Thinking about the public library

Public libraries are essential to the fabric of our communities. They provide leisure reading, reference service, storytelling, public programs, books and audio-visual material in dozens of different languages and access to information in person, over the phone and via the Internet.

Library use increases in times of economic downturn and social service cutbacks as individuals turn to free library services for information, recreational reading and a social place to spend time with people.

Public libraries are often viewed as the “living room” of their communities. They are known to be safe and welcoming to all. But do all community members feel safe and welcome in libraries?

Libraries remain primarily successful in serving the middle-class while the disadvantaged, the non-literate and those from marginal social circumstances do not necessarily feel welcome and do not feel that the services provided are for them. A substantial body of literature going back to the Royal Commission on Poverty (1968) and further demonstrates that government offices, schools and hospitals/doctor’s offices are frightening and alien to many who are disadvantaged in society. Libraries are perhaps less intimidating but still not comfortable places for many socially excluded people.

Brian Campbell, then the Director of Systems and Special Projects, now retired, and Paul Whitney, then the Director of the Burnaby Public Library and now the City Librarian with the Vancouver Public Library began to conceive of a project that would focus on the needs of socially excluded people. They understood that such a project needed to be national in scope while still being community focused. The objective was to use a community development approach to build relationships and partnerships with community individuals and groups so that the library could better understand what they wanted and needed from the institution. The hoped for result was a model for library services that emphasized community consultation, collaboration and a willingness to change in order to meet community needs.

The Working Together Project grew out of this vision for truly accessible public libraries that are actively open to all.