Library Lovin’

In a large room in the Burnaby Public Library, lit primarily by generous windows and small lamps, an array of comfortable couches and chairs are housing readers, sleepers, and thinkers. It doesn’t matter how many REM cycles the man dozing in the corner has gone through – this is one place where public sleeping is perfectly acceptable.

Libraries are probably underutilized. Not book-wise, but as the remarkable public spaces that they can be. The whole concept of a library is actually fairly remarkable in our Liberal capitalist society – loitering is encouraged, knowledge of all sorts is free, and the area is blissfully free of commercial interests.

The Vancouver Public Library even has a Public Space Policy that emphasizes that “active use of our public space places the Library at the centre of public life.” Want to look at porn, but don’t want to do it on your mom’s computer? Try the library. Within the boundaries of the law, computers in the adult area are free to be used for anything, and the library accepts no responsibility for any online content. Rightly so.

However, advocating for public porn access is not my point. What libraries offer, that virtually no other indoor areas do, is a public gathering space. These should be open to everyone. At the Central Vancouver library, levels four to six boast free meeting rooms that can be booked on the same day, and can accommodate 12 people.

If you don’t want to pay for a meal, meeting places can be hard to come by. It may be possible to coerce a church into letting you conduct court in their basement. Capilano University will allow you to book classrooms for free – if you are a card-carrying student. It is clearly up to public institutions to be providing this service. However, 12 person rooms that can be booked only hours in advance are insufficient for community meetings.

Last month, the not-for-profit Safe Amplification Site Society canceled their monthly general meeting because they were unable to organize a meeting space. The previous meeting was held at a independently owned cafĂ© on Commercial Drive, thanks to the generosity of the owner (who was probably dismayed that the group didn’t buy more coffee).

The cheapest room to rent at the library (capable of accommodating more than 12 people) is $95. However, the rate does not apply if fees or donations are collected at the door, making it potentially difficult for a non-profit to recover the cost of a $95 meeting.

Libraries are hopeful places. It is always comforting to know that knowledge is available to anyone, and that non-judgmental gathering places that aren't based around selling coffee exist. Less than two blocks away, I’ve witnessed homeless people get kicked out of Starbucks for utilizing their comfy couches. Truthfully, Starbucks has every right to kick out people who aren’t customers. This is why libraries are so incredibly unique in their position to provide a public service that requires no entry fee.

For this reason, non-profits and community groups should have access to a space that is big enough to at least hold quorum for a Student Union general meeting. Libraries could be the some of the greatest public spaces in Vancouver, if only their substantial meeting spaces were made affordable.

After all, they should be able to recover their costs in less than a year’s worth of my overdue fees.

// Natalie Corbo

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