Saturday, May 28, 2016

Humanizing Homelessness at the San Francisco Public Library

A social worker connects at-risk library patrons with resources and a chance to give back.

By Juli Fraga
March 29, 2016

A homeless man sits on the steps of the San Francisco Public Library. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Leah Esguerra, a social worker in San Francisco, begins her workday roaming in between the bookshelves at the city's Main Library. She's looking for homeless people who need her assistance. Esguerra is the nation's first library social worker. Since 2009, she's been providing social services and outreach programs to many of the city’s homeless patrons.

On this particular rainy morning, she’s hoping to find her client, John, who suffers from depression and is in need of mental health care and temporary housing. Esguerra is excited to tell John that she’s arranged some resources like food stamps and made an appointment for him to meet with a psychiatrist who will help treat his depression.

John is one of more than 7,000 homeless people living in San Francisco. Each day, hundreds of the city's homeless take refuge at the library, where they find shelter from the rain and a daytime roof over their heads.

A 2015 survey of San Francisco’s homeless population found that 67 percent reported chronic health conditions, from physical disabilities and HIV/AIDS to psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. People with untreated psychiatric disorders may pose a danger to the public or themselves. A 2014 investigation by KQED discovered that more than half of the residents shot by the police between 2005-2013 were mentally ill.

At the library, Esguerra recognizes at-risk patrons when she sees them talking to themselves or pacing back and forth between the bookshelves. This is how Esguerra met Henry seven years ago.
After his son died unexpectedly, Henry became depressed and began abusing alcohol to help ease his pain. Eventually, he lost his job and home and spent nine months living on the streets, sleeping underneath a bridge on Division Street. Meeting Esguerra at the library, however, helped him turn his life around.

Esguerra introduced Henry to the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), and they found him subsidized housing. They also connected him with mental health services so that he could begin counseling.
Henry still spends his days at the library, but now he’s a Health and Safety Associate (HASA) worker, and Esguerra is his boss. As a HASA worker, Henry’s job is to help the homeless patrons find the resources they need to get back on their feet. "The homeless feel safe talking to me because I tell them that I've been there, too,” Henry says. Esguerra has five HASA workers on her team—all of them are formerly homeless.

“I feel authentic compassion for the people I’m trying to help,” adds Henry. “I believe this goes a long way because they know I am not faking it, and they feel comfortable opening up to me.”

 A homeless man named John sits in his wheelchair inside the library. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Not long ago, Esguerra met a woman named Sally at the library. Sally used to work as a nurse at a hospital in San Francisco. After witnessing a co-worker commit suicide, Sally suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was unable to continue working. Eventually, she became homeless, and while she was living on the streets, she saw a stabbing, which worsened her PTSD.

By the time she met Esguerra, Sally felt hopeless. She worried about the prospect of finding a new job in her 50’s. Esguerra recalls her saying, “I’m back to square one.” Esguerra helped Sally find mental health care, food stamps, and job training. Henry took Sally under his wing, too. He helped her navigate the community resources that Esguerra had put in place and reassured her that he understood what she was going through.

Today, Sally lives in subsidized housing, and she is working again. She still visits Esguerra and the HASA outreach workers at the library. “This team became my family,” says Sally. “At one time, the library was my home.”

Esguerra says that the program dismantles stereotypes about homelessness. Over the years, she's helped former restaurant owners, medical professionals, and senior citizens find housing and she's connected close to 1,000 people with community resources such as legal services and medical and mental health care. The program is so successful that this year it will expand to other library branches in the city.

The program also began a national trend. Today, twenty-four public libraries in the country have followed in San Francisco's footsteps. The Dallas Public Library implemented a peer-counseling model, and the Pima County Public Library in Tucson, Arizona hired a nurse to provide medical care for the homeless population.

In the end, these social service programs serve as a bridge, helping the homeless patrons find a sense of community at the library so that they can receive other essential resources, too.
“These programs are humanizing homelessness throughout the library,” says Esguerra. “The library becomes a sanctuary for many of the patrons and our program helps them to feel safe again.”

