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Photo: Agatha Barc (Apt613 Flickr Pool)

Public feedback crucial to determine library’s future

By Apartment613 on May 9, 2016

Post by Anonymous.

Everyone who supports public libraries would love to see a beautiful, state-of-the-art library developed with good planning and thoughtful consultation – and one hopes that the library will be placed to continue serving the existing downtown Ottawa community. We have supported and made the fullest use of the library, in spite of its technical and architectural limitations. We should have the opportunity to see what we can do with a space that supports the innovation and ambition of our library patrons and our staff.

Like the current Main branch, the Ottawa Public Library must continue to serve the downtown community of the present, not a geographically-shifted downtown community that may or may not come to exist.

Like the current Main branch, the Ottawa Public Library must continue to serve the downtown community of the present, not a geographically-shifted downtown community that may or may not come to exist. If it does, I like to think that the library board of the future will lobby to build another branch to serve that thriving community. For now, we should be concerned with fostering vitality in our existing downtown. For now, our downtown needs non-commercial gathering spaces. We need a piazza.

Regular library users are very well aware that the library is more than a room filled with books.  We live in a time debating whether or not internet access is a human right. A significant number of people in Ottawa have no computer, no internet, no printer, or no scanner. These people still need to fill out passport applications, apply for housing, jobs, employment insurance, find tax forms, etc, often while negotiating school, child-care, and multiple jobs. They need access to social media to stay connected with family members all over the world.

If you are new to Ottawa, or Canada, the library can be a lifeline.

Many customers are unfamiliar with the internet or how to find or navigate increasingly essential sites, and they turn to library staff for help. The library provides free programming for all ages, including storytime for children, computer tutorials, and second-language conversation groups. You can study, work on assignments, access resources including scholarly articles, and use the wi-fi in the library without paying any tuition. If you are new to Ottawa, or Canada, the library can be a lifeline.

All that… and it’s ALSO a building full of books, by which it promotes literacy, the democratization of information, empathy through communication, and imagination. The staff are pretty nice, too, assisting with a dizzying range of questions and requests unheard of in any other profession.

It would be wonderful if our central branch could be an architectural landmark and a draw to tourists. But this role does not need to be in conflict with the library’s primary purpose: to provide library services, programming, and collections to Ottawa communities.

Library policy seems increasingly based on numbers alone.

As we all hope for a productive outcome from the public consultation meetings on May 16th, it is important for supporters of the library to remember that they are the chief advocates for all aspects of library service: ensuring that there is enough staff to provide the rich and diverse programming the Ottawa community deserves, and that staff and customers are supported by strong resources, collections, and tools. So far, the staff that have for many years cared deeply about providing the best possible library service to the downtown Ottawa community have been only minimally involved in the consultation process.

If the public is going to convince the board to select a site downtown, it is understandable that the board would want concrete reasons. Those who make decisions about the library’s location, budget, staff, and collection rely on numbers: number of people in the door, number of items requested, number of times an item circulates, number of customers served at the desk, number of types of request, etc. Library policy seems increasingly based on numbers alone.

If you want to make a case for a downtown location, it is important to include some reasons that can translate into numbers down the road: “Here are all the things we are GOING to bring to a downtown branch. Here is how we are going to USE the downtown branch. Here are our offers of support and our proposals for partnership development.”

The library wants to develop more programs and services in partnership with community and activist groups in order to assist Ottawa’s vulnerable populations. The library currently helps to fill a gap created by a lack of social services in Ottawa, consequently keeping many of our vulnerable populations out of sight during the day. These groups should be eager to meet with the public library to develop solutions, which is the direction being taken by public libraries all across North America.

Our thriving artistic community should be shameless about telling the board where they need the new library (with all its promised cultural exhibition space for authors, artists, and performers) to be in order to reach an audience of Ottawa residents. There is a huge difference between the cultural outreach achieved in a library that is a destination point, and one that is part of downtown Ottawa’s day-to-day routine and pedestrian traffic. Neither is bad, but if the latter is the group you want to stay connected with, then that is the feedback you need to provide.

Imagine how well you could reach vulnerable populations by developing your services to include on-site engagements in the non-stigmatized environment of the library.

Activist groups know that Ottawa’s vulnerable populations rely heavily on library services. Library staff wants to continue working with and welcoming these populations. At the same time, if your group also serves these populations and you know where they’re spending their days (at the library!), isn’t that the best possible reason for you to be there, too? Shouldn’t community groups be in our libraries, partnering with library staff, taking that golden opportunity to work with their shared clients? Imagine how well you could reach vulnerable populations by developing your services to include on-site engagements in the non-stigmatized environment of the library.

Library staff, who are not trained as social workers, are always trying to develop better services, but this can only be done by creating links in the community. Budget and staff cuts have reduced the amount of time librarians can spend on developing productive, thoughtful, long-term community programming. Few outside groups approach the library with an interest in building these partnerships, and library staff reaching out with ideas can often be met with reluctance or indifference. Ottawa doesn’t have a lot of social services to begin with, and it’s not going to get much better if we don’t seriously start networking with each other to get some ideas off the ground.

Consider the following difference in approach. It is not enough for an activist group to say (for example): “We need the branch because marginalized people use it during the day.” This is a completely true and valid statement. But when the board hears that statement, they might automatically picture people sleeping in the branch, a picture that is at odds with the understandable and positive goal of having the central library serve one of its roles as a tourist attraction. If I was on the board, this statement might make me less likely to want the library downtown.

What groups could say instead: “We need the branch because of all the amazing work we are doing and the programs we are organizing with vulnerable populations at the library.” And then back it up with: Proximity to universities and schools; accessibility for seniors; partnerships with the community centres; professionals bringing some of their services to the branch (e.g. pro bono legal advice, social workers spending some of their paid office hours there in consultation, etc.). We should be in a constant state of demanding more staff, more space, and better tools and collections so that Ottawa can work even harder on all the important programs that are springing up all over North America.

Your feedback, concerns, and big plans and ambitions for the library should go directly to the board.

Are you concerned with the way you want Ottawa’s downtown community to develop? The absence of a library will likely mean another community space replaced by an office building filled with cubicles: lights out by 6 p.m. Maybe you would like to see the city focus on more inclusive and cultural opportunities downtown, and fewer commercial or exclusive buildings.

Your feedback, concerns, and big plans and ambitions for the library should go directly to the board. Share your experiences with the library with them. Tell them if your access to the library has had an effect on your life. Tell them what’s important to you about this project, anything from the location to the library-specific experience of the consultants and architects involved. Most importantly, give them reasons. The clearest, most demonstrable reasons you have. Not just ideas, but intentions and plans. Things that you need to do at the library downtown that you simply cannot do as well elsewhere.

A website has been set up so that you can do just that – and register for the public forum on May 16th

If you are interested in how community and activist groups are working with homeless populations, here are some examples of sophisticated partnerships developing with public libraries in the United States.

There is no question that the library is needed. It’s up to you to make the case about where it needs to be.

You have a voice. Please use it!

Click here to share your voice with the Ottawa Public Library board.