Don’t judge a book by its cover

Librarians may not look like social workers, and they’re not. But they’ve become pivotal partners to support and connect those who have fallen through the cracks of the system.

By Denise Waldron

Lyndsay Heffernan, library specialist for outreach and community engagement, is one of many friendly faces welcoming more people than ever to the library. Photo: Sienna Frost.
Lindsay resident Meg Geraghty and her boys choose some books to borrow at the library. Photo: Sienna Frost.

Early libraries in Mesopotamia—now known as Iran—loaned clay tablets to patrons. These tablets were hand-etched and baked in the sun.

That means libraries have been around for about 5,000 years.

The Persian librarians of that era could not have imagined an evolving library system that encompasses not only paper books but also music, movies, classes, modern tablets, computer technology, and other resources. Moreover, they would not have known that future libraries would step up to respond to societal needs in times of distress.

Jamie Anderson, Kawartha Lakes Library CEO and director, says, post-pandemic, many public libraries across Canada are finding themselves as the triage centres on main streets and downtowns, supporting social services and managing crisis response on the ground level.

He notes librarians are not mental health professionals but are often the first person that somebody would interact with and would be referred to human services.

“So we’re often dealing with people now who kind of fall into the cracks over the years and COVID kind of pushed them over the edge.”

After the pandemic, a sense of connection returned, too. Conversations spaced six-feet apart through masks were not prohibited at the library. According to Anderson, small bits of interactions were meaningful. “I wouldn’t call it mental health services, but I think just another human being you can talk to,” made a difference.

Libraries have always been important places for families. Lindsay resident Meg Geraghty and her two boys, eight-year-old Beckett and six-year-old Foster, frequently participated in in-person library programs before the pandemic. They particularly enjoyed children’s programming, such as reading clubs and craft time. During the lockdown, Geraghty utilized the online catalogue to place books on hold for her family.

“I’ve continued to use this versus browsing as I can quickly find what I need.”

Anderson said the libraries stepped up their children’s programming with take home craft kits along with short YouTube video tutorials made by staff — to show the parent how the craft was done. He adds, “Many authors gave permission for libraries to record a librarian reading their book and posting it online.”

Beyond support for families, though, the library has always been more than just a repository of books, education, and reading material. It has provided a safe, accepting space for connections. Acquaintances, neighbours, friends, family, and library staff would gather to chat, enjoy learning experiences, share recommendations, and perhaps assist each other before going their separate ways. However, with the pandemic, that vital connection was severed, leaving borrowers with a sense of social malaise that could not be remedied by a library card alone.
“The biggest support we could give to people is by being open,” Anderson adds.

“As long as you’re not sleeping and not disturbing other people, (and) you’re following the rules of conduct for everybody, you’re welcome to stay.”

Anderson said for those arriving outside of library hours, the Wi-Fi is strong, allowing people to read the news, check their mail or catch up with friends on Facebook before opening hours.

A library card offered a plethora of downloadable resources, just a click away as well. But for patrons without digital access, or who were not technology savvy, the pandemic highlighted a rift that librarians worked to address by getting physical materials to the public.

People without internet access could phone ahead and place holds on materials or staff would make recommendations and have bundles ready at the door for pickup. Staff also put flyers in books ready for check-out that highlighted newer titles.

While the pandemic closed the libraries, it didn’t stop librarians from serving patrons online or in person.

The Kawartha Lakes library initiated their low-tech storywalk program in 2019, but it really took off during the pandemic. These storywalk pop-ups featured pages of books posted on large yard signs around outdoor trails. The fun, educational activity paired literacy with physical activity and encouraged families to get outside. Since then, many pop-ups have been set up around the city with a grant to install permanent displays at Settlers Village in Bobcaygeon.

“There’s no cost, and we’re not judging you on anything you’re using.”

While most would not consider the library a transportation hub — it is for Lindsay’s Karen Lynn. “The Lindsay library downtown is the only place I know that provides the monthly bus pass.” Since she works downtown, the location is convenient.

For others, the Lindsay Library is a stopover point for people going towards Peterborough or from Peterborough to the Durham area. It’s not unusual to see people camped out under the front overhang on Kent Street in front of the children’s library. “Nine times out of 10, they’re gone by about 8:30 or so in the morning.” Anderson adds, “If they’re a little longer, especially if we’re not kind of recognizing them, we will contact human services just to make sure that they’re kind of in the system or in the process.”

Books on the shelves is still big business at the library, but so is a growing demand for programming. Photo: Sienna Frost.

While libraries are known to offer classes and personal help with software and technology, this is more important than ever. Library staff can help format resumes and help patrons brush up on their Word, Excel or Office skills.

Anderson says people like to come in for one-on-one sessions with reference staff if they must take a test or pass an interview.

Library card holders also have access to items to try before making a commitment to purchase them elsewhere.

Crafters can book a lesson and buy basic supplies for the library’s Cricut machine. It’s a digital die-cutting machine that cuts paper, vinyl, and other materials for use in craft projects.

Those seeking a boost of vitamin D during the dreary winter months can utilize the library’s seasonal affective disorder (SAD) light. These special lamps simulate the sunlight that is scarce in darker seasons, potentially alleviating seasonal affective disorder and depression.

Anderson mentioned that individuals often stop by to grab a newspaper, spend 30 minutes beside a lamp, and then continue with their day.

Anderson said of the Cricut machine and SAD light, they give people the opportunity to try them out and see if they are items they want to use and purchase, or just keep coming back to use the ones in the library.

Books on the shelves is still their big business, but what they see now is a growing demand for programming. “Our programming attendance has gone up. We are on target to be a 50 per cent increase over what we did in 2019 for programming attendance pre -COVID,” said Anderson.

He notes a lot of parents really want to get the kids out of the house and away from their screens. There is also pent-up demand for adult and senior programs. He doesn’t want to downplay them, but says in a lot of ways, it’s more about the social aspect. “You just want to be able to get together with other people, face to face, and talk to them and see them.”

According to a 2023, three-year study from the Canadian Urban Institute, the funding gap between the growing number of programs and services being provided and the resources to do so, is staggering and growing, but libraries offer great economic return with what they do have.

For every one dollar invested in Canada’s urban libraries, $6 is generated in community economic impact, a return of over 600 per cent.
“Libraries can always be counted on to step up in hard times and respond to community needs,” Anderson added. “They are a critical part of post-pandemic recovery.”

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