HMM . . . : The Humanities Without the ‘U’, Within our Public Libraries

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I’d be very curious to see a breakdown of the educational backgrounds of public-library users who currently borrow humanities-related material from our public libraries, and who attend public-library sponsored, humanities-related, events, like author readings and book-club meetings. I suspect it’s mostly people who have at least some post-secondary education in humanities-related areas who engage with the humanities through our public libraries–although I could be wrong. Proving this point would seem to be next to impossible since, as I learned when I enquired at my local branch of the Vancouver Public Library about obtaining a record of books that I, myself, had read during a period of some heavy reading (and before I kept a reading diary), for legal reasons, public libraries, at least in British Columbia, don’t even keep records of which books are read by individuals: apparently, it’s considered an invasion of privacy (although libraries always know the titles of the books that you return late).

Although I don’t have the statistics to back me up, my theory is that a humanities education at the post-secondary level whets people’s appetites for more–and that one of the ways (not the only way) adults with an interest in the humanities satisfy that interest is through use of public libraries. Conversely, my theory goes, those who didn’t study humanities-related subjects at the post-secondary level, even if they did participate in post-secondary education, are less likely to engage with the humanities later in life–including through using the humanities-related resources of public libraries. I would suggest that the educational experience is at least as important in keeping people engaged with the humanities later in life as is an early interest in this area that contributed to them studying the humanities in the first place. (At least back in the good old days, when university humanities degrees alone were still a great asset in obtaining employment, it seems many people enrolled in humanities programs more because they wanted the degree than because they were particularly interested–at least initially–in the subject matter. Also, math may not have been their forte, so the humanities it was.)

Also, getting back now to what I discussed my previous blog post, although there are now some serious problems with university and college humanities programs (including cost; career prospects for those who can afford to obtain only one degree; and, last but not least, philosophical and political turmoil), there also are some good things about a humanities education, for the individuals who received such an education and, dare I say, even for our society as a whole. For example, in Canada, that was culturally dwarfed by Britain and the United States for such a long time, a blossoming of Canadian culture, including Canadian literature and home-grown performing arts, occurred around the same time as the major expansion of Canadian universities, including our university humanities departments, in the 1960s and ’70s. These university humanities departments championed Canadian culture, and made it part of the basic curriculum for their students.

The ongoing decline in enrollment in university and college humanities departments may, therefore, have some serious negative longterm consequences–including not only in Canada, although this relatively young and relatively sparsely populated country of ours may need to be more concerned than most–unless other public institutions, such as our public libraries, can help to pick up the slack.

If you’re ready to engage with the humanities, a good public library–like our wonderful Vancouver Public Library–has everything you are likely to need. Obviously, there are all the books, including both hard copies and digital books, available on loan, all for free (assuming you return your books on time). Most public libraries today also provide free access to computers, as well as free Wi-Fi, enabling anyone with just basic computer literacy to do simple research about subjects of interest–including, perhaps, finding out more about the authors of books one has read and what else they may have written. But there is so much more than that, of which I doubt even most regular users of public libraries today are aware. I wasn’t fully aware myself of what our Vancouver Public Library has to offer in this area until I started to look into it in preparation for writing this piece.

For those of you who are interested, especially those of you in the Vancouver area, I would suggest having a good look at the Vancouver Public Library’s website.  All things considered, one could become just as knowledgeable in the humanities though self-directed ‘study’ at a public library like the VPL, perhaps with some assistance provided by its librarians, and perhaps also with some assistance from members of on-line chat groups, as one could through doing a BA in the humanities at a university. Also, as I noted in my previous post, the CNN correspondent, Fareed Zakaria, had mentioned in a college commencement speech he recently gave that improving his writing and oral communication skills were among the things he most valued from his own humanities education–quite apart from the content of the courses he took.  There are opportunities for these things, as well, at least at the Vancouver Public Library.

Our public libraries traditionally haven’t served as cheerleaders for the humanities, as such–although library literacy programs, encouraging and assisting people to read period, can provide a basis for helping them to explore, and appreciate, the humanities. But, now, and heading into the future, perhaps our public libraries need to increasingly take on that role. One possible programming addition (where it doesn’t already exist), is outreach programs to elementary and secondary schools, explaining to students all of the resources, especially humanities-related resources, available in their public libraries, and how they may access them. Also, larger budgets for advertising, in various media, may now be in order. For these kinds of programs and marketing enhancements to exist, however, adequate funding is required–and, now, more than ever, our libraries seem to require that funding.

Incidentally, the above picture is of the interior ‘Promenade’ of the Central branch of the Vancouver Public Library. This remarkable, award-winning, building was designed by the Israeli-Canadian architect, Moshe Safdie, who also designed the innovative housing complex, Habitat, for Expo 67 in Montreal.

Last Friday, the Promenade was being used for multicultural festivities for our upcoming Canada Day–including Scottish dancing.  (My surname, ‘Third’, is Scottish.)  Happy Canada Day everyone!

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