It’s a Wonderful Life has been a holiday staple ever since it went out of copyright in the early 1970s, meaning a lot of people are familiar with the story of how George Bailey, ground down by a series of disappointments, feels his family, friends, and town would be better off if he had never lived. An angel (second class) named Clarence shows George what things would be like if he (George) had never been born, and one by one we meet up with the characters we’ve come to know throughout the film, to see how they fared without George in their lives.
Almost without exception, everyone is much, much worse off. Mr. Gower, the kindly pharmacist, is a drunken former jailbird. Eccentric, kind-hearted Uncle Billy is in an insane asylum. George’s mother is a sour-faced woman who is suspicious of everyone, and the milk of human kindness also seems to have dried up in kindly Bert the cop and Ernie the taxi driver.
The worst fate of all — at least according to the film — is reserved for George’s wife Mary, who (gasp) never married and is (horrors!) a librarian. Despite being warned not to go see her, George can’t resist, and encounters a woman who can charitably be described as “drab”. Her hair is pulled into a tight bun, she wears glasses, her clothing is plain and unstylish, and she is meek and timid to a fault: a far cry from the attractive, confident, and vibrant Mary we’ve seen in the film up to that point.
It’s a stereotype of “the librarian” that has been around seemingly forever, and is probably (be honest now!) not far from what many people doubtless picture when they think of a librarian. No wonder, then, that my librarian friends — of whom I have many — are huge fans of the 1999 film The Mummy, which features Rachel Weisz as historian and Egyptologist Evie Carnahan. She’s smart, resourceful, confident, and gorgeous, and at one point gives an impassioned description of who she is: “I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure-seeker, or a gunfighter, but I am proud of what I am. I … am a librarian!”
This dichotomy extends to libraries, which many people — often those who haven’t set foot in one for many years — persist in thinking of as staid, stolid, rather boring places filled with row upon row of books and not a lot else, where any sound louder than a muffled sneeze will be met with disapproving looks. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, since libraries have proven extremely nimble when it comes to changing and adapting with the times and embracing the new.
Yes, you can still get books at a library, but you can get them in a wide variety of formats. Libraries were among the first to embrace large print books and what were than called books on tape; now you can also get books you can download to your device, as well as magazines, newspapers, how-to guides, and much more. Visual media? Libraries have gone from videotapes to DVDs to online streaming.
Libraries are also community hubs, where you can go for casual crafting sessions, workshops, tech advice, author events, and more. You can borrow — for free — passes for the B.C. Wildlife Park, guitars and ukuleles, backpacks full of fun activities, thermal cameras, and radon detectors. Yes, libraries have come a long way.
Above all else, in many ways, is the fact that libraries are perhaps the most inclusive and welcoming places it is possible to find. No one is turned away from a library. No one judges you, or your reason for being there. If you are looking for a place to rest, or keep cool or stay warm, libraries are there, no questions asked.
They are places of study and learning, yes, but they are also places of peaceful refuge. At this time of year, when we are reminded of peace on Earth, goodwill toward all, it’s salutary to remember that libraries quietly observe and enact this message all the year round.