LONDON — In 2016, soon after Cynthia Tribe started working at the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation Community Library, she was approached by two elders. More than a year had passed since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada had released its final report on the abuse of Indigenous children in the former residential school system, and the elders wanted to know more about the situation and how it affected their community.
Some members of the tiny Anishinaabe First Nation west of London had attended the Mount Elgin Industrial Institute, a residential school that had operated there from 1841 to 1949. After years of silence, people had begun to discuss their experiences, but opportunities to do so were rare. So the elders asked Tribe, the librarian, formerly a counsellor and family crisis worker, to hold regular sessions in the tiny three-room library.
“I would read them storybooks or someone’s story on their experiences,” she says. The positive response to the sessions inspired Tribe to coordinate the community’s activities during this year’s Orange Shirt Day, a nation-wide annual residential school remembrance event held each year on Sept. 30.
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Not all that long ago, the public library was viewed primarily as a destination for bookworms. In recent years, however, libraries have expanded their scope: they’re now meeting needs — both technological and social — that are not being met anywhere elsewhere in society.
“It’s a broadening of focus that emphasizes the interests and needs of all those in the community, but in particular marginalized community members,” says Heather Hill, a professor in the faculty of information and media sciences at Western University.
Libraries, found in nearly every community in Canada, make ideal neighbourhood hubs because they are one of the few public spaces intended for social exchange, she explains. “We have a lot of government communication and issues that have shifted online. People may or may not have access to those things, or even know where those things are.” The library provides access and information — it’s become a community living room where there’s no pressure to buy anything, and everyone is welcome.
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The London Public Library, which receives 2.5 million visits a year at its 16 branches, recently waived children’s book fines because it worried that some low-income residents would see them as a barrier to borrowing. During a recent renovation at its downtown Central branch, it created new youth hangout spaces and a Mac computer lab for creative projects: it also has plans to add a recording studio, 3D printers, and possibly even a linocut print studio.
The library has also partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association Middlesex branch to provide counselling and information about how to access mental health services. Two of the association’s mental health workers are available to the public one day a week on the Central branch library’s second floor.
“We have always hosted their programs in our spaces, but they’re coming to us and saying, ‘You are a welcoming and safe space where people are comfortable approaching us to have conversations,” says Carolyn Doyle, the library’s adult services coordinator. The library has also had longstanding partnerships with the Middlesex-London Health Unit and the Salvation Army-administered Housing Stability Bank financial assistance program, which uses space at the library to meet with clients.
Using libraries as community service hubs might be a newer concept in urban areas but is nothing new in rural communities, says Brian Masschaele, the director of community and cultural services at Elgin County. “If you really think about it, there’s really not too many other logical places to do that,” he says. Rural areas often lack the amenities — such as reliable internet service, wifi access, or even public transit — that people in urban locations can use to obtain entertainment and essential services. So in rural library systems, such as Elgin’s, change has been more about supplying technological access.
A case in point is the county’s Shedden branch, which moved earlier this year to new digs next to Shedden’s community centre and close to a public playground. It offers three times the space of the former facility and contains several new attractions, such as a display area for exhibits, plenty of computer equipment, and services that allow people to download movies and electronic copies of magazines. (The area’s internet speeds are too slow to support popular movie streaming services such as Netflix.) Weekly visits have jumped from 60 to 300.
Like the London library system, the Elgin County system uses partnerships to enhance its role as a community hub, and these too take on a technological flavour. For years now, it has offered intake services for ServiceOntario, making it possible for people to fill out online applications for items such as driver’s licences, passports, and licence plate renewals at any of its ten branches. Recently, it’s also begun doing online intakes for Ontario Works applications.
But partnerships have to work both ways, Masschaele says, pointing out that each library receives only $425 per year to provide the ServiceOntario assistance — and nothing for the Ontario Works program. Right now, staff can handle the demand. But they will probably seek additional funding if demand grows, he says. “We can’t just be doing this for free, because our staff is being paid to do a whole bunch of other things, too. But we’re not at that point; it’s just one nice little added thing we’re doing on top of everything else.”
Money is tight at most libraries. In September, the Chippewas of the Thames band council cut Tribe’s hours from full-time to part-time. Two weeks later, she says, it reversed its decision after community pushback. She has only $1,600 a year to spend on supplies and operations. If she wants to provide something extra, such as the Orange Shirt day event or organizing a bus trip for children to see a play in London, which is on her wish list, she has to track down and apply for grants.
Relying on short-term or project grants makes consistent service delivery a challenge — and not just for small libraries. When the London Public Library’s Central branch moved to new digs in the early 2000s, it launched a job-hunting centre that provided people with access to computers, printers and staff to provide job-hunting support. The centre wrapped up when funding ended.
Tribe wishes she could do more. Book checkout rates are low: she’d like to boost circulation by expanding the library’s collection — currently contained on five shelving units — and adding ebooks. She’d also like a 3D printer.
“I could do a lot with $20,000 [a year],” she says, as the smell of a nearly done apple crisp cooking in the library’s kitchenette wafts through the sunny main room. The apple crisp is for a youth movie night scheduled to begin shortly.
But right now, her biggest task is to help support the community’s cultural renewal. She has just finished a grant application for a four-day youth culture event. She conducts a girl power group to help build self-esteem and facilitates other sessions that build traditional knowledge and skills, such as moccasin making.
“We know there’s inter-generational trauma there. We know we lost language; we missed out on [learning] traditional things,” she says. “We want to teach [the children] all that.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.