Trip To Canada To Learn About Library Advocacy

This is a report on a trip that I took in 2004 to better understand the state of Canadian librarianship. I have since received my master’s degree based on my thesis entitled “Library Advocacy in Canada”. This trip was taken from January 19 to February 18 in 2004.


My name is Shaney Crawford and I am a Canadian studying Library and Information Science as a Master’s candidate at Tsukuba University in Japan. I was awarded a bursary to travel to Canada in order to visit some libraries and library associations, and speak to the staff of these organizations.

I am doing research on library advocacy. This concept is quite unknown in Japan, so I am hoping to use Canada as an example of how advocacy is approached. I would like to examine the advocacy-related activities that libraries and library associations undertake.

About Library Advocacy

There are approximately 19,000 libraries in Canada. This includes public libraries, school libraries, academic (university) libraries, provincial libraries, special libraries, and one national library. These libraries all depend on the funding that they receive from federal, provincial, and local governments in their efforts to bring state-of-the-art library and information services to the citizens of Canada. Libraries are politically vulnerable entities because their level of political salience is low (meaning that they are not well-known in political circles), and the amount of controversy they stir up is also low, so they are not considered to be “politically useful tools” in the minds of politicians.

Certain librarians and library associations have noticed the precarious position of libraries in Canadian political circles and have set out to make sure that the library voice is heard when legislative decisions are being made. Library advocacy, while still not a major movement in library circles, is gaining ground. Lobbying, once — and perhaps still — a dirty word in the minds of some librarians, has become a necessity.

This Trip

The purpose of this trip was to further my understanding of the current state of libraries and library advocacy in Canada. The information that I was able to gather will serve as an invaluable and integral part of my research.

Below you can read an account of my adventures.


Jan 19 – 25: Calgary (Alberta)

Schedule

Jan 20 – Calgary Public Library – Rosemary Griebel, Customer Service Manager
Jan 21 – Calgary Public Library, Glenbow Museum
Jan 22 – Marigold Regional Library System – Rowena Lunn, Director
Jan 24 – Banff Public Library

Report

Calgary has a special weather phenomenon called a Chinook. A Chinook is a warm breeze that comes over the mountains and makes the weather in the winter surprisingly warm. Chinooks appear suddenly, so in one day, you can experience an extreme range of temperatures. When you leave for work in the morning, it will be -20C, but when you come back at night it will be 15C.

I was lucky to arrive in Calgary during a relatively warm spell. I planned on doing some driving to reach some libraries outside of Calgary, so I was very happy to see that the weather was going to co-operate with me.

I started my research with a trip to the Calgary Public Library. When I was still in Japan I tried to make an appointment to meet someone at this library, but I was not successful. So, I decided just to walk in to the library and see if anyone would talk with me.

It took a while before they could find someone who was willing and able to talk to me about library advocacy issues. The topic of advocacy is a bit vague and the concept has not necessarily trickled down to all of the library staff, so my request to talk to someone about the library’s advocacy work was met with some confusion, I think.

Eventually, I was able to talk to Rosemary Griebel, a Customer Service Manager for the library. Rosemary talked to me at length about the library’s — and her own — efforts in advocating the library “party line” on various issues. She is involved in print disability issues, so she was able to discuss some of her activities supporting that cause.

I realized when I was talking to Rosemary that I didn’t have a clear understanding of where libraries in Canada get their funding from. So, I went back to the library the following day — as a user, not an interviewer — to do some research on library funding in Canada. Much to my dismay, I found that it is quite difficult to come to generalizations about libraries in Canada — or for that matter, anything in Canada — because things vary greatly from province to province. For example, the Ministry of Culture looks after libraries in Ontario, but the Ministry of Community Development (just known as Community Development) looks after libraries in Alberta. I had no idea things would be this difficult, so this was the first eye-opener of my trip.

At the Marigold Library System I learned from Rowena Lunn about the complexities of the regional library system in Alberta. In a country as large as Canada, and with so few inhabitants, it would seem sensible for organizations to pool their resources in order to offer a range of services. This is the philosophy behind the regional system. However, I was surprised to learn that the regional system is optional. Cities and towns can decide on their own whether they want to belong to a regional library system or not. This means that when you look at a map of the regional library systems in Alberta, you will often see a donut-hole in the middle of a certain region, where certain municipalities have chosen to opt out.

