I often do my work at the downtown public library. I’ve always liked the library; the courtyard outside is one of my favourite places in Victoria, with its breathless spiral of slowly-turning sculpture dominating the bright atrium, and the random collection of characters who occupy its nooks and crannies. There are, of course, the books – but I go to other libraries for that. The public library is all about people-watching. (And free wireless).
The downtown public library hosts an unlikely group of people. One might expect, being a library, that it would be full of studious researchers, students and other academic or intellectual types. However, look at it from this perspective: it is a large, warm, public building in the center of the downtown core. It has many comfortable armchairs, dozens of computers that you can use for free, and public washrooms. Newspapers, magazines, and books are available for your entertainment. There are pay phones. Nobody will ask you to buy another drink, hassle you, or request that you leave, no matter how long you stay.
All of these reasons, and more, have made the library the preferred hangout for people that have nowhere else to go. On any given day, you can see a half-dozen homeless people asleep in the armchairs; the library is a warm, comfortable haven for someone who’s spent the night on a street corner. Then there are those who may have a place to sleep, but have no access to a phone or a computer, who are unemployed and need to occupy their days, or are living alone in their retirement and just want to be in the company of other human beings. There are dozens of regulars who spend all day here, every day. I’m starting to recognize them. A handful of people wait at the doors each morning before the library opens, huddled on the benches in the atrium until they can come in.
There are, of course, students and researchers. There are people who just come to check out a book and leave. Occasionally I see businesspeople doing very official-looking things. But the vast majority of people who come to the library seem to be on the more care-worn side of life. The computers are a huge draw; if you have no computer or internet access of your own, then the library is the one free route to the online world. When I was working in Botswana, the Kuru offices provided that service; if you had an email address, you could come in and check your mail. Here, you can do it at the library. The bank of computers is always full.
The pay phones are continuously in use, as well. Sometimes I like to sit near the pay phones and eavesdrop on people’s conversations. People will pull in with an armchair and a pocket full of quarters, and stay for an hour just making calls. I’ve heard about abortions, true love, babies on the way, drug problems, friends in jail, long-lost relatives, teenagers moving out of their parents’ homes… Just sit here long enough, and you’ll hear one side of any number of crazy stories.
I imagine it must be interesting to work at this branch of the library; part social worker, part librarian. There are safe needle drop boxes in the bathroom stalls. I imagine they sometimes have to deal with rowdy characters. It is downtown, after all, and despite how easy it may be to skate your eyes over the panhandler on the corner or the mazed, delirious man stumbling down Douglas in his stained second-hand parka, this is our city. Full of problems, spilled out into the heavy black receiver of the library pay phone, or shared silently with the hundred other people gathered in this warm, well-worn building to try and avoid being lonely.