On a blistering afternoon in late May, an Apt613 editor was walking around Hintonburg when he spotted something of interest, prompting him to share a picture with fellow contributors. That picture showed a small black frame placed against the bottommost portion of a large glass window, which read “Ottawa Trans Library” and listed hours of operation. I promptly scooped that story (Thanks, Ryan).
“I’m trying to make space available to groups to use in whatever way they can think up,” says Tara Sypniewski, local bookworm, trans historian, and founder of the Ottawa Trans Library, which recently appeared on the corner of Somerset Street West and Spadina Avenue. “You want to meet and, you know, foment rebellion? You’re welcome here!”
Sypniewski was a founding member of Gender Mosaic, a local support and social group for transgender persons that was established in the late 1980s. Sypniewski says she misses the sense of community she and her comrades felt, as well as the momentum they built when Gender Mosaic was first established.
“I’ve been involved in the trans community since the 1980s, and sometimes you get tired of it,” says Sypniewski, “But it’s a part of me, this itch for social justice that won’t go away.”
Sypniewski had been flirting with the idea of opening a library prior to the pandemic, but COVID-19 put a bookmark on that chapter. As pandemic restrictions were lifted, allowing group activities to resume, she felt it was the right time to get to work. After all, she had already promised to open a transgender library on her blog and community website, Trans Ottawa, which she created in 2017 to “record the history of trans people in Ottawa.”
“Once I’ve done that,” Sypniewski says, “I feel like I’ve committed to something already.”
Sypniewski expresses a genuine, righteous desire to spotlight local transgender trailblazers. She created a page on her website entitled “Canadian Trans Activists,” which boasts a non-exhaustive and rapidly evolving list of folks who have worked tirelessly to change the country’s attitudes toward the 2SLGBTQ+ community as a whole.
“The number of times I’d hear Canadian trans people thanking American celebrities… It drove me nuts,” recounts Sypniewski. “Those are not the people you should be thanking!”
The library specializes in literature by, for, and about transgender people. Sypniewski says one of her acquisition criteria is “to try to avoid books that the other public libraries have, unless they’re really important.” The library’s current collection has been organized into various categories, ranging from information about the process of transitioning all the way to transphobic titles. Above all else, Sypniewski says she hopes patrons leave with a greater sense of cultural continuity.
“I have books from the 1950s that talk about non-binary people, so they’re not anything new,” remarks Sypniewski. “I’m big on history and it’s good to know where you come from and the historical attitudes. When you know this kind of stuff, you feel a bit more solidarity with others.”
After high school, Sypniewski studied English at Carleton University, where she says she devoured piles of books. She then spent a few years unemployed, trying to figure things out, “because it was sort of suffocating in various jobs.” She says she always turned to reading as an escape. In the 1980s, Sypniewski was hired at the Museum of Nature, and it wasn’t long before the library became her sanctuary.
“Although I never trained as a librarian, I grew up in a time when you could actually learn on the job,” says Sypniewski. “I started at the bottom, and I did pretty well every job in the library. It’s a great way of getting to know the collection. People would always come to me and just bypass librarians because I did everything in that library, you know?”
Sypniewski chose to open the Ottawa Trans Library in Hintonburg due to the promise of visibility. In fact, she lived in Hintonburg some 40 years ago. She says the neighbourhood has evolved over time, but it still feels like home.
“Even though it has been gentrified a little bit, it has the same feel that it had 40 years ago, and I love it,” says Sypniewski. “My life tends to go in circles, and it was time to come back to Hintonburg.”
At first, she planned on simply acting as a librarian while trans people made use of the space in whatever way they could think up, but has since concluded, “That was kind of naive. I’ve realized, as I was putting it all together, that there is a certain responsibility for the space. […] Now I realize there’s a lot of hats to wear.”
Given that it has only just opened its doors, the Ottawa Trans Library is looking for volunteers and local 2SLGBTQ+ groups to utilize its space. “I learned long ago that one of the best indicators of future success is having good people working with you,” says Sypniewski. If you are interested in volunteering or hosting an event at the Ottawa Trans Library, be sure to send Sypniewski a message via the contact form on the Trans Ottawa website.
Aside from lending books and offering up the space for community events, Sypniewski also organizes a trans-friendly book club as well as the occasional board game night. She says similar events used to be held at the Art House Cafe, but she recognizes that not everyone is comfortable meeting in pubs and cafés. By opening the Ottawa Trans Library, Sypniewski hopes to have created a safe space for the trans community in Ottawa to gather.
After all, she says, “libraries are always community spaces.”
Ottawa Trans Library is located at 1104 Somerset St. W and is currently open Wednesdays and Fridays from 3-7pm and Sundays from 12-5pm. Visit their website for more information and to get involved.