Source: The Atlantic CITYLAB

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Delicate Task Of Restoring One Of The World's Oldest Libraries

By Leila Fadel
May 21, 2016

The curator of the Qarawiyyin Library, Abdelfattah Bougchouf, opens an original version of a famous work, Muqaddimah, written by historian Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century. The library in Fez is one of the world's oldest working libraries, dating to the 10th century when it was founded by a pioneering woman. The library is set to reopen in May following a renovation.
Samia Errazouki/AP 
 The copper craft makers in Seffarin Square in the historic district of Fez, Morocco, bang out designs on platters and shape copper pots to a rhythm.

Called the medina, neighborhood streets lined with domes and archways take you back through the history of the dynasties and occupiers that ruled Morocco from the 9th century on. At the center of the square is the Qarawiyyin Library, founded more than a millennium ago.

We've heard much recently about the destruction of grand historical sites in places like Syria and Iraq, where war and ISIS wreak havoc on the present and the past. But this library has been lovingly restored to protect ancient manuscripts by some of the greatest Islamic thinkers.

It's part of what the United Nations calls the oldest operating educational institute in the world. The complex started as a mosque in the 9th century and expanded to include a university and library in the 10th century. It's defined by beautiful courtyards centered around fountains.

Inside the library are ornately carved wooden window frames and archways, colorful ceramic tile designs on the floors and elegant Arabic calligraphy engraved in the walls. The high ceilings in the reading room are adorned with gold chandeliers.

 The reading room of the Qarawiyyin Mosque in Fez is part of a four-year restoration project.
Samia Errazouki/AP 

"There is a big restoration because there was a need for the building and the manuscripts to be preserved," said Abdullah al-Henda, part of the restoration team that's been working on the restoration since 2012. "There were problems of infiltration, of sewage, degradation of walls, some cracks in different places in the library."

The library holds some 4,000 manuscripts: Qurans that date back to the 9th century, the earliest collection of Islamic hadiths — the words and actions of Islam's prophet Mohammed — and an original copy of the great Muslim thinker and historian Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah.

And Henda points out the library connected the east and the west.

"It was a bridge of knowledge of researchers, between Africa and between the Middle East and Europe," he said.

One of the oldest works in one of the world's oldest libraries is a 9th century Quran written on leather with kufic calligraphy, at the Qarawiyyin Library, in Fez, Morocco.
Samia Errazouki/AP 
When the library opened, it created a space for non-Muslims and Muslims to exchange ideas. In the 10th century, Pope Sylvester II, known as a prolific scholar, was one of the visitors. 
And notably it was all made possible because of a woman, Fatima al-Fihri. She was the pious daughter of a wealthy merchant who provided the money to found the mosque, the university and the library.

That doesn't surprise Henda.

"Ladies are half of society," he said. "She was descended from a rich family, she has the capacity, she has the ability, the money to do it and the will."

It's a small reminder of the importance of women in the history of Islam. And it's echoed in the fact that a Canadian-Moroccan woman, architect Aziza Chaouni, led the restoration.

Now the library has a new gutter system and solar panels. Air conditioner units are tucked behind wooden carvings that match the aesthetic. And finally, the delicate manuscripts are protected in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room with a modern security system.

Henda says the library, which will reopen officially in May, is more than just a building.

"We have to preserve it. We have to restore it because it's our identity," he said. "It's our archives. It's our memory."

Source: npr

Thursday, May 26, 2016

$15.5-million expansion, public rooftop garden planned for Vancouver Public Library

 Image: Vancouver Public Library / Vancity Buzz composite photo

Vancouver’s Central Library at Library Square is gearing up for a significant two-level expansion to create new reading and community spaces, including a unique public rooftop garden.

The top two floors of the Vancouver Public Library’s (VPL) Coliseum-inspired hub are currently used as office spaces for the provincial government, but that will soon change to become a 40,000-square-foot addition of the library’s useable floor area.

