Jamie Stuart

Board-game nights, podcast sessions, Mandarin classes, astrology lectures. With offerings like these, public libraries are rewriting their story. The twenty-first century library is still a house of books, but it’s not only that. It’s a hub for learning and entertainment in every medium—print, digital and face-to-face. It’s a place for personal and professional development leading to creative and forward-thinking communities. And it’s the neighbourhood living room, one of the only public spaces where everyone, no matter who, is invited to learn, linger and socialize without spending a nickel.

Through innovative programming and services, PEA librarians at the Okanagan Regional Library (ORL) are contributing to the rebranding of public libraries, enticing people to discover the new and improved ways they can benefit from this public resource.

Stephanie Thoreson and Jamie Stuart are two of the ORL’s PEA librarians. Thoreson works with youth at the Vernon branch, and Stuart is a reference librarian at the main branch in Kelowna. Both began working in public libraries in the early 2010s after completing master of library science degrees at the University of Western Ontario. Both colleagues say they were attracted to librarianship in part because of its public-service aspect.

Born and raised in the Lower Mainland, Stuart worked as a teacher overseas for eight years before attending library school. He says his decision to work in public libraries instead of academic libraries was inspired by a professor who was passionate about the role libraries play in public life. Thoreson, originally from Sault Ste. Marie, had contemplated studying social work, but finds the library fulfills her career aspiration to provide people with resources to improve their lives.

What Thoreson and Stuart both note about their careers is that working in a public library is different from what they imagined, because libraries have changed. When Stuart was hired in 2013, for example, the ORL had no mandate for offering programs for the public. But, a review of the system around the same time revealed that the library would need to become more innovative. “It meant completely altering the workflow of the reference librarians,” Stuart says, “taking them off the desk and bringing them out into the community.”

Three days into his position at ORL, Stuart was asked to develop the library’s first program under the public programming model. He chose one he’d designed for a project in library school based on one of his favourite hobbies: board gaming.

“I had one gentleman show up for my first board-gaming program,” Stuart remembers. Six years later, the program has an online community of 900 members, with an average of 30 to 35 people a week who come down to play. “It’s a community, and people become friends and socialize outside the library,” Stuart says.

Today, all of the ORL’s 30 branches across the Okanagan offer similar activities, including video game and role playing nights, rap battles, magic shows, knitting clubs and language learning. (Stuart’s Mandarin Mondays program in Kelowna has been featured in the local media several times.) The library has also introduced programs that support BC’s K–12 curriculum, and regularly hosts guest presentations by Elders from First Nations as well as local professionals and researchers from all backgrounds.

Stuart notes that a benefit of the new programming is that it taps into populations who haven’t been into the library in a long time, and draws them back. “People didn’t realize they can go down (to the library) on any given night and there will be something there of interest . . . We’re staying within our mandate to serve the public as broadly as we can,” he says.

Another contributor to the transformation of libraries is the rise of technology. Far from heralding what many feared would be the end of libraries, digital technologies have provided new ways for people to learn. The ORL offers ebooks, audiobooks and digital magazines, newspapers, and research tools. If patrons need help using these electronic products, they can sign up for one-on-one assistance with library staff.

In July, the main branch in Kelowna opened ORL Makerspace, which gives library cardholders access to technologies like 3D printers, audio and digital recording equipment, and a Cricut Maker—a cutting, drawing and scoring machine for hands-on projects. Other branches have other specialty technologies arriving shorly, such as the sound booth at Thoreson’s Vernon branch, where people can record their own audiobook, podcast or song.

“We break the barrier of how to use technology,” Thoreson explains. “It brings new people into the library and gives them more opportunity to learn and access information.”

There’s another benefit to digital resources, she adds: reaching people who can’t travel to the library. Because ORL is a regional system, many patrons live in rural areas without easy access to a library branch. In response, the library offers one-on-one tech support to assist these patrons to benefit from digital resources without needing to come to the library in person.

Both Stuart and Thoreson see digital resources and services as a positive step for libraries. Whether people read print or ebooks or listen to audiobooks, they are engaging with language, information and learning in a way that works best for them. “I’m a big believer in lifelong learning,” Thoreson says. “You want to expand your mind constantly.”

Being able to personalize learning experiences for patrons is a key element of the modern library’s success, she continues. “Depending on who you are and what your needs are, we can find something to help you in some way,” she explains. “If the library can’t help directly, the librarians will connect you to people and resources who can.”

The question arises occasionally whether libraries are still relevant in the age of Google. Thoreson thinks a visit to her busy branch would illustrate their continuing relevance. “When we first open, there’s usually a rush for the computers,” she says. “There’s lots of people picking up their holds, coming to story time, or joining an adult program like a book club or information session. Sometimes we have a group of people with physical disabilities learning about different ways of communicating with technology.”

Adds Thoreson, “We are a community, a place where people can connect.”