Ottawa Public Library Offers Unique Bookmobile and Human Library Services to Serve their Community

By Robin Gallagher, Supervising Librarian, Bookmobile and Kiosk Services, and Angela Bowen, Librarian, Program Development

The Ottawa Public Library has been offering services to break down barriers for more than a century. Mid-way through our history books in 1953, our Bookmobile Services started with a modified trailer pulled by a Chevrolet Suburban Carryall truck serving three stops. At the time, introducing the service was so controversial that the Chief Librarian resigned over the issue. The OPL’s current bookmobile service is flexible, modern, and responsive: it includes a passionate and knowledgeable team who visit 23 communities every week with one of three vehicles. The fleet is customised and equipped with a browsing collection, holds pickup, mobile circulation, and public wifi. In fact, the mini bookmobile also has makerspace equipment to demonstrate some of the offerings at OPL’s IMAGINE space: 3D printers, makey-makeys, and other fun gadgets. The fleet includes a 40-foot bus, a 32-foot bus, and a mini-bookmobile, which is 24 feet long. The fleet in Bookmobile Services is used to extend our reach, visiting new communities, communities underserved by transit, and communities at risk of social exclusion. It is also used when attending public events to raise awareness about OPL’s services and programs. We have made appearances at agricultural fairs, community BBQs, park movie nights, and marketmobile events, just to name a few!

The OPL also offers Homebound Services that offer the selection and monthly deliveries of materials to approximately 500 customers who are unable to visit the library for three months or more due to age, illness, or disability. The homebound team also runs “mini library” pop-up services in retirement homes, so that residents can browse a curated collection of new and interesting books, audiobooks, and movies. Since 1971, our Homebound team has taken pride in being a dedicated and specialized group who forge meaningful and ongoing relationships with residents who have been injured, who have disabilities of various types, who are older adults and cannot leave their homes in the winter months, and many other individuals who face extreme isolation and social exclusion due to limited mobility. As one customer told us, “this service is more important than my blood thinners, and my blood thinners are keeping me alive!”

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Also in the spirit of overcoming barriers and creating meaningful connections between people, OPL partnered with CBC Ottawa from 2012 to 2016 to hold an annual Human Library event at multiple branches throughout our system. Launched in Denmark in 2000, the Human Library ™ is designed to build tolerance and respect for diversity through dialogue and understanding, and it has been adopted over the years by dozens of countries world-wide.

During each of our events at OPL, members of the public (“readers”) were given the opportunity to sign up for one-on-one conversations with individuals (“human books”) with a diverse set of life experiences, stories, and knowledge to share. Often, these human books had had to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and adversity. Some of the most popular ones included a sex worker, a former gang member, and an imam. On average, 30 human books were available to  be “checked out” for 20-minute conversations over a four-hour period, and very few spots were left empty! The buzz that this created in our branches was considerable, and feedback from both our readers and the books each year was overwhelmingly positive. “You should hold this event every month,” was a frequent (and gratifying) comment. Other public libraries and community groups across Canada have offered Human Library events, including the Vancouver Public Library, Edmonton Public Library, Calgary Public Library, Regina Public Library, Saskatoon Public Library, Winnipeg Public Library, Toronto Public Library, the Bibliothèque de Gatineau, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec in Montréal, the Halifax Public Libraries, and at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre in Newfoundland. For more information, check out the Human Library Toolkit on the Ontario Library Association website.

Whether customers visit us in a branch, on the bookmobiles, in a retirement home, or during a program, we strive to provide services in meaningful and interesting ways, to fulfil our vision to build community and transform lives.

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