On level eight, there will be a 77-seat fixed-seat auditorium, art and cultural exhibition spaces, community meeting rooms, and large quiet reading room on level eight, which will be a first for the building.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Look Inside Calgary’s Lego Library

Famous authors, superheroes and even Simpsons characters all inhabit this 150 pound, brick-sized library model

Calgary’s much-anticipated New Central Library is still a ways away from being open to the public, but the Calgary Public Library has something that they think will sate your curiosity: a scale mode of the planned library built from Lego bricks, and populated with celebrity minifigs.
It took Ben Stephenson, a professor of computer science at the University of Calgary and an avid Lego builder, around 16 months to complete the building, which consists of around 100,000 individual bricks and weighs 150 pounds. Stephenson, a member of the Southern Alberta Lego User Group, occasionally creates Lego pieces on commission and says this particular piece came with a number of challenges.

“We were limited by the medium, and we were working from concept art rather than architectural drawings,” he says. “One of the challenges with this building is it doesn’t' have right angles, and Lego likes right angles. It’s fastened at the far end and fastened at one point here, and that's it. The actual places where it snaps to the base is only three small points.”

In addition, sourcing parts proved to be a challenge at times. Stephenson scoured Lego stores, ordered directly from the company and used the "Craigslist of Lego" site to buy specific pieces, including one order for the more than 800 plastic windows used in the construction of the set.

The eight-foot-long model’s tiny yellow population clocks in at around 330 minifigs and includes members of the Simpsons, the Lego Movie, Wonder Woman and even mayor Naheed Nenshi. It recently welcomed a new addition when a hand-painted figure of Yann Martel, the author famous for his book The Life of Pi, was added to the collection. Martel, who was in town promoting his latest novel, was presented with the figure and placed it himself on the front steps of the building.

Far from just a fancy toy, the library, which consists of around $10,000 in bricks, is seen as a cultivation expense, says Paul McIntyre Royston, president and CEO of the Calgary Public Library Foundation. “The library is about community, so we always try to do things that are a little bit different, a little more enticing, to get people excited about the work we're doing,” says McIntyre Royston. “You see the kids and you see the adults [who stop to look]. Yann Martel almost had tears in his eyes. It does something. It's a toy, but it's more than that. That's what we wanted to achieve.”

 You can see the Lego library at the Central Library until 2018, when it will be moved into the $245-million New Central Library in the East Village, where it will remain until, as McIntyre Royston says, “We’ll have a big celebration and let the kids tear into it and build their own thing.” In the meantime, expect the mini-library to welcome a few more minifigs of famous people, says McIntyre Royston, though he won't say who might be next.

If you’d like to bring  a little piece of the Lego library home with you, the Library sells two different custom-designed Library Lego sets (as well as a Nenshi minifig) at
Photo by Andrew Guilbert
Ben Stephenson, left, and Paul McIntyre Royston, right, stand next to their eight-foot-long Lego model.

Photo by Andrew Guilbert
The Yann Martel minifig stands on the steps of the library, book in hand. Bart and Lisa Simpson are just to his left and clearly in awe of the author.

Photo by Andrew Guilbert
A look at the inside of the Library's second floor, which might serve as a quiet study area.

Photo by Andrew Guilbert
The library includes two model LRTs running through its base.

Photo by Andrew Guilbert
A dutiful search of the 880 windows in the library will reveal a number of famous faces including Calgary's own Naheed Nenshi complete with hand-painted, purple-accented suit.

Photo by Andrew Guilbert
A completed model of the larger New Central Library kit available for purchase from

Source: avenue

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Toronto Star: Libraries feel the eBook pinch

By Verity Stevenson
May 24, 2016

The book worm has turned.

Local libraries are making noise about eBook prices, saying that they pay multinational publishers up to five times more than average consumers do for the same titles.

Toronto Public Library's city librarian, Vickery Bowles,
says the current rate for ebooks isn’t sustainable for
public institutions.  (Melissa Renwick / Toronto Star)
And libraries — including ones in Toronto, Ottawa, Halifax and Vancouver — say they’d like things to change, so that they can pay according to their size and needs, rather than using the current one-size-fits-all model.

