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Education Matters

"What Can We Do?" Libraries Helping Libraries

January 1st, 2014


By Carolyn Goolsby

While at a routine Library meeting in Edmonton, I heard the story of High River and their Library. I heard how the entire town was flooded, how almost everything was lost. I heard about the twisted train tracks and the washed out roads. I heard the story of how the staff stayed to serve a patron who was writing an exam, and to save the books, CDs and DVDs from the rising waters. And I asked the question so many of us here in Wood Buffalo have asked ever since it happened: “What can we do?” 

High River lost their Library. The building was not quite destroyed, but it is, like many, many buildings in High River, unsafe to inhabit. Compared to a loss of housing, of retail space and grocery stores, it seems a small thing. But Libraries are about much more than books and DVDs. Many in our communities, across Alberta and across the world, are dependent upon their local Library for Internet access. More than that - the library is a gathering place, a place to connect with friends, neighbours, information, programs and community in general. The High River community lost that in the flooding.

No, it’s not a grocery store or a hospital, it’s not something we depend on for survival. It’s different – Libraries are one of the things we do that make the difference between surviving and thriving as a community. The local public Library is one of the foundations of a healthy, flourishing community. And High River lost theirs.

The entire town of High River is making a new beginning. After a few weeks, sprung buildings – large, insulated tent-like buildings – started going up. Strip malls and public buildings were replaced with these temporary shelters,  including space for the Library. The High River Library is now in 3,400 square feet of space, in a large facility that houses several municipal services. Their shelving was put together from spare parts, on a floor that we are still not sure will support a Library’s worth of books, but they’re beginning again. The staff are there, designing how to arrange the space, debating how much and what part of the collection can go into the space, and answering questions from citizens who drop by daily to ask, “When do we have a Library again?”

Internet hasn’t made it there yet – but the minute it does, books or no books, they’re open. Since the flooding in Southern Alberta, many of us in Wood Buffalo have volunteered to help our neighbours to the south. Many of us have traveled south, working to help out with our skills and our energy, working to bring back lost buildings and services, and to do what we can to help. In the library world, we rarely have that opportunity, to help in concrete ways. We share knowledge, skills and abilities; we offer advice or counsel; we offer our good wishes. But – especially in a Library that is hours from our nearest neighbour – we rarely have the opportunity to do something immediate and concrete.

This time, though, we were able to do more than send good wishes. We sent hard stuff. Your library sent furniture, barcode scanners, supplies, and picture books. And cookies. We sent a card signed by our staff, and yes, our good wishes and hope. Most of all, we sent a message – Fort McMurray cares, Albertans help, and the moment there’s an opportunity to do something to help, we don’t just say, “that’s too bad” – we Do Something. The arrival of our help in High River was greeted with thanks and gratitude. A circulation desk and barcode scanners, child-sized browsing bins for picture books, holiday decorations and children’s program supplies… small things, but necessary things. We all pitched in on a cold day and brought it all in, placing everything in an easily accessible area for the staff to arrange.

And after we unloaded, I had a chance to think about what, exactly, was happening here. It was a new beginning, in preparation for another new beginning when they move into their permanent space. When will that be? No one knows. But the people – staff, Director, and Board – who were in the Library that day were there not only to rebuild, but to continue the Library’s mission, no matter what. Their concern was for their service to the community – how many computers could they get up and running? How fast? How many books, DVDs and CDs? How many hours could they stay open and who could get in during what times? It all had a comforting familiarity to it. These are the things we do every day. But it also had a new energy and purpose – these people realized that what they were doing was even more important than before to their community. And that is often how it works in life – the times that we are most challenged to perform are the times when we most need to.

Sometimes, a new beginning needs a helping hand to get off the ground. We at the Fort McMurray Public Library are just happy to have the opportunity to help.

Carolyn Goolsby, is the director of Fort McMurray Public Library.

Tags: Babies, Books, Dads, Moms

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