Patrons of Public Infrastructure

I am absolutely furious that the CBRM council has once again decided a new library is not important enough, despite the present structure being aged and decrepit and inadequate to the community’s needs.

The Public Library system is a vital, democratizing tool, providing access to services and information to all of us, but especially to the most vulnerable and marginalized. Is that why they tabled the discussion? Why they repeatedly voice a desire for an ostentatious piece of civic architecture instead of a welcoming, accessible space that serves the needs of ordinary people?

I say we all write to the CBRM council — while they can still read — and ask them what the hell they’re thinking. I may live in Skye Glen but the McConnell Library is my second home.


This was the rant I phoned into the CBC the other day which precipitated a phone call from my friend, Gerard MacPhee.

“I didn’t know what you were going on about, but I could tell you were mad about something,” he told me. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

Well, yes and no. My beefs about access to print media, libraries and the barriers to literacy are of long standing, so my blood pressure was not really any higher than usual. CBRM council’s recent call to inaction over a replacement for the McConnell Library was really just another burr in my britches. Just another footnote to the story we hear so often lately. People who, clearly, are not regular patrons of public infrastructure — like libraries, the bus service, public washrooms, etc, — fail to understand the absolute need some (other) people have for public access to these amenities; amenities that the former take for granted as part of the privilege accorded their socioeconomic station.

Antigonish Town & County Library

Antigonish Town & County Library (Photo via Efficiency Nova Scotia)

Many of us read the paper with our own subscriptions. We buy books and magazines or occasionally share them with our equally affluent friends. We have home computers with high-speed internet that allows us to apply for government services and support, arrange medical appointments, even get our groceries in a no-touch, COVID-protected way. What if, instead, we belonged to that unseen, unnoticed and largely disenfranchised group that had to read the paper and search the want ads on public computers after politely waiting their turn in the queue at the McConnell? What if we were one of the many print-disabled people who had to debase themselves by asking for help to access even the most basic of government forms, now available exclusively on-line?


A few years ago, I had occasion to ask my MP for assistance with a complicated passport application that I needed to accept an invitation to speak at a conference. While I waited for the nice young office assistant to work his magic, an older gentleman came in, holding a fresh Record of Employment. He explained to the assistant that he had forgotten his glasses and that he would appreciate help with filling out his EI application. The assistant – so kind and polite to me – gave him short shrift, saying he was not allowed to assist people with government applications and that the gentleman would simply have to get a friend or relative to help. Or perhaps he could buy new reading glasses at the pharmacy next door?

Fort Worth Library Public Access computers

Fort Worth Library Public Access computers, 2009. (Photo by Informationwave at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The man-off-the-street shuffled out without saying a word more. I leaned over the desk. “You know, he can’t read. That’s why he was asking for your help.” The assistant was aghast when he realized I was serious. “But that’s awful! How could you tell? And how is he going to get EI if he can’t read, never mind use a computer?!?”

I told him about my job as a C@P site attendant, a few years previously. In the fall, a parade of burly fishermen and woodcutters came in, all claiming to have forgotten their glasses. They were my neighbors and friends and it didn’t take much to figure out that these hard-working and intelligent men didn’t have glasses to begin with. They had either been failed by the school system of their youth, had undiagnosed learning disabilities or were simply scared to death of those new-fangled computers. I hasten to add that not all fishermen and woodsmen or even a majority of them have suffered these challenges, but the percentage is not at all close to zero. I was their friend and neighbor and I tactfully closed the door to the site and made them tea while I acted as their “glasses” to navigate the government world in which they were so unwelcome. There was even a place on the forms at the time where I could sign to attest I had filled out the information as truthfully as I knew how on their behalf.

If there was no such understanding and tactful person available, people who had difficulties had to phone the EI Centre, confess their disability – and one cannot overstate the shame this act engenders – and make a special appointment with a stranger to provide the service I did. But without the tea, or inquiries after their families.