That model is part of what’s causing higher prices for them, says to Kate Edwards, executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers.

“They’re not tailored to the Canadian market,” Edwards said of the way international publishers evaluate libraries’ reach and determine prices. Many publishers also charge in U.S. dollars, which adds to the cost for Canadian branches.

Last summer, four Canadian public libraries began pushing for change; since then, their group, Canadian Public Libraries for Fair Book Pricing, has grown to include 29 systems. Libraries say demand for their eBooks has grown 1,200 per cent since 2009, and meeting that is denting their budgets.

In February, the group outlined its demands in an open letter to the “Big Five” publishers — Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Random House and Simon & Schuster.

They have a meeting scheduled with Simon & Schuster this month as a result, said Toronto Public Library city librarian Vickery Bowles. And one major publisher, Penguin Random House, has agreed to offer better prices for its digital books

Libraries say the eBook prices they face are 1.5 to five times what consumers pay, and have not been adjusted to take the drop in the Canadian dollar into account (apart from the recent changes by Penguin Random House). They say charges from Canadian publishers, with whom they meet regularly, are not a problem.

In the case of a James Patterson crime book, the library groups says, average readers pay $14.99, while a library pays $121 per copy (which would be read by multiple patrons). And some publishers’ eBooks expire after a year, so libraries must repurchase the stock.

For print books, “we’ll pay $18 to $25,” said Bowles of the Toronto library. “There’s no premium; in fact, we get volume discounts.”

Why the high prices? “My understanding is that publishers are concerned that borrowing an eBook is so much easier,” said Bowles, adding that she understands why there would be a premium, but the current rate isn’t sustainable for public institutions.

HarperCollins Canada says the prices they offer libraries are already similar to what the group is asking for — except for the expiry it’s placed on eBooks after 26 consecutive lends, determined by the publisher to be the average uses a physical library book gets before breaking or becoming unpopular.

“HarperCollins is committed to the library channel and has a model that supports library purchasing . . . . Our model is designed to be cost-effective for libraries and based on actual usage,” the publisher said in an emailed statement.

Though the library group has reached out to government agencies, including the Competition Bureau and minister of Canadian heritage, “they aren’t suggesting what the legislative tools are to help with that,” Bowles said.

It’s unclear which government department could create policy surrounding the public purchasing of eBooks. Ottawa councillor and chair of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Tim Tierney says regulation could come from the Copyright Act. It “dictates who can use something without being sued, in a nutshell,” Tierney said, adding that the act was amended in 2012 so that schools don’t have to pay to play films and music in their classrooms.

“We’re not asking for free, but we’re asking for fair,” he says.

Source: The Toronto Star How Big Data Creates False Confidence

By Jesse Dunietz
April 23, 2016

If I claimed that Americans have gotten more self-centered lately, you might just chalk me up as a curmudgeon, prone to good-ol’-days whining. But what if I said I could back that claim up by analyzing 150 billion words of text? A few decades ago, evidence on such a scale was a pipe dream. Today, though, 150 billion data points is practically passé. A feverish push for “big data” analysis has swept through biology, linguistics, finance, and every field in between.

Although no one can quite agree how to define it, the general idea is to find datasets so enormous that they can reveal patterns invisible to conventional inquiry. The data are often generated by millions of real-world user actions, such as tweets or credit-card purchases, and they can take thousands of computers to collect, store, and analyze. To many companies and researchers, though, the investment is worth it because the patterns can unlock information about anything from genetic disorders to tomorrow’s stock prices.

But there’s a problem: It’s tempting to think that with such an incredible volume of data behind them, studies relying on big data couldn’t be wrong. But the bigness of the data can imbue the results with a false sense of certainty. Many of them are probably bogus—and the reasons why should give us pause about any research that blindly trusts big data.