Another surprising fact about the libraries in Alberta is that many of them charge a fee to get a library card. The fee is generally low, but it is a point of high contention in the library community. One of the basic tenets of librarianship is that the library be free. But most of the libraries in Alberta, and some in Quebec, have somehow managed to justify charging fees for membership. This was a most unexpected finding during this trip.

The Public Library in Banff does not charge a fee — and in fact styles itself as a champion for the no-fee team. It is one of the few Albertan libraries that doesn’t charge a fee, and is therefore a considered a bit a of an enfant terrible in the Albertan library community. This library, however, is quite forward thinking in many of its policies. For example, in lieu of late fees, the library has a jar on the front counter called a “guilt box”. If you are late in returning your books, you are encouraged to make a donation. Be careful not to keep your books too long, though, because the Banff Public Library has hired a collection agency to hunt down people who have not returned their books. The library was forced into this drastic measure due to the huge losses it was incurring because of lost books. Rather than swallow the cost, the library decided to be pro-active and get their books back — with a vengeance. I have never heard of this technique before, so I found it a very interesting idea. It makes sense for a fluid community, like the seasonal tourists and workers that populate this city.

Finally, Alberta has taken its cue from Saskatchewan and tried to make its libraries work like more of a team. One of the results of this new philosophy is the Ask a Question reference system available online. This system was designed by college students in Alberta and it seeks to provide a one-stop reference system for Albertans, and for people who need information about Alberta. Many libraries in the province participate in this province-wide effort by letting their librarians sign up as specialists in certain areas. Questions go to a central pool and they are then either answered by a local librarian who knows the answer or assigned to someone if no one grabs it. This is a co-operative effort that puts librarians in their proper place in the information society: at the front, leading the group. I hope this system is closely monitored by the rest of the library community in Canada.

Jan 25 – Feb 8: Toronto (Ontario)

Schedule

Jan 28 – Toronto Public Library Liilian H. Smith Library – Lorna Toolis, Head, Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy; Leslie McGrath, Head of Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books; Yuka Kajihara-Nolan, Librarian, Toronto Reference Library
Jan 29 – Ontario Library Association Superconference (Jan 29-31) – Margaret Andrewes, Beamsville Councillor (mentor); Elizabeth Kerr, 2003 President of Ontario Library Association (met at breakfast); Madeleine Lefebvre, President of Canadian Library Association (met in line for coats); David Harvie, Associatiate Director of City of Stratford Public Library (met at lunch); Rita Vine, President of Working Faster (met at lunch); Mizan Ibrahim, member of Toronto Public Library board (met at lunch); Margaret Ann Wilkinson, Barristor/Solicitor & Professor at the University of Western Ontario (lecture on copyright); Yvonne Attard, Director of Customer Development at Oakville Public Library
Feb 4 – Ontario Library Association – Larry Moore, Executive Director
Feb 5 – Whitby Public Library – Donna Bolton-Steele, Head of Reference
Feb 6 – Hamilton – Margaret Andrewes; Wendy Newman, former CLA President and currently Librarian in Residence at FIS, University of Toronto

Report

The main focus of my Toronto visit was a three-day conference run by the Ontario Library Association. When I signed up for the conference and sent in my dues, I was given the option of requesting a mentor for the duration of the conference. I decided to ask for a mentor and see what happened. This ended up being the smartest move I made the whole trip.

My mentor was Ms. Margaret Andrewes, a powerhouse in the Canadian library advocacy community. She has served numerous roles in the library community including President of the Canadian Library Association and CEO of a library. By hooking me up with Margaret, the OLA handed me a golden spoon to feed myself with. I corresponded with Margaret before I arrived in Toronto and then I finally met up with her on the first day of the conference. She was immediately helpful in telling me which seminars I should attend and which ones would probably not be helpful. Then, for the duration of the conference, she made sure that I was introduced to all the “big names” in Canadian librarianship. If I hadn’t been paired with Margaret, I am not sure that I would be able to do the research that I have chosen.

