The stereotype of the librarian as a stern, older woman with thick glasses, a calf-length wool skirt and sensible shoes is pervasive in popular culture. Often she is portrayed glaring at teenagers snickering in a quiet corner or grumbling under her breath at books with dog-eared pages.
But spend a storytime with Ardie Burnham of the Okanagan Regional Library, and you’ll see how far that stereotype is from the 21st century librarian.
Burnham is cheerful and welcoming with a musical voice. She radiates charisma in front of a group, whether it’s performing with puppets for school-age kids or teaching teens about digital resources and tech tools. Her goal as a librarian is to “create an environment where anyone, from any social status, can feel safe and be welcomed and accepted,” she says.
As the only children’s- and youth-services librarian in Salmon Arm, Burnham is responsible for promoting literacy to children under 18 in the library, schools, and community.
She helps readers choose books and learn to use the library’s resources, and she ensures the library space is inviting to kids and teens. She also comes up with ideas for programs. Some of her programs are implemented in the Salmon Arm branch alone; others are applied across the region’s 29 branches that make up the ORL chapter of the Professional Employees Association.
One of Burnham’s focuses at the moment is changing up the storytime program. Rather than using props like puppets and felt characters for every story, she is incorporating oral storytelling techniques that involve the children by having them repeat lines at key moments in the narration.
“The most important element is the story,” she explains. “I make sure I incorporate different ways of telling a story… because people learn differently. Storytime is more than teaching stories; it’s teaching pre-literacy skills. We want every child to learn those skills no matter how they learn.”
Burnham didn’t embark on her career as a librarian until her mid-30s. In 1999, after completing a Bachelor of Humanities at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, the Vernon native took a job at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. She thought she’d be there for six months but ended up staying three years. “From that experience, I learned that I loved library work.”
Still, Burnham didn’t make the move to a career as a librarian. She taught grade one for a time, and also got a music diploma from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, a skill that comes in handy when she incorporates songs into her storytimes.
A conversation with her pragmatic big brother provided the clarity she needed: “He asked what I really wanted, and I said, ‘I want to work with children in the library.’ He said, ‘It sounds to me like you want to be a children’s librarian.’”
With that bit of guidance, she enrolled at age 35 in the University of Western Ontario’s Master of Library Science program. In 2011, a month after graduating, she was lucky enough to get the job she wanted in her preferred location: the Okanagan. She hasn’t looked back.
Today’s librarians devote much of their time to engaging with people inside and outside the library. Burnham frequently leaves the bricks and mortar to do outreach trips in the community, “to reach those who can’t—or don’t—come to us,” she explains.
On outreach trips for children, she takes along a big gym bag—her Mary Poppins bag—filled with storybooks, rubber stamps and puppets, including the perennial favourite, Lily the Ladybug. For the older kids, she hauls a projector and iPad—techie gear—to meet the learning needs and interests of the older age group.
An aunt to 32 nieces and nephews, she has had years of experience relating to different age groups; she’s as much at ease helping a toddler explore his first book as she is helping a teen learn to use a new audiobook app. She also helps parents and grandparents choose books for their children or grandchildren who are either struggling readers or need help researching a project for school.
“I want all my little people and all of my teens to know that they can come to the library and I’m there. I’m there, and I’ll help these curious minds with whatever they need,” she says, noting that one of her favourite parts of being a librarian is when a child or teen returns to the library to tell her the book she recommended was exactly what was needed.
At the end of storytime, when all the tales are told and all the songs are done, it’s time to sing the goodbye song. For Burnham, the end of storytime marks the beginning of a new journey for children, a journey to discover a love of reading and learning. Making this kind of impact on the lives of emergent readers is what drew Burnham to a career in a public library in the first place. “I’ve got the best job in the world.”