In the case of language and culture, big data showed up in a big way in 2011, when Google released its Ngrams tool. Announced with fanfare in the journal Science, Google Ngrams allowed users to search for short phrases in Google’s database of scanned books—about 4 percent of all books ever published!—and see how the frequency of those phrases has shifted over time. The paper’s authors heralded the advent of “culturomics,” the study of culture based on reams of data and, since then, Google Ngrams has been, well, largely an endless source of entertainment—but also a goldmine for linguists, psychologists, and sociologists. They’ve scoured its millions of books to show that, for instance, yes, Americans are becoming more individualistic; that we’re “forgetting our past faster with each passing year”; and that moral ideals are disappearing from our cultural consciousness.

WE’RE LOSING HOPE: An Ngrams chart for the word “hope,” one of many intriguing plots found by
 xkcd author Randall Munroe. If Ngrams really does reflect our culture, we may be headed for a dark place.
The problems start with the way the Ngrams corpus was constructed. In a study published last October, three University of Vermont researchers pointed out that, in general, Google Books includes one copy of every book. This makes perfect sense for its original purpose: to expose the contents of those books to Google’s powerful search technology. From the angle of sociological research, though, it makes the corpus dangerously skewed.

Some books, for example, end up punching below their true cultural weight: The Lord of the Rings gets no more influence than, say, Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria. Conversely, some authors become larger than life. From the data on English fiction, for example, you might conclude that for 20 years in the 1900s, every character and his brother was named Lanny. In fact, the data reflect how immensely prolific (but not necessarily popular) the author Upton Sinclair was: He churned out 11 novels about one Lanny Budd.

WHO’S NAMED LANNY?: A Google Ngrams plot of “Lanny” vs. more common names in English fiction.

Still more damning is the fact that Ngrams isn’t a consistent, well-balanced slice of what was being published. The same UVM study demonstrated that, among other changes in composition, there’s a marked increase in scientific articles starting in the 1960s. All this makes it hard to trust that Google Ngrams accurately reflects the shifts over time in words’ cultural popularity.

GO FIGURE: “Figure” with a capital F, used mainly in captions, rose sharply in frequency through 
the 20th Century, suggesting that the corpus includes more technical literature over time. 
That may say something about society, but not much about how most of society uses words.

Even once you get past the data sources, there’s still the thorny issue of interpretation. Sure, words like “character” and “dignity” might decline over the decades. But does that mean that people care about morality less? Not so fast, cautions Ted Underwood, an English professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Conceptions of morality at the turn of the last century likely differed sharply from ours, he argues, and “dignity” might have been popular for non-moral reasons. So any conclusions we draw by projecting current associations backward are suspect.

Of course, none of this is news to statisticians and linguists. Data and interpretation are their bread and butter. What’s different about Google Ngrams, though, is the temptation to let the sheer volume of data blind us to the ways we can be misled.

This temptation isn’t unique to Ngrams studies; similar errors undermine all sorts of big data projects. Consider, for instance, the case of Google Flu Trends (GFT). Released in 2008, GFT would count words like “fever” and “cough” in millions of Google search queries, using them to “nowcast” how many people had the flu. With those estimates, public health officials could act two weeks before the Centers for Disease Control could calculate the true numbers from doctors’ reports.

When big data isn’t seen as a panacea, it can be transformative.

Initially, GFT was claimed to be 97 percent accurate. But as a study out of Northeastern University documents, that accuracy was a fluke. First, GFT completely missed the “swine flu” pandemic in the spring and summer of 2009. (It turned out that GFT was largely predicting winter.) Then, the system began to overestimate flu cases. In fact, it overshot the peak 2013 numbers by a whopping 140 percent. Eventually, Google just retired the program altogether.

So what went wrong? As with Ngrams, people didn’t carefully consider the sources and interpretation of their data. The data source, Google searches, was not a static beast. When Google started auto-completing queries, users started just accepting the suggested keywords, distorting the searches GFT saw. On the interpretation side, GFT’s engineers initially let GFT take the data at face value; almost any search term was treated as a potential flu indicator. With millions of search terms, GFT was practically guaranteed to over-interpret seasonal words like “snow” as evidence of flu.

