5 Questions about Poverty: Halifax Public Libraries

We are moving out of the country and into downtown Halifax! Our contributor on this 5 Questions about Poverty theme is from Sara Gillis. Sara is a Librarian at the Spring Garden Road Memorial Public Library, a branch Halifax Public Libraries. Public libraries, as the name denotes, are public spaces, serving a wide range of clients, among them those struggling with poverty. With access to warm spaces, technology, learning & cultural opportunities, and the services of library staff to help answer any number of questions – like where to find a place to sleep – public libraries are cornerstones for many in the community in ways you may not have considered.

 How does poverty impact on your work?

The traditional philosophy of the public library is to level the playing field regarding access to information by providing free access.   We also offer a host of cultural and informational programs, upgrading and basic literacy classes for adults, English Language Learning for new Canadians, and lots of family and children’s programming, accessible to the community regardless of income level.

The public library also attempts to bridge the digital divide by offering free computer access and computer classes.  I know a couple of decades ago there were lots of predictions of a computer in every home in the 21stcentury with access to the Internet but we know this is not the case. Computer use in our branch continues to rise, not decline.  Although there have been significant price drops over the years, computers are still priced out of reach for many, and access to the Internet seems to me to be getting more, not less, expensive.  With more and more government information and other resources available only on the Internet, more job applications being processed only online, students being required to access online sources to complete coursework, not to mention the important social networking aspects of computers and the internet – staying in touch with families and friends, computer and Internet access continues to be an important service priority for the public library.

How does it play out in what you see every day?

Recently, at the library branch where I work, we were prompted us to reach out to community partners who work with street-involved individuals.  One partner is the Navigator Street Outreach program, which provides support to the street-involved and homeless community in downtown Halifax.  After a surge of interactions with young street-involved people (some good interactions, and some not so positive) at our library branch we invited the Navigator to speak to our staff about his program and other resources in the community. We continue to develop a deeper understanding of what resources are available in our community, the common issues facing those living on the street, and we think more often of the barriers we have in our own institution.

Our staff have become part of an informal social support network for many people who have identified themselves to us as living in poverty. They see the library as a safe place – a place where we know their name and care about their well-being.  On this flip side, we also know that libraries are also seen to be intimidating institutions where some may not feel welcome. We need to work at breaking down these barriers.

The value of the library as simply a place – a place where you can sit down and rest, use a washroom, make a call from a payphone or have a drink from the water fountain – cannot be underestimated.  There are fewer and fewer places where people can go, without having to spend money, just to sit down, to get out of the cold, to rest, to be around other people.   For those who say we no longer need physical libraries because of the Internet and eBook revolution, I suggest they visit any urban library branch in any city to witness the need for physical space – just one reason why library buildings are important in communities.

Sometimes meeting the needs of the “traditional” library user can come in conflict with those who need to use the library in a different way. Sleeping in the library is a topic we’ve recently discussed as a team.  Do we allow it?  What do we do if people complain about others using the library as a place to nap?  Do we feel differently about the situation if we find out there are no local shelters open during daytime hours where people can go to rest (as I discovered when I contacted community organizations to see where we could send people during the day)?

We are answering reference questions about where to get a meal and a place to sleep for the night.  We will continue to do a better job of keeping on top of the agencies that provide support so we can direct people to appropriate resources.

We offer free university lectures, concerts with symphony musicians, and a host of other programs, as I mentioned earlier, and have been told by many that they would never have been able to afford to participate in these activities if it weren’t for the library.  The ability to attend cultural activities surrounded by other people, to listen to somebody speak on a topic that interests you and have your brain stimulated, and to get to know your fellow library users – these all relate to  the social support and social environment determinants of health.  We know that adults who attend our literacy programs, the majority of who live in poverty, relish not only the learning opportunity but the social engagement that takes place during the program.

What are some of the changes you’d like to see – from a policy perspective, from a community perspective?

Removing barriers as much as possible and showing flexibility in our policies.   For example, a fairly common challenge we’ve been dealing with lately is people who have no identification, which means they cannot even get a library card.  Besides being unable to borrow, without a library card you are unable to access the library’s computers.  While the library is technically free, once you have something overdue for a length of you are prevented from borrowing until you can rectify the situation.  Our library system has made some real strides in supporting at-risk youth with a “fresh start” option when their cards have been blocked because of fines and lost material and perhaps now need to look at expanding this program.

Connecting with your community, listening to what your community needs, and being flexible enough to adapt your services to meet that needs is becoming a service philosophy for many libraries and will result in a library that is more inclusive of the community.

Being asked to write this post really made me contemplate how living in poverty often means being excluded from the social, cultural and political life of your community and the resulting links between social exclusion and health.    I don’t know if the concept of the public library playing a role in the physical and mental health of a community is discussed enough in library circles.  Let’s start more conversations!

These are just a few of my opinions and ideas. I am sure if you surveyed any of my colleagues they would have many other examples of how poverty impacts our work and ways we can better meet the needs of our communities.   What are your thoughts?

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