Although I've been back since last Monday, I still haven't fully acclimatized to the 6-hour time difference between here and France. But beyond that, there were very few real down-sides to my week-long trip that was part business, part pleasure. France, somewhat to my surprise, welcomed me with open arms!

The reason for going to France this year was to attend the annual meeting of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), held this year in Lyon (next year it will be in Capetown, South Africa; I don't plan to go). After my experience being scrunched up on an Air Transat flight from Toronto to Glasgow a couple of years ago, I decided with this Air Canada flight (Montreal to Paris) to treat myself to something called "Premium Economy" class. You're still in an economy class cabin, but near the front. You get priority boarding along with the Business Class folks, more leg room and space generally, 2 free checked bags (though I managed with just one carry-on), free newspapers, a slightly nicer meal (including free wine), and a little takeaway care package including earphones, toothbrush and toothpaste and a couple of other goodies I can't recall). The trip back home was even nicer. I had checked in from my hotel room and although they preassigned me a seat for the very short Montreal to Ottawa leg of my trip, they indicated that my seat for Paris to Montreal would be assigned at the gate. When I arrived, they said I would be paged before boarding to get my seat assignment, but that never happened. So when priority boarding time rolled around, I presented my boarding pass at the gate, the nice flight attendant took it to her desk, returning seconds later with a new one, complete with seat assignment - in Business Class.

It was quite the experience. Tons of room. Sparkling wine prior to takeoff and plenty of food and drink throughout the flight. An upgraded care package including a very nice pair of socks. Very attentive service. I could get used to this!

But back to when I arrived in France, on the morning of August 19. I was amazed at how easy it was to get into the country. When I've visited the U.K. or the U.S., the border guards usually ask the purpose of my visit, how long I plan to stay, whether I packed my own luggage, whether I'm bringing certain things into the country ... well, you get the idea. All of which can make for long lineups and long waits. But with France, there was none of that. The "border police" took a cursory look at my passport photo, a cursory look at me, then stamped my passport and I was on my way. To the airport's train station where I was able to get a train directly to Lyon's Part Dieu railway station. Unfortunately, I had not pre-booked a ticket so the economy or second-class was full. So I splurged on a first-class ticket for the two-hour journey to Lyon.

That's actually one area where I think Via Rail Canada in many ways has the edge over French trains. Admittedly, the French train was modern and spacious and had a nice smooth ride. But they don't have service to your seat, they don't give you a free meal even in first class, and... well, I guess it was just different. I did the return journey from Lyon to central Paris via regular coach class and concluded it's not really worthwhile getting a first-class ticket if you have the choice.

On arrival in Lyon, I didn't have to go far before seeing huge posters welcoming IFLA delegates to Lyon in all five official conference languages and informing us of exactly which buses would take us directly to the convention centre. Without luggage it probably would have been quite walkable, but since we got free transit passes as part of our conference package, and since I was still very jet-lagged from having been awake all night, the short bus trip and chance to see Lyon at street-level was welcome. Our conference materials were packaged in classy navy-blue laptop bags - something I can definitely reuse, unlike a lot of the bags I've brought home from similar conferences.

It was around 2 PM by this time. I was glad to be staying at Residence Temporim, a kind of self-contained apartment-with-maid-service, just steps away from where the conference sessions were being held. Only problem was that there weren't too many places nearby stocking basic groceries to bring up to my home-away-from-home. Plenty of restaurants but nothing like a corner-store or supermarket. But I did manage to take out some supplies from a coffee-shop/deli type of place in the vicinity.

That first day, I managed just one session, from 4:00 to 6:00, on library services to LGBT (etc.) populations called "Addressing the Silence", a panel with a variety of interesting speakers from diverse countries with diverse cultures and degrees of diversity-friendliness - Sweden, Hungary, Bible-belt USA, Brazil, U.K., Canada... Some important issues came up and I wish I'd been a little more awake and alert for it! Afterwards, I went back to my digs, had a light supper and slept for over 11 gloriously unbroken hours!

What with attending conference sessions on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I didn't really see as much of Lyon as I would have liked. We were, for example, practically on the doorstep of the huge, beautiful and tranquil Tete d'Or Park and I could easily have spent a day just exploring that! I did get to see a very interesting exhibit of Treasures from the Lyon Public Library.

Friday was the day we got to do full-day tours of out-of-town libraries and I had opted for the Bibliotheque national de la France (two of its larger branches), in Paris. I had also decided to extend my stay there and spend the entire weekend in Paris before flying home on Monday.

Ah, Paris! My hotel was on rue Jacob in the 6e arrondissement, the St-Germain des Pres area, where you can't walk two steps without stumbling upon history and the spirits of famous people who have called Paris home. Hemingway. Gertrude Stein. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Richard Wagner. I was steps away from the Cafe aux Deux Magots and the Cafe Flore. When I got up to my room, via the minuscule elevator, there was a 375 ml (or 37.5 cl, come disent les Francais) bottle of Mouton Cadet awaiting me, with a note from the hotel management urging me to enjoy my stay. On my final day there, they left me a plate of macarons, those wonderful sandwich biscuits that are native to the area.

