A Library of the Future?
Last May, the downtown branch of the Public Library—by some estimates the city’s most-used public institution—decamped, along with its entire collection, to Peterborough Square, where library staff have continued to provide an essential service in the offices of a former call centre. They plan to stay until September. And now Trent University’s Bata Library faces a similar challenge. At the end of April it will close for a year, though it too plans to operate from two provisional spaces, one in the city’s north end (until recently a Giant Tiger) and one downtown (an old Shoppers Drug Mart).
For a library, this is something akin to couchsurfing. But it’s all for the greater good. Both institutions are undergoing massive, and in many ways much-needed, renovations. Libraries must adapt to the needs of the present, and try to anticipate those of the future. Even the most ardent bibliophiles understand that. They have a harder time understanding when political and intellectual leaders in our community question the value of books in the first place. When plans for the Public Library’s $12-million renovation were first tabled, city councillor Dan McWilliams complained that this was a waste of money; “the business of lending books is over,” he said. Last October, Trent President Leo Groarke echoed this sentiment when he told the Examiner that Bata Library should no longer be a “museum for paper books.”
Both have since moderated their statements (obviously: in both cases this was a very poor choice of words). But as we all know it’s difficult to undo first impressions—in this case, the impression that certain decision-makers have something more than library improvement in mind. At Trent, where the library fulfills not just a civic duty but a professional one as well—faculty and grad students require constant access to write, teach, and do research—a sense of frustration has lately boiled over. Aside from the considerable disruptions a year-long adjustment to service will cause, many people are angry that the university plans to cull up to fifty percent of its books—approximately 250,000 volumes—to make room for various digital workspaces. Where, exactly, they’ll go, the university has not said.
Matthew Hayes, a PhD student at Trent, recently spoke to CBC Radio’s Ontario Morning about the controversy. Perhaps the saddest thing about the segment was that a scholar had to take time from his work to mount a spirited defense of what should, to those in charge of the renovations, already be obvious. “There’s a certain magic to having physical books in your hand and being able to actually see and touch them,” Hayes said in response to a question about whether the experience of browsing through the vast stacks of books—a mysterious, alchemical process of discovery—might be lost in the transition to digital learning. “It doesn’t necessarily seem like a big deal . . . but that’s how a lot of research is done,” he said. Was anybody listening?
A Creek Runs Through It
We recently moved, and our tiny new backyard abuts a gothically ruined concrete culvert that used to be a creek until, as our neighbour aptly puts it, “they fucked it all up.” The neighbourhood sits at the confluence of this ex-stream and Jackson Creek, at the foot of the Traill College drumlin. To the south of our neighbourhood, Jackson Creek is all but buried under the concrete, iron, and asphalt of the downtown core, and was hit hard by the 2004 flood, filling with apocalyptic amounts of rain that submerged the city in tears and guck.
Our ruthless binary brains have trouble wrapping themselves around the idea that natural processes happen in cities as much as in forests and fens; natural processes occasionally remind us of the fact that we organize our lives in opposition to the forces of nature at our certain peril, but we don’t always listen. Though we can’t seem to forget the Great Flood, we also can’t seem to learn anything from it.
The City’s insistence on building a casino is a disaster in so many ways that it’s hard to know where to start. But one good idea is to start on the ground, or under the ground. As it turns out, a creek runs through it too—or near enough at any rate.
Emily Amon spoke to City Council in February about Harper Creek, which abuts the site the City has doomed to be a casino, pointing out that development in the area would increase the ground’s inability to absorb water from 55% to 77%. The water that doesn’t absorb will, through the magic of narcissism, seem angry and destructive, and “eventually it will reach the creek.”
Now the Province, having been alerted to the area’s esoteric species, has designating Harper Creek a Provincially Significant Wetland, a move that shifts the balance of power significantly. As with the Parkway, the City’s refusal to entertain alternative futures is undermining its preferred future, and the gods of rain, their soggy lightning bolts held aloft, have the last laugh.
Here’s an axiom: everywhere you want to build something, a creek runs through it. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t build there, but in doing so, you need to take into account what the creek needs to do to still be a creek. That’s not a tall order and is more than fair rent to live here.
If you had to come up with an honest slogan for Peterborough, you could do a lot worse than “Come for the quality of life, leave because there are no jobs.” Capitalism has been running on fumes here since the late 1980s, and whatever wealth there is in the city has trouble generating enough reliable work for all the people who want to live here to pay rent and buy groceries, let alone buy a house.
This is happening everywhere, but it feels like a particularly Peterborough problem. Precariousness—or precarity, if you enjoy a good coinage—is the canvas on which the politics of the place, and its culture to some extent, are painted: a court party in slow decline forever aching for an industrial St George to come to town and slay the beast; a rising country party that wants to salvage from the economy’s ruins a new economy, green and punk and at least a little pink.
For those of us in the second group, who do various things creative and community-minded and yet can’t reliably pay bills, the idea of a Basic Income that would provide us with a simple income top-up while we art and politic and socialize the place up has undoubted appeal. Whether it can be squared with all governments’ reluctance to tax the wealthy without exposing those who already depend on the province’s tax revenue to survive day-to-day to more suffering, is a serious question. The math strains.
Peterborough once boasted a number of major manufacturers who paid good wages reliably for a worker’s entire working life. But that Valhalla of employability was short—a century at most, little more than a generation by some measures—and has had high costs, in the case of General Electric at least, in terms of the environment and workers’ bodies. Now that the age of industry is decidedly and finally over, are we in a worse or better place to build a better world?
Cover photo by Stephanie Cann. Illustrations by B Mroz.