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College Quarterly
Summer 2010 - Volume 13 Number 3
Places to Grow: Public Libraries and Communities in Ontario, 1930-2000
Lorne D. Bruce
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

This is one of the first times that The College Quarterly has offered a review of a self-published book. It will not be the last.

Lorne Bruce, who will be retiring from his position at the University of Guelph in 2011, first came to our attention when his earlier contribution to the study of Ontario libraries, Free Books for All: The Public Library Movement in Ontario, 1850-1930 (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1994) was reviewed here over fifteen years ago (see the Archives, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1995). It was the first half of his now completed history of Ontario libraries. It was said at the time to be “meticulously researched and engagingly written.” It also told a heroic tale.

As students wander about chronically texting and tweeting, it is not hard to experience sadness as we roam through the stacks or relax with something from the international press in a quiet reading room. It is more a sense of tragedy than of mere nostalgia as libraries are being converted from holy places filled with sacred texts (all books are sacred in their way) to wired (or is it wireless?) work stations that glow eerily in the light or dark. It takes a sturdy soul to negotiate the emerging post-literacy of the Internet and the virtual world of social networking and escape unscathed. Lorne Bruce does what he can to help us in his scrupulous celebration of “places to grow.”

People who lack a preternatural affection for libraries or who are too young to revere the memory of the aroma of mahogany drawers filled with decaying card catalogues and who see no antique virtue in volumes from the time when covers were made of leather and when bindings were sewn, may wonder if this book is worth reading. So will contemporary bean counters for whom history is “bunk.” So may people for whom discussions of meetings among politicians and bureaucrats busy in the business of formulating and implementing public policy are ever so slightly … boring. After all, apart from “old-school” librarians and administrative scholars, there are few people who think that the history of public administration and library management are subjects fit to feed the emotions and inflame the passions.

If, however, we regard the libraries of the past and the present as not merely serving a vital educational purpose (or a relatively safe place to store the children while we do the food shopping), but of being a place where democracy takes one of its earliest and most significant shapes, then support for this book becomes much easier. Both the project itself and the people who dreamt and defended it turn out to be rather magnificent exemplars of citizenship in its purest form.

Lorne Bruce writes of the library as a site of civic engagement. In the very noblest sense of the term, the library is a political place. It is all about what the ancient Greeks called the polis—the community and the centre of learning, the pursuit of knowledge, of ethics and of excellence.

We must remember that there was a time not long ago when the prospect of ordinary citizens reading works more intellectually challenging than a manual showing how to cook, sew or construct home furnishings (not that there is anything wrong with mastering the practical arts, and I mean that most sincerely) was considered potentially subversive. If “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” then a great deal of knowledge could, it was said, become cataclysmic. So it was that establishing public libraries was once a very controversial topic, and perhaps more important at the time than any sort of social spending today.

Places to Grow chronicles the struggles of librarians and their patrons in a time when the initial battles had been won, but what we now call “challenges” were continually being faced. Lorne Bruce attends to matters such as the survival of libraries when they were threatened by the economic collapse of the 1930s. He explains how Canada’s involvement in World War II profoundly affected our culture and the place of public libraries in it. The 1950s are marked in my memory both by the opening of a small store-front operation in my little rural village of Highland Creek, and by the great optimism engendered by the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences (the far-famed Massey Report). That decade is discussed in detail. Post-war prosperity, the expansion of literacy, education and the emerging “information society” are given full attention, and many of the contributions of singular, unsung heroes are given their due.

The tricky bit comes at the end, when Bruce confronts the future of libraries. Most historians are sensibly reluctant to assume the role of cultural critic and to pass premature judgement on the recent past, but they are even less willing to speculate about the future. Still, the technological transformation occasioned by what Marshall McLuhan innocently called “the global village” raises eyebrows, heartbeats and blood pressures.

Futurists from Newt Gingrich to Dr. Tomorrow are happy to shill for anything with a screen, and they are also easy to mock; but, the excessive claims of neophiliacs aside, the future of books and libraries is untidy at best.

Jason Epstein, the man who, for most practical purposes “invented” the trade paperback book as a commercial product in 1952, put the issue cogently in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books (March 11, 2010). He said that “the transition within the book publishing industry from physical inventory stored in a warehouse and trucked to retailers to digital files stored in cyberspace and delivered almost anywhere on earth as quickly and cheaply as e-mail is now underway and irreversible.” The implications for libraries are formidable.

It would have been nice to have had more of Lorne Bruce’s critical perspective on these matters, but it is enough that he frames the questions well. Having established a narrative that takes us through the bulk of the twentieth century and prepared us for the twenty-first, it is up to us—library workers, ordinary bibliophiles and kindle users alike—to achieve some perspective. Thanks in part to the work of Lorne Bruce, we can learn some important lessons and journey forward with “cautious optimism.”

Places to Grow: Public Libraries and Communities in Ontario, 1930-2000 can be purchased from Lorne Bruce, 78 Sanderson Dr., Guelph, ON, N1H 7L9.

Howard A. Doughty was the founding editor of The College Quarterly. He is now book review editor of both The College Quarterly and The Innovation Journal, while splitting his time between his work as a professor of political economy at Seneca College and as a Steward for OPSEU Local 560 at Seneca College.