Embracing access and inclusion at the Downtown Eastside’s Carnegie Library


A Vancouver Foundation report published in 2012 highlighted isolation and loneliness as major issues facing the city of Vancouver. I was working as a Community Librarian at the time, keen on advancing the Community-Led Libraries model – and this report resonated deeply. To be part of the solution, and to promote a sense of inclusion in both the library and surrounding community, I took on the role of Branch Head at the Carnegie Public Library in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). It has been a privilege to be part of its legacy, developing a rapport with local residents and partnering with a variety of organizations along the way.

After three years, I have a clearer sense of what access and inclusion means for any library, regardless of the locale. I will highlight some of the successful strategies and programs we host at Carnegie, but I want to emphasize that it is the individual librarian’s responsibility to bring an attitude of flexibility and a welcoming presence that will prove successful. It is wonderful to be part of an organization that values the community-led vision that makes possible options like the “Access Card” (a low-barrier library card that requires no proof of residence, has no late charges, and a limit of two items), but ultimately it is the face-to-face interactions that have the greatest impact.

The Neighbourhood

Working at the Carnegie library means being witness to some polar extremes of humanity, especially on the street-corner – where some individuals embrace each other with genuine compassion, while others aim to destroy and hurt both themselves and whoever is in their vicinity. At times, my day might consist of being privy to a story about childhood sexual abuse, then the joy of someone publishing a poetry chapbook, followed by a thief making a run for it with a few graphic novels, helping a patron request DVDs, and finishing off hearing a story about a near-death experience. It is a whirlwind environment, and anyone who works here will note that you feel strangely alive with all the highs and lows, and yet uniquely fulfilled doing something as simple as providing library materials. I’m mindful that it should not become an issue of pride to be “working in the Downtown Eastside,” as if that’s a badge of honour or declaration of being gritty. Instead, it must be acknowledged that the individuals here are overcoming adversity, suffering, surviving, and attempting to create rhythms of positive living and meaningful connection that are to be revered and ultimately respected.

For a library to thrive in a community facing these issues is a challenge, but it is one that the Carnegie team has embraced. The branch serves as a unique setting, where the majority of the patrons are coming from a position of brokenness and rejection due to a myriad of experiences such as poverty, mental illness, homelessness, the residue of residential schooling, childhood violence, addiction, and sexual abuse. One’s attitude must be thoroughly open and prepared to serve everyone. There also needs to be a willingness to create boundaries that allow for staff to offer people options that give them dignity, even if the patron is not in a place to take on the responsibility of borrowing more than a few items. It’s a balance, being part of an institution with certain expectations, but still understanding where people are at in their journey.

Carnegie Branch, a brief history

To establish some context, the Carnegie Library is located at the corner of Main and Hastings streets, and is the site of the original library in Vancouver, which opened to the public in 1903. The neighbourhood around the late 1890s had approximately 60 hotels and catered to male loggers, miners, and fishers. “The area was the economic heart of Vancouver at the time, with the port just blocks away and City Hall located next door to the site of the future library. In 1901, the City of Vancouver made a funding request to library philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, resulting in a $50,000 donation that came with typical conditions by Carnegie for the city to maintain the library. Two years later the new library opened.

Years later, the Depression had a significant effect on the neighbourhood and the library. Vancouver was overrun with unemployed men and the Carnegie Library became the site of an occupation on May 19, 1935, intended to “win one week’s relief (food and shelter) for the men of the Relief Camp Workers’ Union.” The following year, City Hall moved away, just as the wealthy of Vancouver were shifting south and west.

By the 1950s, it was evident that the library and reading room became isolated from the rest of the city. The library had become too small for the 400,000 volume collection. Shortly thereafter, the Vancouver Public Library moved its headquarters to another larger location in 1957 at Robson and Burrard streets, and, after a stint as a museum, the Carnegie building was boarded up and derelict from 1968 to 1980. After the library, and, eventually, the museum, left, Jo-Ann Canning Dew summed up the new neighbourhood outlook in her book Hastings and Main, Stories from an Inner City Neighbourhood:

“Social and cultural core was gone. the low point for the neighbourhood had arrived. It had now truly become Skid Road. Always the centre of the drug trade – since the turn of the century, when opium was legal – narcotics became the pre-eminent economic activity for the era.”

The influence of the drug industry over the neighbourhood has resulted in stigmatization, but cannot be ignored.

In their book A Thousand Dreams: Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the fight for its future (2009), Larry Campbell, Neil Boyd, and Lori Culbert explained that,

 “By the 1990s, the Downtown Eastside seemed to be in a kind of free fall. Crack cocaine had been added to the problems of alcohol abuse and the intravenous use of a newly potent heroin; overdose deaths and HIV infection rates skyrocketed. Mentally ill men and women continued to be released from facilities into the community without the provision of any meaningful resources.”

