Canadian Libraries: Innovating and Creating Inclusive Services

Pilar Martinez
Edmonton Public Library
Executive Director, Public Services
Canadian Library Association Vice-President/President-Elect


 Kenneth Williment
Community Development Manager
Halifax Public Libraries


A number of Canadian public libraries are pioneering a new service delivery model, which emphasizes collaborative service development and delivery, with library staff and the communities the library serves. Through this community-led service framework, library staff work with communities to understand their needs and deliver services that meet those needs, often devoting significant time outside the library walls. This article highlights two Canadian urban libraries which have embraced the community-led service approach, in order to remain relevant in our ever-changing environment.

The Environment in Canadian Public Libraries

The current situation of Canadian public libraries is both similar and unique to libraries in other national contexts. Globally, numerous industries which provide many of the ‘traditional’ products libraries commonly utilize are experiencing rapid and successive changes (e.g. the publishing industry and technological innovations). While libraries are constantly addressing challenges raised by the uptake and adaptation of these products, the application of these innovations has the potential to increase public library relevance.

New technological innovations (such as RFID) are providing public libraries with unique opportunities to reassess their service delivery models. For example, the introduction of self-check-out and automated check-in processes has enabled public libraries to shift staff time previously allocated to materials handling and transactional activities to more meaningful and qualitative customer service relationships. While the challenges of cost and technological ‘know how’ associated with using these new tools can potentially create barriers to accessing services, technology is a tool in an ever expanding arsenal for library staff to connect with their communities. As the digital divide continues to expand, library staff are presented with a magnificent opportunity to assist in developing the digital literacy skills of our communities, particularly with those who are disenfranchised.

While Canadian public libraries are experiencing the same rapid trends, changes, and challenges libraries around the world are facing, there are also a number of very significant differences. As of December 2011, all three levels of government (Federal, Provincial and Municipal) have remained relatively unscathed from the great worldwide recession of 2008. Luckily, although there is rumbling in some quarters, the large scale implementation of austerity in public libraries and other governmental services has not yet come to be realized.

Creating innovative and Collaborative Approaches to Library Service Development and Delivery

There is one distinctive trend in Canadian Public Libraries which could potentially have significant international impacts on the advancement of public library services. The following approach has been developed over the last decade and purposely extends the role of library services beyond existing library users. It also examines the development and role of public libraries for both existing and non-library users.

The 2000 UK based publication, Open to All? The Public Library and Social Exclusion, struck a chord within some Canadian library circles. In response, a number of progressive librarians from across Canada began not only to theoretically question the perceived social inclusiveness of public library services, but also began to test and implement new ways to collaboratively develop and provide library services with socially excluded communities. Under the direction of Brian Campbell [and later Sandra Singh] at Vancouver Public Library, this new found momentum led to the creation of the national, multi-library system Working Together Project [2004-2008].

A number of substantial learnings resulted from the Working Together Project (Campbell, 2005, Muzzerall, 2005, Working Together, 2008, Williment, 2009). In part, these included:

  • the baseline understanding of how programs and services were being identified, created, and delivered by library staff to current library users. This same process did not work well when working with socially excluded community members,
  • the development of a community-led service planning model, where underserved community members [and even current library users] are involved in identifying, developing, delivering and evaluating relevant programs and services with library staff, and
  • the development of non-prescriptive community entry and engagement techniques.

As a result of this project, a number of Canadian public libraries are now well positioned to develop innovative library services with their communities (Williment, Jones and Somers, 2011, Edmonton Public Library, 2010, Prendergast , 2011). This approach is very exciting because it expands the role of public libraries beyond traditional library users to include underserved communities, both inside and outside the library. This leads to library staff beginning to learn from community what the expanded vision and role of library services can become!

As with all new ways of approaching work, the integration and sustainability of a community-led approach into the way in which library staff do their work is a change management process. As a non-prescriptive approach, which is highly adaptable to the individual circumstances of local communities and library systems, a large number of progressive Canadian library systems and library schools are grappling with the implications of this new approach on localized library service development and education. As decisions are made, and some library systems begin incorporating aspects of community-led services into their existing library structures, it has been important to engage both internal (staff) and external communities.

The skill sets required for this type of library work are not customary to the library profession. The ‘new’ librarian needs excellent interpersonal skills, a high degree of flexibility and adaptability, superb facilitation and listening skills, a sense of humility, and above all, leadership – the ability to influence and navigate the change process in the library, so the library can shift to meet the needs of communities where they are.

Local Contexts

There are a number of Canadian library systems that are integrating community-led work. At this point, we will solely focus on the authors’ two library systems, Edmonton and Halifax.

Edmonton Public Library

Edmonton Public Library (EPL) has led the charge in the integration of community-led work into the way in which librarians and other library staff ