How grassroots efforts are creating more diverse libraries

Across the province, Ontarians are working to highlight BIPOC voices in public libraries — and building their own
By Elianna Lev - Published on Oct 14, 2020
Since June, teacher Dinah Murdoch has been stocking little free libraries in Kitchener-Waterloo. (Courtesy of Dinah Murdoch)



When the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets this past spring, many across the province were inspired to protest racism and police brutality against Black, Indigenous, and BIPOC communities. It also sparked several grassroots efforts across Ontario that aim to promote the literature and culture of these communities. 

Dinah Murdoch, a Kitchener-Waterloo area-based teacher, had been scrolling through Instagram in June when she came across the page of Sarah Kamya, a school counsellor who started the Little Free Diverse Libraries in Arlington, Massachusetts. The project followed the same format as other Little Free Libraries, a non-profit initiative that promotes book exchanges in neighbourhoods around the world. People can take books for free from the small, enclosed bookshelves and drop them off, too. Kamya’s project filled these spaces exclusively with books by Black authors. “I thought, we can definitely do that here in Kitchener-Waterloo,” Murdoch says. “I was looking for ways to take action, so I just started.”

That same month, Murdoch created an Instagram account and an Indigo book registry, then put up messaging on neighbourhood chalkboards and on local media. So far, she’s raised $2,500 in donations and received about 600 donated books from publishers and volunteers. Half of the funds Murdoch raised will be spent on books at local independent bookstores, while the other will go to inventory from Black and Indigenous-owned bookstores in the Greater Toronto Area. Though she had intended to purchase books from used bookstores, Murdoch says, she was startled by the lack of diversity she found there. “There’s no quicker way to realize how white the publishing industry is than to go into a used book store,” she says. “It’s more a reflection of the past, since you don’t see as many new books.”

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Murdoch has so far donated three to five books each to 150 different Little Free Libraries across her region. She also received a grant from the City of Kitchener that will go toward installing 10 new Little Free Diverse Libraries, with new books, in lesser-served areas. “Little libraries tend to be most present in neighbourhoods with homes and homeowners and less present where there are apartments and low-income housing,” she says. 

Like Murdoch’s project, the Toronto Peoples’ Library was launched as an Instagram account this summer. The result of an idea from musician Dennis Passley, it’s an effort to make the work of BIPOC authors more accessible through the sale of T-shirts. Passley had had his first child earlier in the year; when he began looking at the library for reading materials that represented his experience and culture as a Black man, Passley noticed that the works of BIPOC authors were not as easily accessible. While material was available, there was usually a long waiting list. Passley wanted to change that, says long-time friend Graeme Mathieson (Passley was not available for an interview.)

Mathieson volunteered to design a T-shirt that played on the Toronto Public Library logo — but with Black and Indigenous symbolism. On the back is a crowdsourced list of BIPOC authors. The plan was to raise enough money through sales to buy books by BIPOC authors to donate to the Toronto Public Library. But they soon realized that there were other libraries outside the public system that needed the resources. “There’s lots of really interesting community-based libraries,” Mathieson says. “We got an Excel sheet of people that have reached out to us and potential places we’d like to reach out to.” Since the project’s launch, different organizations, such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and First Nations Public Library, have reached out to express interest in the donation of books. In the coming months, they’re aiming to confirm partnerships with community-based libraries.

So far, the project has sold more than 200 T-shirts and received $500 in direct donations; musicians including Chantal Kreviazuk and the Arkells have pitched in to help. “It’s important to know all our stories,” says Mathieson. “You need a much more rounded story to tell the Canadian experience and Canadian history.” 

Lisa Radha Weaver, a volunteer with the Ontario Library Association and director of collections and program development at the Hamilton Public Library, says that libraries have always worked to be inclusive but that efforts have been especially strong in the last year. When it comes to popular titles by BIPOC authors, she explains, most libraries have a hold ratio that they work toward: “We do watch our holds list closely and are as responsive as our budget allows, both in print and digital, to pay for additional copies.” 

For the Sankofa Book Store, in Ottawa, educating the community on Afrocentric literature and media is nothing new. First opened in 2006, it launched a mobile bookstore about five years ago, setting up a table at community events and even nightclubs and displaying titles about such figures as Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and J.A. Rogers. Confidence Survival, an employee and educator with Sankofa, explains that the program was started as a way to share knowledge with different parts of the city. “Most people don’t regularly cross over from one neighbourhood to another,” she says. “So they’re not easily exposed to our bookstore and the services we offer. By being mobile, we are able to bridge that gap by bringing the knowledge to them.”

The mobile bookstore was last active in February, during Black History Month, but has been put on hold since the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re aiming to get back out in the community by 2021. In the meantime, the store and its employees are using other mediums, such as Youtube videos, to continue their mission of education.

“We’re big on passing on the knowledge that we value,” says Survival.

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