Since my time there was fairly limited, I generally avoided very touristy places like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre (though we did walk through the grounds and gardens en route to the Richelieu site of the national library) which can be a bit overwhelming. On the Saturday, I made use of my 3-day Metro pass to visit Pere Lachaise Cemetery, while Sunday was devoted to exploring on foot the area around my hotel. This included visits to the Eugene Delacroix Museum which has a wonderful garden and at the moment a special exhibit called "Eugene Delacroix, le plus legitime des fils de Shakespeare", and the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. In addition to letters of famous figures in French literature, this museum also included: a letter from John Lennon to someone called Christine, an impassioned plea to end world hunger; and a storyboard for the Orson Welles film The Trial (based on Kafka's famous novel) which, coincidentally, I had just recently watched on the Turner Classic Movies channel.

There were some surprises. The first related to language: the number of people who spoke English and the number of signs in English, as well as the country's hospitable-ness to people speaking other languages: for instance, you could buy a Metro-Pass or withdraw money from a machine in any of five or six different languages at the touch of a button. After being used to Quebec with its language laws that was a welcome surprise. The second related to the hours kept by French shops and other businesses. I suppose I had thought Paris was too far north to be in a siesta-oriented locale but in fact, many places did close between about 1 and 3 or 4 PM and then remain open till at least 7 PM. Moreover, if I had the choice, I would not visit France in August again, simply because that's when the French take THEIR holidays. Of course, the touristy places were open, but the smaller (and often more distinctive and interesting-looking) places were often closed for the entire month, or at least the middle two weeks of August. The notable exception was the Bibliotheque national, which apparently has its BUSIEST time in August, as many French folk apparently consider the library an ideal place to spend their vacation!

The third surprise related to rituals associated with food and drink. Of course, I had to experience sidewalk cafe culture. But at most of these establishments, the chairs (two or three rows of them) were turned OUTWARDS towards the sidewalk, the clear message being that you're not looking at your dining companion, you're looking at the people walking past! Smoking is still very much in evidence there too, at least at the outdoor tables. And the coffee itself? Well, if you order a coffee in France, you shouldn't automatically assume you'll be brought milk or cream with it. You'll get plenty of sugar and often a biscuit too, but in terms of coffee, you'll probably get a tiny cup of espresso and your cup will not automatically be refilled, either. To my surprise as well, a "cafe au lait" request does not typically yield one of those large white bols like you get here but merely coffee with milk on the side. I learned to request "cafe creme" to get it to my taste.
Seated out on the patio enjoying "le brunch" at Cafe Bonaparte on Sunday, I watched the flaneurs of Paris flane by - the man on his bike flogging Sunday papers, the organ-grinder with a little dog instead of a monkey... it was wonderful!

Still on the theme of food and drink, you shouldn't assume when they bring bread to your table that they will also bring butter. Or, for that matter, margarine or oil or any of the other things they might serve here. Now, one thing I DID discover while browsing the Marche St-Germain on Sunday was "pineau", a mixture of cognac and red grape juice. Quite tasty!

I wonder when (or if) I'll have an excuse to go back?
Back in 1976, while studying for my library degree at Western University, I encountered a chatty busdriver. When I told him I was going to library school, he said something like "Hmmm, libraries. Is that where they say 'Ssshhh'?" No one seems to say "SShh" in libraries any more. To be honest, I sometimes wish they would. It's one thing for libraries to offer enclosed meeting spaces for author readings and community events but frankly, when I'm in the stacks, I want to peruse the books in peace and not be constantly bombarded by loud conversations, clashing cellphone ringtones and bleeping video games.

On Wednesday evening, I had planned to attend an event called "Apartment613 Talks: The Future of Libraries" about the future of the public library in Ottawa, to be held at the Shopify Lounge in the Byward Market. As soon as I heard about it, via an e-mail from the Canadian Library Association's Ottawa Network, I replied saying I would like to attend but was not on Facebook (and was having trouble with the eventbrite registration software). I never got a reply. However, when I followed up on Wednesday afternoon (the site had originally indicated that registration would be accepted up to 6 PM), I learned that the event was sold out. I phoned CLA and left a message, which likewise was not returned. I was out of luck!

When I e-mailed Apartment613 to complain about my ill-fated attempt at registration, I DID at least get a prompt and fairly detailed reply, though not a very satisfying one. The gist of it was "This was an apartment613 event, not a CLA event. They just helped to promote it for us." Huh? You mean, in a debate on the future of the library, the three prominent librarian-panelists are just the handmaidens of Apartment613 (a "grassroots community media group")? Moreover, I had assumed that "Apartment613" was so-named because it puts on events in the Ottawa area and 613 is the telephone area code for eastern Ontario, but according to the e-mail, apartment 613 doesn't even HAVE a phone! Like, maybe that's part of the problem right there - no way to interact in real time with a real live person? How can you organize events like debates when that's the way you operate? I am singularly unimpressed with Apartment613 as well as with eventbrite and CLA.

