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There's A Good Reason Canadians Won't Give Up Their Libraries

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By Craig and Marc Kielburger

If you really want to rile up a Canadian, threaten to take away their library.

Craig got his first taste of activism speaking out to save our local library. We've noticed ever since then that when provinces and cities experience a budget crunch, libraries are often first on the chopping block. Yet invariably, citizen rise up to protect them from extinction.

Newfoundland's plan to shutter more than half its public libraries sparked a recent protest by thousands at the provincial legislature. Comedian and commentator Rick Mercer lambasted the government with one of his trademark rants.

Libraries are so much more than just repositories for books.

When the town council of McNab-Braeside, a rural community near Ottawa, decided to cancel an arrangement that gave residents free access to the library in the neighbouring town of Arnprior, almost a third of the entire township signed a petition in protest. Then they voted out all five councillors in the next election.

In the age of e-readers, search engines and Wikipedia, why do Canadians still cling so tenaciously to these seemingly archaic institutions? Because libraries are so much more than just repositories for books.

Canada's libraries are vital community hubs with an ever-growing range of beneficial programs and services. Perhaps more relevant today than ever before, they are community institutions worth fighting for.

In McNab-Braeside, resident Brian Armisen tells us he couldn't imagine his community without the variety of services the Arnprior library offers. Armisen helped launch the campaign to save the library, and now serves as deputy mayor. Beyond free Wi-Fi and access to computers, there is a daytime storytelling program for preschoolers that not only promotes early childhood literacy, but provides a coveted social opportunity for stay-at-home moms and dads. A partnership with the town museum introduces school groups to local history.

There's a wealth of services and programs at Canadian libraries, like first aid and child health classes, financial literacy, and support for new Canadians such as English language programs, says Sandra Singh, chief librarian of the Vancouver Public Library and president of the Canadian Libraries Association.

With electronic media replacing books as the primary way information is shared in our society, libraries are at the forefront of digital technology. Whether you're a high school student keen on software coding or a senior who just wants to learn to use email to talk to your grandkids, your local library likely has a course to help you.

The newly upgraded Halifax Central Library boasts music recording studios with free access to digital sound editing equipment. Last summer, the Vancouver Central Library opened its "Inspiration Lab" featuring computers with the latest in video, audio and publishing software and gadgets. Visitors to the Toronto Reference Library can use 3D printers.

As urban communities sprawl and public spaces dwindle, Singh argues that libraries fill an increasingly needed role as community hubs. Many now feature cafes and auditoriums. The Arnprior institution has bookshelves that roll aside to make room for concerts and speaking events throughout the year.

"Libraries are about the only free public spaces left in our society where you're not a consumer, pressured to buy something," says Singh.

Perhaps most importantly, libraries provide their programs and services to those who are often marginalized or can't afford to go elsewhere for enrichment. And it's not just knowledge that libraries give to those in need. A pioneer of the sharing economy, the library lending model is expanding to create greater community access to other useful things through innovative initiatives like toy and tool libraries. We agree with Singh that libraries really are a tremendous equalizing force.

When was the last time you or your kids visited a local library to see what it has to offer? You might be surprised to discover that, far from being a community dinosaur, it's the coolest place in town.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit we.org for more information.

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