Barriers, Boundaries, and Bureaucracy, Oh My!

This article addresses barriers experienced by some patrons and staff at Vancouver Public Library’s newer branch, nə́c̓aʔmat ct Strathcona Branch. Some nə́c̓aʔmat ct Strathcona branch library staff composed this article collectively. All modes of engaging with this article counted as collaboration, from proof-reading, to adding an extra comma, to adding critique/ideas, to shifting paragraphs, to reading. The listed authors of this article also want to acknowledge the careful edits and attention of those not listed. 


The Vancouver Public Library’s (VPL) full-service nə́c̓aʔmat ct Strathcona branch (NCS) opened its doors to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), Chinatown, and Strathcona communities in the spring of 2017. Since this time, some NCS library staff (from here on “we”) increasingly bear witness to the effects of homelessness, the opioid crisis, policing, gentrification, colonial violence, and lateral violence on the DTES communities and the barriers raised by these intersecting issues and identities. By definition, a barrier is “a fence or other obstacle that prevents movement or access” (Oxford English Dictionary). Barriers are not always physical. Sometimes there is no fence, the doors are wide open, the mission statement says all the right things, and yet, barriers are pervasive. Even if we could snap our fingers and the world became a free and accessible space for everyone, the cumulative effects of historical inequities would continue to shape the present. A barrier, whether it be physical or ideological, is made material and visible when some members of the public can move through a space with ease while other members of the public (often those who are racialized, gendered, or classed) cannot.

It is important to note that to “bear witness” does not imply passivity nor exclude the fact we are also living, breathing humans with our own experiences with struggle, inequity and trauma. Yet, it is also important to note that not all struggles, inequities and traumas are experienced on the same socio-economic ground. NCS is a branch where we often feel like we play the roles of both library worker and social worker. However, we do not all have the necessary skills to do the latter. In “Stranger Than Kindness: Allyship Versus Support in the DTES,” Jakob Knudsen draws attention to the increase of support workers in the DTES who “find their roots in paternalism and philanthropy” and how “little consideration is given to the asymmetrical power dynamic of these relationships.” Although we aim to collectively mitigate institutional barriers that have historically prevented DTES residents from accessing resources, we acknowledge that the roles we inhabit as library workers can, themselves, imbue a power dynamic that can act as a barrier to patrons.

While we do our best to counter inequities and hold ourselves accountable, we are not outside socio-economic structures that privilege whiteness, the economically upwardly mobile, the able-bodied, etc. While we do not intentionally bar those based on their race, gender, ability, or socio-economic status, it can still be experienced as such. The ongoing effects of colonization, for example, have led to systemic racism against Indigenous people and others that have historically prevented them from safely entering without profiling or physical violence. Yet, public libraries are readily referred to as free and accessible spaces for everyone. If such is the case, and is what we strive for as library workers, what are the reasons for these words “free” and “accessible” not fully being realized and felt by everyone? “Free” and “accessible” are words absent of meaning until we commit ourselves to actions that realize these words as much as possible. Vancouver Public Library’s reconciliation efforts, for example, are one step towards such realization.

Below we outline specific barriers experienced by staff and patrons, and the ways in which said barriers intersect along lines of bureaucracy and expectations.

Bureaucratic-based barriers

Asking for identification is a barrier. As much as VPL’s Access Library card (which provides patrons without a confirmed address limited access to borrowing and full access to wireless and computer usage) has helped increase access to library materials, our language around library cards tends to emphasize “ID” first, even when we do not mean it to. From our experience, as soon as patrons, particularly those who do not have ID, hear the very word “ID,” they get frustrated and perceive NCS as yet another government organization with too many hoops and loops. The language and tone we use with one another and patrons can often be interpreted in ways outside of our best intentions. Language that might seem as obvious and non-bureaucratic to us can still hold a lot of barrier-ridden connotations to the people we serve.

Fines, are always a contentious issue. One of the common comments and requests we get from patrons is to do away with fines. The unfortunate reality of this request is that we would then be left to find other ways to generate the revenue that is created when library fines are accrued. While the library tries to keep fines as reasonable as possible, even the most miniscule of fines can prevent some patrons from returning. Some are concerned that they will be policed in some way, or barred from using services in future. It is often the labour of front-line library workers to actively adjust policies and expectations around the punitive response many still expect when met with a fine. This may take the form of reassuring folks that they can still borrow materials as long as their fines are under $10, setting up a payment plan, letting them know that even if they’re above $10 they can still access the internet and digital resources, or waiving fines at community visits or on compassionate grounds for those who are unable to pay.