But anyway, I started out this blog wanting to talk about the future of the public library, so that's what I'll now do. My first suggestion? Put libraries back in the hands of librarians instead of hotshot young aspie computer geeks who clearly think Google glasses are infinitely superior to reading glasses (if indeed they've even HEARD of reading glasses!) This suggestion, by the way, applies to ALL types of libraries, not just the public libraries (Library and Archives Canada and other government libraries spring to mind right about now). We're the skilled, educated professionals with Masters- and often higher-level degrees.

Secondly, be aware that a library is NOT the same thing as a bookstore. They perform related but distinct functions. In particular, bookstores - those that are NOT second-hand bookstores, that is - focus on CURRENT materials. There are no back-issues of periodicals, for example, and the books they stock are mostly published within the past couple of years. Those that are published earlier than that are usually by well-known living or recently-dead authors or they are the classics that never go out of print. I think public libraries these days focus a bit too much on current bestsellers, often buying a ridiculous number of copies, all of which takes away from the available budget for subscriptions or for discretionary purchases of excellent books which will all-too-soon be out of print and unavailable through normal channels. A library normally has a collection development policy establishing priorities for the areas within which it collects. A bookstore, understandably given its mandate, collects what will sell.

Another aspect of this library-is-not-a-bookstore is the whole notion of library as physical place and space. Bookstores may encourage browsing to some degree, but the ultimate aim is to get a maximum number of customers in and out as quickly as possible and to get them to part with as much of their money as possible. Even the coffee shops in bookstores, originally set up to encourage longer stays, now no longer allow unpaid-for merchandise in their cafe-areas. And the amount of space they devote to actual books and reading material is decreasing alarmingly! A library, on the other hand, can and should continue to have quiet spaces where people can stay and read or study all day if they so choose.

The Ottawa Public Library recently ran a kind of visioning exercise, asking people what they should start doing, continue doing, and stop doing. It was, of course, run on social media by some sort of outside consulting group and was offering various prizes and other incentives. I didn't participate, except to "lurk" and read what others were saying. It will be interesting to learn the results.

I still hope we will get a new Main branch of the Ottawa Public Library in the near future, even though I don't discount the importance of the smaller branches right in people's communities. But we shall see.
Oh gosh. I need to go to a:

(a) librarian
(b) archivist
(c) genealogist
(d) website
(e) all of the above

Soon, your only option, if you want some assistance or advice with gathering information, performing research, or even selecting leisure-time reading, may be (d).
That's assuming you have internet at home. If you don't, or if it's not working, you'll have to go somewhere where there IS functional internet. Time was, you could rely on your friendly local public library for that. But now, Industry Canada in its wisdom, has cancelled its Community Access Program, which funded public access internet stations in public libraries across the country. To be sure, some public libraries will still offer the service but if they do, they'll have to review their already-strained budgets to find money that was previously earmarked for something else.

In the federal public service, we hear every day of yet another departmental library closing its doors and laying off its librarians. Librarians are trained to gather and organise information and provide research assistance that is invaluable in supporting informed policy- and decisionmaking. In the public as well as the private sector, that can save time and money, not to mention the reputations of high-powered officials. Then there's the Library and Archives Canada, whose mandate and reach extend far beyond the bounds of the public service. They are cancelling their interlibrary loan service, which will affect ALL kinds of libraries all across the country and to some extent internationally. It will disproportionately affect smaller libraries with more limited staffs and budgets. They have already eliminated the National Archival Development Program and pulled out of the Association of Research Libraries.

There almost seems to be a conspiracy of silence surrounding all the layoffs. On the other hand, if I were having to compete with a dozen former colleagues just to keep my own job, I readily admit that I would be hesitant to stick my neck out and risk offending my prospective managers and employer.

Libraries in schools and postsecondary institutions are feeling the pinch too. Many colleges and universities have converted all or portions of their libraries to a "learning commons" type of environment, consisting mainly of computers and chairs and roving student geeks to assist students and faculty in navigating the cybersphere. While I wouldn't want to turn back the clock to pretechnological days, I AM bothered when I hear that perhaps 75 to 80% of a library's collection (only a minuscule portion of which is available electronically) is stored offsite in relatively inaccessible locations.

This month, the Canadian Association of University Teachers will hold a Librarians Conference in Ottawa. The blurb describes librarianship as "threatened by Wal-Mart style corporate management that cuts costs by deskilling work, outsourcing professional responsibilities, misusing technology and reducing necessary services and positions." It goes on to ask,"How can our community push back against this destructive agenda?"

Well, I'm hoping to find out. I've registered for the conference, which takes place on October 26 and 27.



October 2017



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