During the pandemic our library system has sustained us with all its digital offerings: ebooks, audiobooks and downloadable video and music.
And to keep us engaged with the world outside our walls it’s even provided “Home for Coronovirus — Virtual Learning and Activities,” a curated set of links for kids and adults.
But for sure something’s been lost. We spent March and April without our local library branches and more importantly without our branch librarians. If libraries are the kitchen tables we gather around, it’s the librarians who make them the welcoming spaces they are, and ensure we find what’s to our taste.
If you’re from Omemee, it’s Bill Scholey you’re missing. Easy to conjure up his image, though, if you’re a library user there, or are from Norland (where he served as branch librarian for five years), Bethany (one year), Lindsay (some Sundays through the winter), or Fenelon Falls (where he and his wife, Bonnie, live, and where he started his library career, at age 64).
If you don’t know Bill, picture a vigorous grey-haired fellow in a sweater vest and checked shirt. If you’re imagining a shorter, stockier, longer-haired Mr. Rogers, add horn-rimmed glasses and you’re not far off the mark. Someone’s grandfather, and everyone’s neighbour.
In each of his communities Bill worked hard to get to know people, learn how they were using the services, and see what he could do to improve what the library offered. It’s an approach developed in his first career.
For 35 years he worked for IBM, starting off at 19 as timekeeper on a factory floor and — after earning CPA and CMA accountancy credentials — taking on senior marketing and finance positions around the world. (“IBM,” he jokes, stands for “I’ve Been Moved.”) There were five years in Indonesia, a spell as controller for the Caribbean and as chief financial officer for the company in Thailand, a stint in each of Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
That global experience has given him a unique perspective. He’s found that every community has its own distinctive culture but that, as he explains, “Whether it’s Norland, Omemee, Hanoi or Bangkok you find diversity, unique personalities, rich heritage, food sharing, great senses of humour and perhaps most of all that you can enter a community as a stranger and become an accepted part of that community.”
Norland is a good example of how Bill has operated. When he arrived he became a regular at the local coffee shop, Cafe Diem, and friends with the owner, who was running a book club. Bill began ordering book sets for the club.
He met up with local history buffs and community members who were using the library building for euchre, yoga and exercise programs, and encouraged them to become library users. At the same time he made the library more inviting, setting up what he called a “power wall” to display new books, ensuring there was always a pot of coffee brewing, and making space for the book club and for a textile arts group whose knitting, hooked rugs and other products were put on display.
He’s endeared himself to library users in each of his communities and made a mark, most recently in Omemee. The number of library card-holders there has steadily increased and circulation (number of items borrowed) over the past 12 months matches the total over the previous four years. When consultants held a public meeting in Omemee for the library’s new strategic plan, the first question from the audience was, “You’re not going to take away our librarian are you?”
Building bonds happens one library visitor at a time. From the vantage point of a comfortable library chair, here’s what I saw when I dropped in on Bill in two locations. In Omemee, he stays on top of library administrivia at the circulation desk, facing the door.
Whenever someone arrives, he greets them — almost invariably by name — starts to chat with them. A little girl comes in with her mother. “Bill,” the girl asks, “can I do a jigsaw puzzle?” He’s happy to oblige. Someone new arrives to take out a library card and Bill takes the time to give what he calls “Library 101.” He makes sure the new user knows about all the resources and how to use the catalogue, and is aware there’s access to a 14-branch system, not just what’s on Omemee’s shelves.
In Lindsay on a quiet Sunday afternoon he chats with an older gentleman, helps him find Lee Child novels, recommends some similar writers he might enjoy, and lets him know library staff are there to help. It’s a typical exchange.
With the pandemic closing down branches Bill, like the rest of us, has been sheltering in place with Bonnie. He’s been making steady use of library resources. There’s a book on the go for the Norland book club he still belongs to — Hillbilly Elegy, an account of a family and culture in crisis.
There’s some Canadian humour — Terry Fallis’s Alba-tross — and Neil Pasricha’s upbeat You Are Awesome. For family viewing he’s chosen Big Miracle, based on a true story of the freeing of a family of trapped whales off Alaska.
Until we’re at whatever the new normal becomes, and librarians have again opened their doors to welcome us back in, here’s his message: “The people who make up each community and their continuing to be actively engaged is what I feel is the key to sustaining us through these difficult times.”