Irene Brooks graduated from a library technician program then started a library. Not a few years later, but within months of graduation. How did she get to that point and what can her experience teach others?
Irene is the Coordinator of the Reading Room at the Gathering Place Community Centre in the Downtown South area of Vancouver. This library was modelled on the Downtown Eastside’s Carnegie Branch of Vancouver Public Library, and aims to serve people who cannot access typical library services. For example, patrons do not need proof of home address to get a borrowing card. Also, there are no overdue fines. The library is funded by the City of Vancouver and is open to all.
The Reading Room stocks material to support courses at the neighbouring Vancouver School Board learning centre and programs at the community centre as well as pleasure reading for the community centre patrons. The collection features a healthy non-fiction section as well as various genres of fiction. Materials include magazines, graphic novels, and DVDs. The Reading Room also hosts programs such as readings by authors, writers groups and workshops, Read-Along Herodotus, and blogging workshops. The majority of patrons are men over 35 years old.
Irene’s collection development philosophy is to never collect down to people, but to collect for intelligent adult readers with broad interests. She believes that libraries must understand who their patrons are and collect for that reality, not for an idealized patron. They must also aim for a balanced collection with a broad range of views and respect adult readers to make choices for themselves.
The Reading Room is staffed by the Coordinator, the volunteers, and occasional practicum students. Irene is glad to host practicum students. She enjoys sharing her experience and the value she found in the library technician program. She also enjoys the chance for “library talk” and new ideas.
Irene’s position includes collection development, acquisitions, cataloguing, processing, periodicals, circulation management, reference searches, systems management, database management, public relations, and budgeting. She also screens and trains volunteers, most of which have no previous library experience. Volunteers staff the front counter and shelve materials.
Irene describes this as her dream job. One of the greatest challenges has been finding a balance to keep healthy distance while still connecting with patrons. This was especially tough in the first few years when she saw more suffering from AIDS deaths and overdoses. She has had to remind herself of the boundary between library staff and social worker. Working within city bureaucracy has sometimes been a challenge as well, though Irene was particularly glad to have worked under Diane Mackenzie (the original community centre administrator). She was given great trust and freedom in creating the collection and interacting with patrons. Fortunately that freedom has continued under later administrators.
Irene grew up in a working-class rural Nova Scotia family. She was the first member of that family to take post-secondary education. During that education, she became interested in library work through a student job in the Simon Fraser University library. There she realized that everything she might want to know about anything was written somewhere, and librarians could find it. She considers the SFU librarians to have been her first real teachers, and felt encouraged to explore by their openness to even novice questions. Though Irene went on to work in financial aid and social services in the Downtown Eastside, that positive experience at SFU stuck with her. When she reassessed her career at midlife, an aptitude test suggested research work. She chose the library technician program because it would introduce her to new technology and give her a thorough education.
In October 1994, shortly after graduating from Langara, Irene was hired to develop the Reading Room. She thinks she stood out from other applicants because of her previous experience, despite not having the highest marks of her class. The Reading Room opened its doors in April 1995 and had its official opening later that year. Starting a library from scratch has been challenging, but Irene is satisfied with her accomplishment. She believes that the library technician program prepared her for the real world and she was able to apply much of it to building the Reading Room.
Irene’s chief non-work interest is poetry writing. She is on the board of the fledgling Digital Poetry Archive of Canada, which will someday collect footage of Canadian performance poetry. After retirement she plans to explore design – especially print fabric arts – and volunteer for theatre arts workshops. If she won a free trip she would travel to the Dalmatian Coast of the Balkans for its lovely old architecture. Irene is currently reading Capital as power: a study of order and creorder by Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler (2009). She describes it as a critique of how value is measured and how politics and economics are the same.
Irene’s advice for library technicians and assistants is to understand the limits to what you can do for someone. Stay healthy so that you can truly listen to others and be compassionate. Meet people as whole beings, without the need to analyze them. To new graduates: be confident that you have excellent tools and be prepared to bring what you have learned to the table. Never sit on your laurels, but keep learning and upgrading your tools.
- Globalization of addiction: a study in poverty of the spirit by Bruce Alexander (2008)
- Riches for the poor: the Clemente Course in the humanities by Earl Shorris (2000)
- Working-class women in the academy: laborers in the knowledge economy by Michelle M. Tokarczyk and Elizabeth A. Fay (1993)
(Full disclosure: I volunteered at the Reading Room with Irene for about a year while deciding whether to pursue library work.)