Over time the resources and social services emerged, and have clustered in the neighbourhood, and simultaneously a community of resistance, creativity, and compassion has solidified.

Just blocks away from the Carnegie, developers revitalized Gastown in the 1960s, which signalled to members of the community that they were about to become displaced. A community association was formed in response to this threat, eventually becoming a political voice that saved the Carnegie building from destruction in 1972. It was only after a long battle, beginning in 1974 and hosted by the Downtown Eastside Residents’ Association, and due to the activism of leaders like Bruce Eriksen, Libby Davies, and Jean Swanson, that the building re-opened in January 1980 as a Community Centre for Canada’s poorest and most troubled neighbourhood. The plan also included a “Reading Room,” that is the 1900 square foot library now contained within the Carnegie Centre, which has evolved into a full-service library with catalogued books, movies, music, magazines, and Chinese and Aboriginal collections.

Sandy Cameron, a neighbourhood poet and historian, explained, “The residents of the Downtown Eastside knew that something of great importance had happened on that day. It was not just that they had won political battle, it was the feeling that Carnegie would become a living symbol of all that was most positive in the Downtown Eastside – that it would rise above the despair in the streets” .

The Carnegie Branch, now

The Carnegie Centre is frequently described as the “living room” of the Downtown Eastside, with volunteer opportunities in exchange for food tokens, a kitchen and cafeteria that provides three meals a day of excellent quality and variety, the bi-monthly Carnegie Newsletter, community programs like yoga and jazz improvisation, out-trips like hiking and gallery-hopping, workshops, celebrations, memorials, dances, computers, literacy classes at the Learning Centre, the Thursdays Writing Collective, a gallery, a theatre, a gym, a pool hall, a weight room, and so on. Individuals come in to check the message board if they are without a phone or email, play chess or mahjong, stay dry, socialize or find retreat.

Main and Hastings is both the “heart of the community” and the centre of illicit drug dealing. Addiction continues, and many Carnegie patrons are suffering from grief and loss as a result of overdose deaths among their peers. Overdose has reached record-breaking proportions, and as such, community members now receive training for Naloxone, to become first responders or “Fentanyl Lifeguards” when they see someone in distress. There is still violence, prostitution, and predatory behaviour, but with improved dissemination of information like “Bad Date” lists, condom distribution, and detox programs, we are stemming the tide. Conversely, gentrification continues to impose itself on the area, especially in Chinatown, where the developers push in condos and trendy shops, and push out Chinese seniors. There is still so much to advocate for in this city of soaring real estate prices and greed.

Day-to-day life at the library

Meanwhile, the Carnegie Centre can feel like a fortress, or time capsule, as it balances these pressures and provides meaningful opportunities for DTES residents. Without fail, the monthly volunteer dinners are served, the “Heart of the City” festival is hosted, the community rallying is organized, and the books and movies are circulated. Last year, the Carnegie Library celebrated some epic statistics. It was the only library in Vancouver to see an increase in circulation of physical materials at a significant 9.8 per cent, compared to most branches, which must compete with options like Netflix, eBook downloads, and a variety of streaming services. The majority of Carnegie’s circulation comes from DVDs, with over 132,000 checked out in 2016, which is almost 70 per cent of what circultated (although the library did see an increase in book circulation as well.) The secret of our success is to simply cater to what people want, and make sure the variety and turn-over is frequent. People who live in Single-Resident Occupancies (SROs) may have laptops, but they don’t have spare cash to spend on subscriptions or movies.

To maintain access to our collection, the Carnegie team has also had to establish boundaries. For example, all of our daily newspapers and new magazines are kept behind the desk to reduce conflict among patrons. It is also not assumed that just because a person is poor or living in this neighbourhood that they automatically want their fines wiped out. Many patrons pursue a monthly payment plan, which allows them to continue to borrow material while paying down a portion of their fine (perhaps $5 a month) as they receive their income assistance. It can be a point of pride to keep on top of their fine, although the staff are always open to conversation and negotiation.

The Carnegie Library is the only VPL branch open 365 days a year, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.. It is truly a public space, and considered an essential community service in the DTES, as evidenced by our daily gate count. In 2016, we averaged 1170 visits a day, which peaked on December 31 at 1,582 visits. It can be a struggle during the winter months to find enough seats for everyone, let alone the backpacks and bags sometimes holding people’s sole possessions. The branch also offers unique services such as photocopying approximately 150 double-sided sheets of Sudoku, Crosswords, and word games every day to meet the demand.