Feb 8 – 12: Ottawa (Ontario)

Schedule

Feb 9 – Canadian Library Association – Don Butcher, Executive Director; Peter Wilson, IT Manager and Webmaster
Ottawa Public Library – Barbara Clubb, City Librarian (unable to make meeting); Linda Standing, Division Manager
Feb 10 – National Library of Canada – Doug Robinson, Library and Information Science Specialist; Marie-Josee Tolsczuk, Senior Reference Librarian, Impact Public Affairs – Huw Williams, President
Feb 11 – National Library of Canada – Carrol Lunau, Resource Sharing Officer

Report

It was in Ottawa that my research finally started to take shape. I had it in my mind that I wanted to study how the library community in Canada fought for its own beliefs when faced with political challenges. I had received advice from Wendy Newman (another Canadian library powerhouse whom I met through Margaret) in Toronto that it would be a good idea to choose one issue to showcase advocacy efforts in Canada. When I left for Canada in January, I had planned to study the Canadian library world’s activities in support of the country’s new internet and information related policies. I quickly realized, however, that that topic was far too vague, and that few librarians felt very engaged by this topic. I was hunting around for a new focal issue when I met up with Don Butcher, Executive Director of the Canadian Library Association.

Don came up with a number of issues that CLA has focused on throughout the years. After debating a number of different issues, I finally decided to focus on the library community’s efforts in support of the library book rate. The library book rate is a special postal rate that libraries can use to send books to other libraries (inter-library loan) or patrons (outreach).

The beauty of this issue is that the debate itself, at least in the library community’s eyes, is quite simple. Libraries need this special postal rate in order to provide a basic standard of services for their communities. If the federal government decides to rescind the legislation supporting the library book rate, the consequences to libraries all over Canada will be dire. This means that libraries, and thus librarians, can feel a sense of urgency about this issue (unlike they would with “federal information policies”) which will, I hope, translate into an equivalent amount of library-community-based activity in support of the legislation.

Both the Canadian Library Association and the National Library of Canada were extremely helpful in guiding me in my research. The staff of both organizations worked hard to supply me with enough documentation to get me started on this topic.

In retrospect, it would have been ideal to have spent a few more days in Ottawa. When I was in Japan planning my trip, I had no idea how long I should spend in each location, so I designed my schedule somewhat arbitrarily. I couldn’t have known back then just how important my time in Ottawa would be.
Before I close the Ottawa section, I should mention some interesting innovations that I noticed at the Ottawa Public Library. Ottawa has recently merged with some of its outlying communities and has thus grown into one of the largest library systems in the world. In order to foster resource sharing within the new system, they have developed a concept called the floating collection. This means that when a book is borrowed from one library in the system, it can be returned to any other library in the system. The interesting thing is that the book will now stay at the second library until or unless it is moved to another library within the system. This means that the collection is in a permanent floating state.

A second area of innovation is in the involvement of the patrons in their own library experience. Patrons at the OPL can check out their own books with an automatic scanning machine. Furthermore, when they return their books, they have to choose one of three windows in which to drop their items: adult books, child books, or audio-visual materials. Also, books that are put on hold are displayed publicly. This means that patrons can come and pick up their books-on-hold themselves rather than having to bother a librarian. All three of these systems mean that the librarians can focus their energies on serving the patrons who really need help — the ones who have questions that need to be answered — rather than on checking books in and out.

Finally, the OPL allows food and drink in the library. This is something I noticed in many of the libraries that I visited throughout the country. The Calgary Public Library has a coffee shop right inside the library itself. Patrons are reminded not to make a mess and to not take food or drink near the computers. This kind of self-governing system seems to be popular in Canada.