Many people, of course, have other barriers to print beyond socioeconomic status and dyslexia. Here is a letter I recently wrote to the Prime Minister, as well as any other Ministers or MPs I thought might have an interest in what I had to say. Only two of the six replied – and the PM (or at least his secretary) indicated he would be passing it on to whoever the appropriate authority was.

Dear Mr. Trudeau,

I just found out the federal government is planning on cutting the funding to CELA, the Centre for Equitable Library Access. CELA provides audio and braille and e-books to anyone with a demonstrated print disability. A doctor’s affidavit is needed to enroll, but when you do, virtually every book published now and in the past is in an accessible format and available to you free of charge. Until Covid-19 they mailed out material as well as provided this service online, so even people without internet access were included.

CELA Member Library logoWhen my mother lost her sight nearly four years ago, she had been reading multiple newspapers each day, and read a wide variety of books, two or three a week. She was absolutely devastated and became severely depressed for over a year until I discovered CELA and got her enrolled. It was a steep learning curve to teach an 83-year-old woman to use an iPad even with its accessibility features, but it has given her a whole new lease on life. She still can’t manage everything, but I can put the books she asks for on her virtual bookshelf from anywhere there is an Internet connection. If she makes a mistake and confuses the settings I put on her iPad while I was there, I phone the front desk at the assisted-living facility and walk them through the reset so she is back in business.

I don’t have to tell you how important this was for my newly widowed mother, unable to watch TV, in lock-down isolation in her small apartment since November. She lives in Winnipeg and I live in Cape Breton and this has been a vital way we cope with her situation, especially in these troubled times.

And print disability doesn’t just mean blindness. It can also be a physical or learning disability or a condition like Parkinson’s. One in 10 Canadians has a print disability. The rest of us, even if we have no money, can use public libraries for access to the material CELA provides. Libraries of course offer audiobooks, but their resources are limited, as is their selection. They tend to offer mostly the bestsellers, and the waiting lists are often long. CELA has 900,000 titles available, as well as access to Canadian newspapers and magazines.

I will not lengthen this letter with the list of reasons this service is so vital to senior and disabled Canadians. You can easily visit their website and see for yourself. But I cannot emphasize enough that the $4 million price tag is an insignificant amount given the enormous impact it has on people’s lives, their health and engagement, employment, learning and participation in the larger community. As Prime Minister, I hope you understand how important it is that everyone has equal access to the literary and cultural life of Canada. CELA does so much with such a small amount, even through the incredible challenges of the pandemic year. I fervently hope you will reverse your decision and give them the support and recognition they deserve.


One in 10 Canadians. That’s how many people potentially can fall through the gaping cracks. For me, reading is the breath of life. It brings color and richness to my days, connects with a larger world, both physical and philosophical. I could rhapsodize about it endlessly. But that would make me little better than those who conveniently forget just how vital access to the world of print is to survival.

Calgary's old central library

Calgary’s old central library, photographed in 2008. (Calgary Public Library)

In the kindest view, their earnest desire for a vaulted-ceilinged edifice ballyhooed by architects could be construed as reverence for reading. Viewed less charitably, it comes across as civic egoism, desperation for a monument to the implied importance of their legacy.

The idea that libraries reflect the prosaic as well as the loftier of our aspirations does not occur to them. I think of the Antigonish Town and County Library, housed in a converted grocery store but welcoming and warm, open to off-the-street traffic, complete with a fireplace and reading nooks for tired parents.. Or the former Calgary City Library, set up in an ugly, 1950s office block, but the first to integrate a café and allow coffee cups in the stacks. They felt a few books marred by spills was a small price to pay to encourage the patronage of the hard-core street people that were the bulk of their first clientele.

Like buses for people without cars, like public washrooms for the homeless, libraries, both physical and virtual, pry open the closed doors of class privilege. Social mobility is nonexistent without a thirst for knowledge and hunger for a better world. Without accessible libraries, our fields are barren and threaten famine for those most needing to be fed.


Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.