The Ottawa Public Library provides service to the entirety of Ottawa. As such, our customers are diverse and eclectic. Each brings to OPL unique experiences that in turn inform how they use, think and feel about the Library. In this series, the Ottawa Public Library is asking customers to reflect on their relationship to the library – what they come to OPL for, why the library is meaningful or important to them and their communities, and how they envision the Library changing. Here, Sarine answers the question: What’s your OPL Experience?
"Si je perdais ma bibliothèque, j’aurais toujours le métro et l’autobus. Un billet le matin, un billet le soir et je lirais les visages."
- Marcel Jouhandeau
As a young girl, I was immersed and centred in my Armenian heritage while growing up in Lebanon, a world that brought a flavour of life and strength to me. The granddaughter of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, I later found refuge from the war zones of Lebanon in Syria, Cyprus, and eventually, Canada. Studying migration and diaspora politics and working with immigrants and refugees since 2008, I feel like I’ve come full circle, in a sense.
On that journey, the written word has been my guiding light since childhood and libraries have provided respite from uncertainty and turmoil. My earliest memories are of books, writing, and the libraries where my love of reading was nurtured. There were community or public libraries from Beirut and Aleppo, the majestic academic library at my Armenian boarding school in Nicosia, and the now-defunct Bibliothèque de l’Acadie, which was situated next to my junior high school in Montreal.
The Bibliothèque de l’Acadie is where I spent afternoons after school let out. After a while, librarians, library technicians, and assistants alike knew me and watched me grow. I will always treasure the endless conversations I had with folks from different walks of life, backgrounds, and perspectives. As 40-something reserved intellectual Claude shelved books, the teenaged me was always nearby ready to chat and help him sort books. We would discuss politics, philosophy, and cinema. Through Claude, I learned of Cinema de Paris, and although he did not speak much English, it was through him that I discovered Anita Brookner at the age of 16, along with Iris Murdoch, Willa Cather, and Barbara Pym. Sometimes, others would join our conversations in the aisles. Michel, who was a lifelong grad student at UQAM, Isabelle, from Chile, a warm and compassionate education student, and even the head librarian, who with a stern look could only shake her head at my constant presence.
My first job was, you guessed it, in a library. I was a student library assistant at my college’s library. I was paid $5.15 per hour and worked at 7 AM on Friday mornings when I did not have any classes. I loved it. As a voracious bookworm, I wanted to be a librarian: surrounded by books, exploring imaginations and ideas, and sharing my passion with others.
Now, whenever I travel, public libraries are always on my to-visit list. Sometimes it happens serendipitously, other times it is a planned stop. In 2000, on my last visit to New York City, I spent more time at the New York Public Library than anywhere else. In 2013, while visiting Ottawa on Victoria Day weekend, I found myself at the Main branch of the Ottawa Public Library. Less than six months later, I had moved to the region for work and since then, OPL has become a significant part of my adaptation to my new home. While OPL may be different in scope or atmosphere than other libraries I’ve called home, it is a community space, home to programs, events and social innovation, and an ethnographer’s dream as the same patrons frequent it day in day out.
I see the Library as a gathering place. OPL is home to voracious bookworms, newcomers, young parents and the elderly alike, professionals who drop in on their lunch break, and community members who seek shelter and human connection. Like other public libraries, OPL does not solely provide borrowing privileges, but fosters learning and creates connections: branches host community groups, book clubs, lecture series, film series, and poetry nights.
I lived in Gatineau when I first arrived in the region. Eager to enjoy what I had seen offered at OPL, I paid the non-resident fee to access programs and services. It turned out to be a fantastic investment – money well spent. Quickly, OPL became a second home to me and I discovered programs and events that catered to my interests. In time, I too became a part of the Library community ecosystem.
As I write this, the City of Ottawa has unveiled its “ongoing engagement program” for the new Ottawa Central Library, which seeks the feedback of Ottawans to “help inspire the facility’s design.” It is an exciting time as we consult, discuss, consider, critique, and envision how our central library will take shape. It has been interesting to be part of public consultations and witness the community spirit and public mindedness of Ottawans as they ponder the future of the public library and what it means to them. To me, it is vital that the library remains an accessible, welcoming, and inclusive space for everyone in the community – and that underrepresented and marginalized voices have a strong sense of belonging long after the excitement quiets down. The library’s vision – in concert with Library and Archives Canada – is to “build on shared values to deliver a richer customer experience, offer joint programming and services, and provide a unique offering in Canada.” While laudable, I would like to reframe the perception of patrons or visitors as “customers.” I will admit that seeing this term at the entrance to the Main branch bothers me. As the Ottawa Central Library consultations and design take shape, may I suggest we consider a human-centred approach to our relationship?
OPL is central to my life in Ottawa. Since moving here, I have wanted to visit every branch of the library. While I have still not accomplished it, I am partial to Sunnyside, Rideau, and Rosemount, and the Main branch draws me in on my lunchtime walks, after work, or on weekends. Will you join me?
Sarine’s OPL Expériences BPO booklist: