When people asked what I wanted to do after library school, my favourite answer was: “I don’t want to be a children’s librarian and I don’t want to be a community librarian.” Facing a group of toddlers used to create uncomfortable self-awareness, but I don’t remember the reasons I had to reject community work. Maybe I was convinced that stepping outside the library during work hours was unsafe, or maybe I thought it was meaningless. I know now that whatever reason I had was based on erroneous and misunderstood preconceptions, because I never did community work before.
I started a new job as a community outreach librarian five months ago. Having lived and worked in Vancouver for eight years, I assumed that Burnaby’s community dynamics and spaces would be similar—but when I started looking for shelters I found that Burnaby doesn’t have any, and when I looked for gathering spaces, I discovered few other than malls. It’s hard to connect with a community facing barriers if you can’t find the community or the right moment and location to develop a relationship with it. In Vancouver, it was easy to walk down the street and bump into a community gathering spot where it was natural to start a conversation. Here, not so much. I’m sure those spaces exist, I just haven’t found them or found a way to access them.
Community happens even when the librarian doesn’t see it. How are we supposed to know what barriers our community is facing when we don’t know where the community is or how to interact with it? More crucial, how are we supposed to connect with them? We can’t assume that they know about the library and everything we have to offer, or that they feel comfortable enough to visit us to share their concerns and suggestions.
Barriers to library use are well documented. Policies, fees, transportation, service awareness and literacies (or lack of) are understood to be the main ones, and the barriers are bigger or different for different demographics. Those terms, however, are abstractions of a complex and layered reality that librarians face when working in the community. Removing barriers can be an easy process that requires nothing more than a visit to a community space, a short conversation, waiving a small fine or explaining a service—but oftentimes it isn’t, and we need to work hard to identify, analyze, understand, explain and remove an obstacle.
Service awareness is a barrier because our community doesn’t really know what we offer, but also because we don’t always do a great job explaining. Creating awareness doesn’t just mean saying that the library has scanners patrons can be taught to use—it’s more about making the way we approach people and the words we use to share that message inclusive, comfortable and welcoming. I can say a thousand times, “Please come to the library,” and still it will be the right phrase in the right moment, after the 1001st visit, that will make a woman—a senior, a teen, a newcomer—believe me when I say it. Many of them have shared their stories with me, very few times I was able to give back.
I’m convinced that the best way to identify and eliminate library barriers is by having conversations with our patrons in an honest and casual way. I know it’s not the only way, but it’s definitely the most rewarding for all parties. Those conversations will happen when we meet with people in their spaces, where they feel comfortable; the library, as much as I want it to be, is not that place yet for many community members. How do we create the right environment where they share their ideas, emotions and hopes? How do we make time to interact with every barrier-facing person in the city? The answer is obvious: one person at a time. It seems almost too ambitious and unrealistic, and it’s not an original concept. One organization, InWithForward, took it as far as moving staff to a low-rise to spend time with tenants “to understand the day-to-day lives of residents living in one particular apartment building in Burnaby and to peel back some of the labels that get attached to folks—whether around being elderly, disabled, low-income, single mother, refugee or immigrant.” Such a project will show results that are impossible to get through consultations, surveys, traditional outreach and community-led models—and it could also fail.
Community work and social inclusion are great ideas that are meant to fail when put into practice. We will never be able to find every community space in the city, have time to visit them on a regular basis, and find ways to connect with every community member to identify their barriers to library use. Even if we were, we wouldn’t be able to eradicate them all. Needs and demands are attached to individual experiences that will collide with the service structure we created at the library. Once we get deeper into the community and start to recognize its peculiarities, we face questions that will make us fail in other forms: What’s a good statistical way to show social inclusion? How do you communicate with and understand a diverse and complex communities? When do you decide that a barrier exists and has to be eliminated? Who is included and who isn’t?
As librarians, we’re used to common assumptions about our job (“You must read all day!”) or unfamiliarity with its practices (“What do you do all day?”). As a community librarian, I hear the latter often not only from friends and family, but from fellow librarians and other community partners. I have tailored answers for every situation, such as, “I try to connect the library to the community,” or, “I walk around the city.” My favourite answer, though, is that I’m in the social inclusion business. I might not be able to achieve the main goal—making everybody feel valued, accepted, included in the library—but I think, however, that I’m starting to understand how to get there.
>Jorge Cardenas is the Community Outreach Librarian at Burnaby Public Library.