Nothing’s more punk than a library

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A cardboard box filled with books, pamphlets, and zines of all colours.
You won’t have to deal with pop-up ads when paging through these bad boys.  Lindsay Eyink via Wikimedia Commons

A sanctuary that promotes open access to information, and that’s just to start

As of January 2024, Canada has 642 public library systems across the country that boast 3,350 branches. The earliest free, publicly funded library in Canada was in Saint John, New Brunswick, established in 1883. Of today’s existing libraries, the Toronto Public Library is the busiest with over 2.8 million users.  

In Regina, approximately 45 per cent of residents are active borrowers from the Regina Public Library (RPL) according to a 2022 annual general report. This amounts to approximately 101,134 active library cards across the city. According to RPL, the commitment and priority of the library is “centred on its aspiration to drive social vitality and economic prosperity for the people of Regina”.  

In recent years, several movements have associated libraries with punk aspirations and subcultures, asking “what’s more punk than the public library?” in the process. Likewise, various posts on social media suggest that if someone were to pitch the idea of libraries today, they would be considered too radically socialist.  

Libraries have deep histories in broadening literacy and anti-fascism. Moreover, they have also played a critical role in distributing anti-oppressive knowledge, such as with the African-American libraries and literary societies in 19th century Jim Crow-era US.  

Libraries are and have always been a political endeavour as they are built upon the principle of open and free access to information, and community support. Punk ethics value similar open-ended access, and question dominant systems and ideals. As such, libraries today generally function on the founding principle of facilitating access to information and equipping people with literary skills, a principle that is absolutely and fabulously radical and punk.  

Moreover, modern public libraries have shifted into offering services and programming beyond reading and literacy. They offer critical warm up spaces in the winter, access to public washrooms, telephones, free Wi-Fi, and often have free programming that might include food services and beyond.  

In 2023, Montreal libraries made headlines after proposing to hire staff to support and facilitate the non-literary needs of library patrons.  Roxann Fournier-Hoyt, a librarian in Montreal, explained how librarians have been challenged with increasing needs from community which are unrelated to literacy. She said on the topic, “even though it’s not really within our mission to do that, we’re all of the personality type that, ‘Goddammit, I’m going to help you anyway.’”   

Part of what makes libraries a potentially powerful site for addressing social inequities beyond literacy is that they are generally easily accessible and open. They exist in the communities they serve. No appointment is needed, allowing people to avoid a wall of bureaucratic hoops and paperwork.  

In 2021, the city of Drummondville, approximately 100 kilometres outside of Montreal, hired a social worker to address the changing needs of library patrons in response to what they call an “unprecedented housing crisis” compounded with exacerbated mental health challenges.  

The Drummondville library has had great success, and regularly receives calls across other municipalities within the province of Quebec with questions on how they too can begin such services.  

What is interesting here is that the punk ethics of solidarity, anti-oppression, and open access seem to be entrenched in libraries. Although entrenched, libraries are not without their contradictions and for a long time included only literature from settler colonial perspectives.  

As such, punk ideas surrounding mutual aid and ‘on the ground’ community level support might help us to reimagine what libraries are and could be. For example, what would it look like to have a library where staff are trained in harm reduction? Questions like this are captured within the sentiment that nothing is more punk than a public library.  

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