But when big data isn’t seen as a panacea, it can be transformative. Several groups, like Columbia University researcher Jeffrey Shaman’s, for example, have outperformed the flu predictions of both the CDC and GFT by using the former to compensate for the skew of the latter. “Shaman’s team tested their model against actual flu activity that had already occurred during the season,” according to the CDC. By taking the immediate past into consideration, Shaman and his team fine-tuned their mathematical model to better predict the future. All it takes is for teams to critically assess their assumptions about their data.

Lest I sound like a Google-hater, I hasten to add that the company is far from the only culprit. My wife, an economist, used to work for a company that scraped the entire Internet for job postings and aggregate them into statistics for state labor agencies. The company’s managers boasted that they analyzed 80 percent of the jobs in the country, but once again, the quantity of data blinded them to the ways it could be misread. A local Walmart, for example, might post one sales associate job when it actually wants to fill ten, or it might leave a posting up for weeks after it was filled.

So rather than succumb to “big data hubris,” the rest of us would do well to keep our skeptic hats on—even when someone points to billions of words.

Jesse Dunietz, a Ph.D. student in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, has written for Motherboard and Scientific American Guest Blogs, among others. Follow him on Twitter @jdunietz.


Sunday, May 22, 2016 The Trouble with Twee

[Little free libraries are always appearing in the news and even the LG Blog has had an entry or two (or more) on them. Jane Schmit, an academic librarian at Ryerson takes issue with the notion that those little free libraries popping up in neighbourhoods in the GTA are such a great thing...--Transcriber]
By: Jane Schmidt
May 1, 2016

Twee: excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental (Oxford, 2015)

For the past year, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to neighbourhood book exchanges, in particular those branded with the Little Free Library (LFL®) trademark. When I announced that I would be doing this research, I received many links to articles about them each article more like the last.
“Person/group installs book exchange. Usually a brief history of the LFL® organization. Neighbourhood agrees it’s lovely. A blurb about building community and encouraging literacy.”
And that’s about it. The narrative is maddeningly homogeneous (some notable exceptions; see the Reading List below) and almost unfailingly obsequious – a sure sign that a critical eye is needed. Here’s where I come in.

I always like to begin with the assurance that I have no issue with neighbours sharing books with each other. I recognize that I am positioning myself to be viewed as a librarian toting a bag of sour grapes when I openly critique the movement. But hey, I’m an academic librarian, it’s sort of my job to think critically about our industry. I’m ready to accept the ramifications of being the Librarian Who Hates Little Free Libraries®.

Let’s roll.

To begin, we need to ask two questions – what are neighbourhood book exchanges not doing, and what are the potential unintended consequences of their existence?

The first question is one that is best imposed specifically upon the LFL® movement. The most glaring answer is simply that they are not libraries. While we (libraries) are not able to dictate the use of the term, it is nevertheless a bit cringe worthy to see the word used alongside the ® symbol and the word “free” slapped on a box of second hand books. Their mission, goals and key strategies speak to promoting literacy and a love of reading through building LFL®s worldwide. That’s it. If you build it, they will come. Books of varying quality and quantity will be there. Happy reading, folks! World made better – ✓

In terms of unbranded book exchanges, all are not created equal. Chances are, you’ve seen dozens of “take a book/leave a book” installations in your own lifetime – the concept is certainly not new. In this world of Pinterest and Instagram, however, the twee factor gets attention. In a sea of miniature houses and dusty shelves in hostels, some stand apart from the rest. There are those such as the Public Collection by the Indianapolis Public Library which bills itself as a public art and literacy project. These book exchanges are conceived, executed and managed by the library, this project stands out as an extension of the public library.

As a steward of my own book exchange (in the interest of getting up close and personal with my research project, I decided to take a phenomenological approach and purchased an LFL® for my front yard), I can attest to the need to maintain the collection. While one may not have to be a card-carrying librarian to do this work, it most certainly requires a not-insignificant amount of effort and resources to ensure it is well stocked, tidy and weeded occasionally (i.e. culling the mouldy bodice-rippers and old textbooks). Sometimes, one person’s trash is really just another person’s trash. As any library worker can attest, not all books are treasures.