Unlike most libraries, the space is monitored by the Carnegie Centre Security team, which focuses on keeping the space drug- and alcohol-free, and aims to deter violence. The team generally knows most of the Carnegie guests by name and have a great rapport with the people, but it is no easy task. Drug overdoses in the Centre, particularly the bathroom, and sometimes the library, are becoming more frequent, even with InSite safe injection centre just a block away. To maintain a setting of respectful behaviour, patrons will get banned for the day or longer, depending on the circumstance. I have deep respect for this team, as they are often the first responders to some potentially fatal situations even street scenes like pedestrian accidents. It takes a certain type of individual to face Main and Hastings every day in this capacity and not become overwhelmed or jaded.


As a library that aims to reduce barriers to library services, the Security system is both a blessing and a challenge. It is without a doubt necessary to have this mediation, to ensure that the space is a refuge from the streets, but it also means that some high-needs individuals are not receiving library services that they might want. Perhaps they are intimidated by the Security or do not have the ability to remain sober or drug-free in order to enter. In response, the Carnegie Library has had a long-time tradition of hosting the free weekly “Friday Book Giveaway” directly outside on Hastings Street, rain or shine (or snow). I recommend this to all librarians, to consider either cordoning off all or some of their donations and making a point to place the material directly in the hands of those who might appreciate it the most. For example, Community Librarians at VPL regularly go to soup kitchens, Food Bank line-ups, and addiction centres and bring donated materials to share out, which often results in registering library cards and restored relationships with the library.

At the Carnegie we receive many donations of books, magazines, movies, and other random items that cannot necessarily be added to the collection. Most VPL branches have a small “Pay-what-you-feel” book truck, but we take the materials outside, as well as a tent if it’s raining, and give away four large totes each week. This program is the highlight of the week. Without the barrier of being inside an institution, and being in the position of just giving away books, the event allows for meaningful connections to develop with passersby. There is usually a group of regulars waiting at the table by 2:30 p.m., with some individuals certainly there to hoard books or to sell down the street at the Street Market. We hope that someone will read and appreciate these books. Mostly, the people who stop by simply love reading and once in awhile we will convince them to try the library again, with offers of sorting out a fine or tracking down a specific item.

While this giveaway program may seem like just a hand-out to the homeless, it is so much more. I can’t even begin to describe how many times a person will see a book on the table and it is “the exact” book that they desired. When you start talking books and movies, everyone is on an equal playing field. And it’s on the street, where many of the Downtown Eastside residents feel comfortable. It’s there that I glean the most candid and honest responses to books, library services, and personal interests.

Like anyone else, a person living on the street needs to satisfy their curiosity, their passion for reading, their interests in everything from World War II history, bee-keeping, gardening, conspiracy theories, thrillers, memoirs, astronomy, philosophy, and everything in between. When you are faced with line-ups for food and shelter every day, the routine can get boring, so a good book can help disconnect from that reality. Shelter living can also result in theft of backpacks and library materials, or even the dreaded bed bug, but we cannot become hardened to these barriers.

The best part about being a librarian is that you are not selling people anything. You are not there to dictate what is “best” for them – you get to bring joy and pleasure and stability to a person’s life, and it’s an honour to do so. The library is a space where one can be part of the scene, either set apart as a quiet reader with a newspaper, or part of a community registering for a workshop. A welcoming library can make someone feel included and valued, but this takes work. There has to be a mindset of saying “Yes” to patron requests and suggestions, and then seeing how you can make it happen within reason.

When Hives for Humanity proposed creating a free DTES Seed Library, to be populated with packages of seeds from a nearby garden that allows community members to learn gardening and bee-keeping, we found a solution to contain the seeds (avoid critters) and support a positive program. When some regular patrons were reminiscing about the old days when they used rip around on vintage motorcycles, we made a “Motorcycling Story-telling” Night happen! As well, the branch applied for a grant last year to help reduce the digital divide. As a result, the weekly Tech Café at Oppenheimer Park has been a great success, running since last August with a wide range of questions and trouble-shooting each week. The program is a collaboration with the DTES LinkVan app team, community ambassadors, UBC Learning Exchange, and the DTES Literacy Roundtable.

Access and inclusion

Working with a community that can be unpredictable or unstable requires the librarian to be vulnerable, humble, and even to even face their fears at times, but the level of fulfillment and variety in the day is often joyful. I give credit to the local church soup kitchen where I volunteered for many years for allowing me an “in” to this community, where I now work quite comfortably. I learned so much at the soup kitchen, especially the lesson of when friendliness can be harmful or misinterpreted, when boundaries are not made clear. It is important to be curious, without judgment, and approachable, but also not presumptuous. If someone has internalized their loneliness, and then suddenly a well-intentioned person extends conversation and friendship, it can get confusing. Clear communication and professional boundaries can be expressed respectfully without being interpreted as rejection, but this does require attentiveness to the other person and their behaviour.

