BCLA Perspectives

Walking with the library: Increasing visibility and community ownership through walking tours

Building a case for the relevancy of libraries is a familiar and ongoing campaign: it is the proverbial thorn in the foot that does not seem to be going away any time soon. However, as libraries progress and expand their services and programs to meet the elusive and creative needs of a diverse population, there has never been a better time to experiment with non-traditional programming. The Prince George Public Library (PGPL) has found a unique and active way to not only increase its visibility within the community, but to also promote healthy relationships between Prince George locals and their city through guided walking tours.

Walking tours empower individuals by humanizing the city and providing meaningful history to neglected spaces. They promote an increased comfort level with the city through the knowledge-sharing and guidance of a library staff member, particularly within downtown or inner-city areas that tend to suffer from dated reputations and misconceptions. Much like libraries, cities rely on their community members in order to fully thrive, and encouraging individuals to be informed and active citizens will establish a sense of ownership and pride towards public spaces.

PGPL has been hosting guided downtown historic walking tours for the past decade, made possible through partnerships with The Prince George Heritage Commission (a local community group) and The Exploration Place (the area museum). The historic walking tour has been highly successful and has inspired other iterations of the event: In summer 2016, PGPL adapted the historic tour into a Pokémon Go walking tour of downtown, incorporating a historical discussion alongside the pursuit of gyms to battle and eggs to hatch. Further, for National Poetry Month in April 2017, PGPL will host a poetry walk, selecting downtown locations to stop at and read poems featuring the city written by local authors.

Important for newcomers, tourists, and locals alike, the historic tours highlight the fascinating history of local businesses, people, art, and landmarks in Prince George. The walking tours run weekly throughout the summer months in addition to a ‘seated’ version of the tour presented at care home facilities. 2015 saw the launch of a mobile application that allowed for a virtual version of the tour to be accessed year round. Combined, the tours typically draw approximately 300 participants each summer, with the numbers enjoying a steady increase each year. The tour follows a three-kilometer route through the downtown core, starting and ending at the library.  There are information signs posted at each tour stop detailing the history of the location and providing photographs of the original building or landmark.

The historic tours have been a programming favourite, drawing regular media attention and much praise from attendees. The walking tours compliment the local history collection of the library particularly well, a section that is often overlooked but offers one of the most rewarding learning resources the library has to offer. Each year, the program experience changes as a new summer student takes on the tour guide position and different participants attend and share their own memories of the city. In this sense, walking with the library for these historic tours enriches the future versions of the tours as the history develops and transforms.

Even before the official Canadian launch of Pokémon Go this past July, many libraries noticed a considerable increase in the amount of people coming through their doors to play the augmented reality game. The game quickly gained praise for inspiring people to be active outdoors in their communities, but also garnered criticism for the myriad reports of trespassing and motor vehicle-related accidents the game was a catalyst for. Seeing an opportunity to connect with patrons in a unique way and with the foundation of the historic walking tour already in place, PGPL adapted the tours to focus on collaboration and social engagement, inviting young adults out on a weekly evening tour of the downtown area to play Pokémon Go and learn about the local history of the Pokéstops in town.

The program was a grand success: gaining up to 35 tour participants at one point and drastically improving the vibrancy of the downtown core on a weekday evening. Media attention surrounding the Pokémon tours was plentiful, generating a lively discussion around the importance and relevancy of library outreach. The Pokémon Go walking tours also enabled the library to connect with the elusive young adult demographic by responding to their interests and providing a space in which to explore and engage with them further.

National Poetry Month occurs each year in April, and for 2017 PGPL is hosting its first poetry walk to cultivate connections between literacy and landscape while featuring the work of local writers from a variety of backgrounds. The walk follows a similar format to the historic walking tours, with stops selected based on their relationships to local poems. A number of poets in the Prince George area focus their writing on the politics of place and landscape, with the city featuring prominently in several works. The poems read on the poetry walk will call attention to different aspects of the city–the dreary back alleys, the comfort of the cutbanks, the confluence of the two rivers–examining and revealing the ways in which we ourselves can be both as familiar and unknowable as the cities where we live. The library is home to an excellent collection of local poetry, but poetry can appear impenetrable and intimidating to even the most adventurous reader. Similar to the other walking tours, the library can become a leader: unveiling the intrigue and adventure of language and literacy, bringing words to life in the streets.

Walking tours have been a surprising and celebrated addition to PGPL’s programming repertoire and have helped promote the library as a sustainable, adaptable, and relevant information centre. The tours increase the visibility and street presence of the library, and inspire downtown revitalization through a unique form of outreach. Libraries have become architectural landmarks in cities all over the world, drawing people into the resource-rich spaces that they have to offer. Walking tours are a method to ensure a proactive approach to community building that extends well beyond the physical walls of the library.

Darcie Smith is the Community Outreach Librarian at the Prince George Public Library.