Much of the chatter among stewards and the content of many articles about running a neighbourhood book exchange focuses on how to make the exchange attractive, popular and well stocked. Reading through this dialogue with a critical eye leads one to a relatively obvious conclusion – something that is considered to be so important and takes this much work should be handled by … oh, I don’t know … an actual library?

Investing in LFL® v. a public library is an investment in a trendy whim rather than an investment in long established institution that is beholden to funders to deliver effective programming. If one truly cares about equality and accessible content for all in support of literacy, one could concede that while this movement may not be hurting, it isn’t exactly advancing it in a measurable way.

What if I told you that, in fact, these well intentioned exchanges could conceivably be hurting public libraries?

It is helpful to turn toward what is known as civic crowdfunding here to explore the second question – “what are the potential unintended consequences of their existence?” Absolving government of their responsibility to fund societal needs by volunteering to do it yourself is not A Good Thing. All one needs to do is look to Barnet in England to see the very real consequences of what happens when government responsibility is shifted to the public.

Thanks to a local council member taking inspiration from the discount airline EasyJet (not a joke – the initiative has been dubbed EasyCouncil), the One Barnet initiative means that local government offers no-frill basic services and a shift of 790 full time jobs moved to the private sector to run “extra” services (such as planning and environmental services). Other services have been posted to the website Pledgebank where citizens can volunteer to clear snow and ice from streets or even offer a computer class. What this has meant for libraries is a proposed 46% staff cut – libraries remain open, but run by volunteers, or are simply left unstaffed. This is actually happening. Ergo, when an ever-growing organization that appears to be very well organized and resourced, and succeeds through the labour of good-hearted volunteers suggest that they can end “book-deserts” and support literacy in their communities, cash-strapped governments are likely to take a second look. Hence … my concern.

An analysis of urban public library revenue from 2010-2013 (CULC KPIs) revealed funding is either decreasing or holding steady. The vast majority of revenue comes from municipal sources. According to the 2016 Canadian Infrastructure Report Card, one third of our infrastructure is in fair, poor or very poor condition. Over 60% of the country’s total infrastructure is owned and maintained by municipal governments. Couple those facts with Canada’s uncertain economic forecast, and it’s not a stretch to imagine many local governments looking to drastic measures as they struggle to keep afloat in the coming years.

Strong public libraries help build strong communities. They provide space for learning, gathering, making, reading, and so much more. From infancy to the golden years, people from all walks of life can use the library for everything from looking for a job, to seeking the services of a social worker or just a quiet place to read a magazine. This place cannot be matched by a box of books. They may not all be as aesthetically pleasing or as media friendly as a neighbourhood book exchange, but their novelty never wears off.

There will always be surplus second hand books to go around, but we cannot take for granted that the funding will always be in place to ensure public libraries grow to meet the ever-increasing demands on them. Let us not be distracted by things that are shiny; let us encourage our neighbours to support the public library. There is clearly a lot of energy, goodwill and passion for literacy out there. The trick is to harness it and strengthen the connection to public libraries. The potential is enormous.

I challenge public libraries to reach out to local neighbourhood book exchanges to see how they can be involved. I challenge stewards of book exchanges to consider how they can best support their own public library. Most of all, I encourage Little Free Libraries®, stewards-to-be and other organizations interested in sponsoring a neighbourhood book exchange to consider how they are addressing the issue they are passionate about.

Do you really just want to share your old books and meet your neighbours? That’s fine – start a book exchange, but please don’t call it a library. Are you a teacher and want to use it as a class project? Fabulous idea, but please ensure advocacy for the public library is part of that learning module. Do you really want to ensure that there is equitable access to reading material and support literacy in your neighbourhood? Maybe your energy is best directed supporting the local public library or grassroots advocacy for universal daycare.

There are many ways to build community – a box of books is one of them, to be sure, but there’s more to the story than appears.