Working with any community requires a level of trust and understanding that takes time and commitment to develop. When I arrived at the Carnegie, the best decision I made was choosing to eat my lunch most days in the cafeteria upstairs. Lunch times are busy, so patrons share the tables and conversation naturally flows. It was an easy opportunity for people to become familiar with my presence, and I really enjoy the company. I also firmly believe that the patrons are a resource and are the experts when it comes to recommending advocates, events, services, and support for their neighbours.

On occasion, I find myself dreading a certain patron and their questions as I see them approach the reference desk. But what librarian hasn’t felt this way interacting with the public? There are always going to be difficult patrons that are not satisfied or that trigger frustration. I now try to prepare myself each day with a mindset of openness because I find I am then more patient, present, and genuine. Plus, when I am truly honest with a patron, perhaps asking them to focus their question due to a time constraint, I am always surprised how understanding they are, offering to come back when it is more convenient. I often feel humbled when I realize how accommodating some patrons are and the reverence they have for my so-called “important” job. This is just one of the many lessons I have learned from working at the Carnegie. My job title is not actually that important, but rather it is the simple human interactions that have true substance and meaning.

Even though I’m proud of the Carnegie Library, I realize that our job is not always about doing or organizing some program that can be measured or celebrated in a report. A librarian must be willing to release their sense of control, allowing for elements of chaos and mystery into the library before the results become apparent. This outlook is ultimately applicable for all library interactions, no matter the patron’s social standing. Inclusion means that judgment must be suspended. Recently, a patron shared his story as a victim of the Sixties Scoop, being sexually abused as a four-year-old during foster care, and his use of drugs as a coping mechanism. Hearing this story and others like it has made me realize that inclusion means listening and understanding – because there is so much more to surface appearances, especially for those who society dismisses because of misconceptions about addiction.

Access means that your work as a librarian is not your own. Your work is about being constantly interrupted, because interruptions are your job, and must be viewed as opportunities. The individual patron requires all your attention, compassion, and empathy because a person who has known rejection so deeply will know when they are not being taken seriously. And at the end of the day, you must be content to say that even if you “solved” nothing in the grand scheme of things, you at least listened well. This outlook is difficult when someone’s life may seem to be in crisis by your standards, but there needs to be room for the individual to articulate their needs and interests before assumptions are made. It’s important to be familiar with shelter listings and soup kitchens, but more often the Carnegie branch is valued for obvious library activities. Talking about the latest news or movie release, or a favourite author, can even ground someone back into greater society, and make them feel less alone.

I remind myself of this regularly, that it is enough to be a librarian. It is a necessary self-care approach because otherwise one could become a martyr in an attempt to end homelessness, eliminate overdose, confront slumlords, etc. These are all worthy causes, and over time one pulls together a repertoire of referrals where community advocates are working together to champion, address, and protest these issues. A librarian cannot be everything to everyone, but rather, they need to be present to their patrons, and have their reservoirs of energy always ready to be renewed. Accessibility starts with a librarian who is always available, with a full tank on reserve.

In many ways, it’s easy to be a traditional Branch Head in the Downtown Eastside because of the wide range of social services that are at hand. I have sympathy for stand-alone libraries without similar networks in place attempting to connect with a homeless person, especially if some “mainstream” library patrons (or even staff) view the individual as a “problem.” At Carnegie, the marginalized person is not an exception, but simply part of the community who can contribute in their own right, whether it’s through poetry, performing, volunteering, or even saving a life. For inclusion to be embraced, libraries, no matter where they are located, should take on this viewpoint.

If we don’t respect a homeless person or someone suffering from mental illness as a community member, it is highly unlikely that we will pursue a collaborative, inclusive approach, even if there are good intentions. This can be an intimidating process, but it doesn’t have to be. A fear of failure may be preventing some of us from engaging with high-needs patrons. Library workers can feel confident that our service should be part of a network of services, and if you offer dignity and equal access to all without judgment, you are doing a good job.

Finally, the Downtown Eastside is excited about the launch of a new 11,000 square foot library, the nə́c̓aʔmat ct Strathcona Branch this spring at the cross-section of Hastings and Heatley streets. Carnegie library patrons have expressed concern that we would close, but this is not the case. The neighbourhood will be better served, with the new library offering some 30 computer stations, the Bud Osborn Creation space (comparable to the Inspiration Lab at Central branch), and storytimes to cater to families and children, as the Carnegie rarely sees children on the premises.

The new branch will be a library of contrasts: it’s kitty corner to the Union Gospel Mission, but also serves an increasingly affluent Strathcona neighbourhood. There is room in the neighbourhood for both. One library that is shiny, new, and exciting, offering wonderful opportunities to better engage with digital services; and another that has stood the test of time as an intimate, yet vibrant space that works for and with the community.

Natalie Porter is the Branch Head of Vancouver Public Library’s Carnegie Branch.