Living Arts: A Thousand Doorways

Tuesday, 16 June 2015
This article originally appeared as part of the Hamilton Arts Council's Living Arts series. 

My sister went missing from the Burlington Public Library when she was somewhere between the ages of five and seven. This isn't my witty way of telling you she "got lost in a good book." Rather, she did quite literally go missing after a presentation in the basement auditorium of the Central Branch. She was under my not-so-watchful eye, and she simply slipped away. The police were called. My mother's face was streaked with tears as she shouted things like "Someone could have taken her all the way across the border by now!"

Nobody took my sister over the border. She got separated, and she did exactly the thing parents tell their children not to do during "stranger danger" conversations. She left the library and found my parents' station wagon in the Central Branch's large parking lot. This is where we eventually found her.

This isn't my first memory of the library. It probably isn't even in the first ten. But it certainly stands out as one of the memories I won't likely forget.

In April, I had the amazing pleasure of introducing one of my favourite writers -- Richard Wagamese -- at his literary salon at gritLIT: Hamilton's Readers and Writers Festival. Over the hour and a half that followed, Wagamese shared with us stories of homelessness, poverty, and finding his voice as a writer. He also told us stories about his relationship with libraries, and inevitably, it forced me to reflect on my own.

"Every book I ever opened had a thousand doorways in it," said Wagamese, speaking in particularly about the time he spent at the St. Catharines Public Library where librarians "were always there for me." Before he was a celebrated writer, he was homeless, hungry, and thirsty for knowledge. My memories of libraries come from a more privileged place; however, I share Wagamese's hunger for books and fondness of libraries.

The Burlington Public Library's Central and Aldershot branches were both second homes to me as a child. The Aldershot branch is where I sat cross-legged for storytime and where I counted jelly beans in canisters in hopes of taking the whole thing home. The shiny beige plastic chairs would likely seem miniature to me now, but back then they were the perfect place to sit and decide which books to bring home.

In the summer, Central Library was a weekly, sometimes daily, destination. My appetite for books was never more acute than during the BPL's summer reading program. For every five books read, I collected a prize, and I've been a competitive reader since. I've moved half a dozen times in the years since then, but I still have my summer reading program record sheets, and they're invaluable to me. They're keepsakes of the summers I met Amelia Bedelia, Cam Jansen, and the Rosso family (from my all-time favourite children's book, Ten Kids, No Pets).

There are at least a hundred stories I could share about the role of libraries in my life, but here are only a few: Always the budding historian, in elementary school, I connected to the library's copy of Encarta and listened to the speeches of dead presidents. I checked out a hardcover copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz more times than I can count, and it was at that school library that I transcribed the lyrics to Michael Jackson's Heal the World to be sung at a school assembly. In middle school, I accessed the Internet for the first of a million times, and a whole new world was at my fingertips.

In high school, the library was the place I pretended to study because it was easier to hide than to try to make friends. The school library is where we turned on the news to watch the World Trade Centre towers fall. It's the place where we held a memorial for two students who died too young fifteen years ago today. At the Carleton University library, I devoured copies of The Village Voice, reading about concerts I couldn't go to and movies I couldn't see.

It's been years since I've visited the BPL, but for eight years now, I've had a new home at the Central Branch of the Hamilton Public Library, a place I first visited by bus in high school in search of Leonard Cohen CDs and a little bit of freedom. I do a lot of my freelance work, writing articles like this, tucked in a corner of the library's fourth floor.

It must come as no surprise that I spent eight years editing children's books, and even more as a reader, writer, and reviewer. It will come as no surprise that I pity my travel partners, because each new destination means another library (or libraries) to visit.

"One of the things we need to give to our children is that the culture of books is the best place to be in," said Richard Wagamese at gritLIT's literary salon. It goes without saying that I couldn't agree more.

[Edited to add: Here are the Burlington Public Library summer reading lists that started it all:]

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