The authors of this article find there is a push in libraries across North America to treat library goers as customers in order to introduce customer service policies that emphasize the transactional (i.e., often a commercial) part of our interactions. This imagined exchange of goods and services relies on a middle-class way of interacting with our world. There needs to be a realistic acknowledgement of our roles and the changing landscape: we know that librarians and library staff play a vital role in our patrons’ lives that goes far beyond books and reference questions. The disconnect between expectations and our realities can be jarring and exhausting, and may leave people unsure of how to find the support they need to fulfill their roles. For example, a trans person approaches the staff for help printing settlement forms for the Sixties Scoop. This is not a simple, transactional exchange because it carries with it a great deal of emotional labour. The subtexts to this exchange are that the person approaches the library with distrust due to their experiences with government agencies. This could also be compounded by recent distrust between VPL and some members of the trans community. This may mean they approach the staff with a heightened level of stress and negative emotions. In addition, the staff recognizes the importance of the documents being printed and afterwards may carry with them the impact of the event, such as the memory and sadness of the experience. In saying this, we also acknowledge that emotional labour, while it takes its toll, in no way is comparable to the lived experiences we witness.

Handling Expectations and Boundaries

When patrons enter NCS, and all VPL branches for that matter, they are met with a sign that details VPL’s expectations of behaviour. These act to govern and guide our approach with patrons, and also to set a tone for how we hope the branch to function for those using it. Signage, of course, only goes so far to shape public space—people in the branch create and define the overall feel and atmosphere of the library’s public space. How we communicate these expectations to patrons (i.e., no interference with any person’s comfort, theft, obstruction of entrances or exits, eating, pornography) both sets a boundary and materializes a barrier that may not have been visible. What looks like a boundary to one person might look like a barrier to another, and vice versa. Sometimes it is difficult to make a distinction between the two as they unfold in tandem.

At NCS, and VPL at large, we address situations that arise with patrons as much as possible on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes this involves adjusting the rules, sometimes this means following the rules even when it is awkward to do so. It always involves a large amount of open communication between staff members. Rules and policies are necessary to hold organizations liable, but also must be flexible (where possible) to hold them accountable.

When we say “this is a shared spaced for everyone” to someone not having the best day, or the best life, we are  implying certain behaviours or ways of living do not a shared space make. One example is the fact that people cannot bring shopping carts (i.e., their entire lives and possessions) into the library. This rule is very logical to some (i.e., no brakes on the carts, the space multiple carts could take up), but the result of enforcing such a rule means that a patron has to choose between coming into the library and experiencing the possible/likely theft of all their possessions (including shelter, like a tent) while their cart is left outside. This is a much easier decision to make on a sunny August day than in rainy or snowy February, when the library may be the only warm place that people with limited or no money can come indoors.

The amount of time we offer patrons varies and is dependent on staff capacity. The depth of service also varies. As more applications and resources migrate online (i.e. taxes, housing), we find ourselves navigating complicated information where much is at stake for the person we are helping. Our service guidelines allow us to get them started or refer to other organizations, but sometimes patrons don’t see it that way. We see an increasing number of patrons without digital literacy skills, and we, in turn, become part of the barrier because we aren’t able to sit down and spend hours filling out forms, etc.

Our conditioned sensibilities can get in the way of the type of service we provide, and are also a part of the quagmire of boundaries and barriers. A patron mumbling the f-word to themselves, for example, gets a free pass for one staff member, while is an affront to the sensibilities of another. At NCS, there is shared consensus (for the most part) of the difference between when the f-word is said generally versus when that same glorious word is heaved directly at you. In your home this type of speech might warrant disapproval, but you’re in the Downtown Eastside, where one moment someone is telling the other to f-off while in the same breath giving the block of people on the street a heads’ up that a child and mom are passing through.

The question that matters is: whose house are we actually in? Are we in Vancouver Public Library’s house? The DTES community’s house? These are important questions for us to hold in the back of our minds, especially when negotiating boundaries. What is not up for questioning is that we conduct our library work, building relations alongside community, on the unceded homelands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.


Mitigating barriers in a neighbourhood overwhelmed with them is possible, although bearing witness (in the way NCS library staff do) often makes it impossible to see substantial change that benefits everyone. Some success stories have been made possible by VPL’s commitment to community-led practices, including patrons’ access to library services outside of the library through the work of the Community Librarian and Children’s/Teen Services teams, and ongoing relationships with community partners that help ease barriers and make it possible for would-be library users to feel more comfortable. To keep our morale up, we look to the end goal of a free and accessible library space for everyone, and continue to work together with our community towards achieving that vision.

Works Cited

“Barrier.” Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Univ. Press, 2011.

Knudsen, Jakob. “Stranger Than Kindness: Allyship Versus Support in the DTES.” The Mainlander, 13 Mar. 2019, themainlander.com/2019/03/12/stranger-than-kindness-allyship-versus-support-in-the-dtes/