfully for civilization, libraries came into mass appeal at a time of wiser minds.

Today, libraries are still a part of our everyday lives. Schools are incomplete without them and most homes have a personal collection, no matter how small. Even with increased use of the internet, people still flock to sites like wikipedia, the well known online encyclopedia which functions as encyclopedias always have; as a general knowledge resource when one is in need of a quick answer. Wikipedia is authored by the public and not always accurate but is a modern representation of society’s thirst for knowledge and the turn to text to gain that knowledge.

When I was a child not that long ago, my mother would take her children to the local library almost daily to look at books, master reading, and gain knowledge to be used later in life. It is probably as a result of these walks to the library that I still have such an unquenchable thirst for knowledge now.

The voices talked of everything, there was nothing they could not talk about, he knew, from the very cadence and motion and continual stir of curiousity and wonder in them.

~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

The Fireball

In February of 1916, a massive fire engulfed Parliament Hill while politicians fled the building. As Prime Minister Borden crawled out of the building on hands and knees to safety outside, someone had the foresight to close the Library of Parliament’s enormous iron doors and save the precious contents inside. In 1952 the Library caught fire but was saved again, as was the important historical information of our nation within it. If the Library had burnt to the ground, Canada would have been set back greatly.

Libraries are important. They are important to the young minds in society who may go to a library and without cost, drink up all the knowledge they can contain. They are important to the narrative of society so that we can remember the mistakes we have made and continue the path of the right actions we have taken. They are important to the development of a better future for all human beings as so much of our knowledge stems from the expanding foundation we have built within the walls of libraries.

We have known a world without libraries or the written passing on of knowledge before. We still call that time the Dark Ages. A future without libraries and without intellectual thought could certainly be called the same.

Let you alone! That’s all very well, but how can I leave myself alone? We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?

~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

The Dousing

This may seem like an overreaction to the threat of closing a library in Etobicoke ‘in a heartbeat’. But the death of intellectualism is something achieved brick by brick until something so integral to a reasoned way of life as libraries is taken for granted and then dismantled. And when the libraries disappear, so to will the intelligent minds so necessary for society.

In Ray Bradbury’s famous 1952 work Fahrenheit 451, the main character Guy Montag lives i a world where libraries do not exist and books are illegal. Guy is a fireman whose job is not to put out fires but to start them with the pages of illegal books and sometimes even the homes they are hidden in.

If there is no public outcry about the assault on libraries and by extension, reasoned thought, then I fear the following quote from Bradbury’s book will feel more authentic than it already does now:

Remember the firemen are rarely necessary. The public stopped reading of its own accord.


Click here to see images of some of the greatest libraries in the world today.

2 Replies to “The Fundamental Importance of Libraries to Civilized Society”

  1. To Mayor Ford and all the 44 City Councillors,

    Please do not cut or damage Toronto’s wonderful library system. Books are still valid and the wisdom of the ages has much to offer us still, in many walks of life. Also the many programmes offered our young and old. This is not an expensive service! Learning is a key to a healthy city.

    Thank you in anticipation,
    Christine and Mel Johnston,
    Retired Professors of Ryerson and U of T Universities

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