We came to Ottawa in 2006 when Alexandra became the librarian at Rideau Branch of the Ottawa Public Library. We chose to live just north of the Market area downtown. Living and working in the Lowertown neighbourhood meant that we were around a lot of different kinds of communities all the time: we gave directions to many lost tourists, ran into diplomats and local politicians, saw many students, admired the homes of Sandy Hill, and nodded at the nuns living on our street frequently. We also quickly came to know by face, if not always by name, many of the marginalised populations living in or near our neighbourhood: lower-income families in high-rise housing, clients of the Ottawa Mission or other supportive initiatives, drug users (recovering and not) and the homeless. Kris began volunteering at the Mission.Our hearts went out to our community, and we tried to find as many ways to help, small or large, as we could.
At work, Alexandra worked with her team at the library to ensure access to library resources for as many people as possible. Working to reduce barriers for customers is crucial, but even these efforts aren’t always successful. Some people will never get a library card, whether it is because they are afraid of potential future fines, afraid of losing material, or afraid for another reason in their past that is a perceived barrier, if not a real one (bad credit, negative experience with municipalities or governments in Canada or elsewhere, lack of proper identification or a permanent address). We noticed that sometimes parents weren’t even able to purchase a paperback for their children from even the inexpensive “for sale” shelves. Working at Rideau Branch was also the first time that Alexandra read a story to a child who had never been read aloud to before: an absolutely magical, but also heartbreaking, experience (he was enthralled).
As our lives in Ottawa expanded and changed, we wanted to do more for our community but we weren’t sure exactly how or what we wanted to do. For five years, Alexandra was on the jury for the CLA Book of the Year for Children Award, and gave away the many books she received for consideration to local schools and groups visiting the library. Kris brought some to children he knew, also, and we were moved to see how proud they were to own their own books and write their names inside them. We both came from families in which reading was a big part of our childhoods, and our interactions in the community were reminding us how fortunate we had been. On a visit to Toronto, we were lucky to receive a tour of The Children’s Book Bank from our friend, Jackie Flowers, who was the organisation’s assistant executive director at the time. Jackie had formerly worked for a day at Rideau Branch as part of her Masters in Information Studies, and Alexandra had been really impressed with her. By the end of our tour of The Children’s Book Bank, we were even more impressed by the amazing work she was doing after graduation!
From its website, “The Children’s Book Bank is a registered charity that provides free books and literacy support to children in low-income Toronto neighbourhoods.” The books are new and gently-used donations received from publishers, organisations such as First Book Canada, schools, groups, and individuals. The Book Bank is located in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood (Canada’s oldest and largest social housing project), on the main floor of a lovely old rowhouse. Founder Kim Beatty, a litigation lawyer, began the organisation as a search for meaningful work. She reasoned that since there were other types of “banks,” (eg. food banks and clothing banks), then why not a book bank? Considering that many families would be willing to contribute old children’s books, she and her husband set up the Children’s Book Bank in May 2008. I first read about The Children’s Book Bank in 2010, in this article in the Toronto Star. There are similar projects elsewhere in North America, including Books for Me in Vancouver.
The Children’s Book Bank in Toronto now averages 150 – 200 books given away each day. A small staff, and a large contingent of dedicated volunteers, sort incoming donations (in bins, at left), arrange the shelves (focusing on thematic displays and sections divided by age and popular series reading), provide readers’ advisory services, and offer literacy support and programming. Local schools and daycares visit, as well as families from the neighbourhood and further afield. The Children’s Book Bank has a complementary relationship with TPL’s Parliament Branch across the street: they noticed a dip in visits to the Book Bank when Parliament closed for renovations, and Beatty said in the Star interview that she “will often send children across the street if they are looking for a particular title or popular series.” Coming from our neighbourhood in Ottawa, we could definitely see the merit in both organisations: while the library is a great place for voracious reading across a wide range of subjects and levels, there is something very uniquely important about owning a book. Children also love to have books they can read over and over again. We also know, and research shows, that children read more and do better in school when there are books in their home, and the pride of ownership they take in their books further promotes respect for reading and lifelong learning skills.
We returned from Toronto with the seed of the idea for Twice Upon a Time – the Ottawa Children’s Free Book Project. That seed was planted over two years ago now, but we’re excited to see it begin to really grow!