Feb 12 – 16: Victoria (British Columbia)

Schedule

Feb 13 – Victoria Public Library – Susan Henderson, Manager of Marketing and Communications
Feb 14 – British Columbia Provincial Museum

Report

My next stop came after a long (5-hour) plane ride followed by a 3-hour bus-ferry-bus ride to Victoria, which is on an island to the west of mainland British Columbia. I wasn’t able to arrange an appointment in advance, so I just had to show up at Victoria Public Library to see who would talk to me. The CEO of the library was involved in lengthy negotiations to secure a new building for the library, so she was unable to meet with me. However, Susan Henderson, the Manager of Marketing and Communications for the library kindly agreed to be interviewed.

During this trip, I learned a great deal about the difficult relationships between libraries and their boards. Library boards exist in Canada to act as an advisory committee to the library, but also to serve as a liaison between the library and the local government. The library board is often populated with a large number of councillors from the government, which can be a mixed blessing. If the councillors consider themselves to be a liaison, they are often very good partners for the libraries in question. If, however, the councillors consider themselves to be watchdogs sent from above, the libraries are placed in a very dangerous position. The library board is the place where important budgetary decisions are made. If the members of the board see themselves as watchdogs for the local government, they will often move to cut the library’s budget as a matter of course. The very people who are supposed to advocate for the library become the thorn in its side. In Victoria, a number of smaller communities have recently been merged with the City of Victoria, so the library board has had some growing pains as it has blossomed to include all the councillors from the newly merged communities. The role of library boards in advocacy work is an area that I hope to explore in my research.

Feb 12 – 16: Vancouver (British Columbia)

Schedule

Feb 16 – British Columbia Library Association – Michael Burris, Executive Director, Vancouver Public Library – Paul Whitney, Director
Feb 17 – Asian Library, University of British Columbia – Eleanor Yuen, Head Librarian; Tsunehara Gonnami, Japanese Collection Librarian; Yuko Takemoto, Library Assistant

Report

Margaret’s magic web continued to be spun as I travelled to Vancouver. Through her contacts, I was able to arrange interviews with the Executive Director of the British Columbia Library Association and the Director of the impressive Vancouver Public Library. Both of these gentlemen were very kind in offering me information about their organizations that helped me to place them in the Canadian library worldview.

When I was on the bus from the airport to the BCLA, I was given a lecture on the Vancouver Public Library by a particularly chatty bus driver. He informed me that when the new Vancouver Public Library was being built, the city’s citizens were given the right to vote on the design. Every time a citizen checked books out of the library, her or she was given one vote. In this way, the public had input into the way their city would look. When I was in Toronto I heard a similar story. When a new library was built in the Toronto Public Library system in 1995, the public was asked to contribute names. Around 170 names were received and the final decision was made by a citizen’s advisory committee. This made me consider the importance of community involvement in libraries. I think that Canadian libraries aim to engage their patrons in the library world. While they are not always successful, at least they are making the effort.

Summary

This trip was very educational for me. I was able to learn many things about my own country that I hadn’t realized before. (See A Canadian’s View of Canada for more information.) And I started to develop a clearer image of the state of librarianship in Canada. The most valuable part of the trip was developing connections with major — and minor — players in Canadian librarianship. The opportunity to meet and speak to these people was priceless. I hope to use the information that I learned on my trip to further my research on library advocacy in Canada, but also to start to develop connections between the library worlds of Canada and Japan. The Canadian librarians that I met were all very interested in hearing more about how things were done in Japan. I think that our two countries can learn a great deal from each others efforts, and I hope to one day act as a bridge between these two communities.

4 thoughts on “Trip To Canada To Learn About Library Advocacy

  1. Oksana

    Thank-you for your article and reader friendly information. I was doing a presentation on library advocacy in Canada for librarians in Ukraine and used the information provided in your article and research.

  2. Shaney

    Hi Oksana,

    I’m glad you found the information useful!

    Shaney.

  3. Ettaik Noureddine

    Hi shaney,
    I wanted to thank you very much for this amazing article about library advocacy since this is the subject I want to treat as my master’s degree topic for: case of morocco (it is where I am from :)).
    I was wondering Shaney if you can send a part of your work, the outline or the link to to your work about the subject if it is online, this would help me realy a lot because I am a bit lost since I am in a third world country and the ressource are a bit scarce information wise and finance wise.
    Thank you very much again for you article. and hope to hear from you soon :)

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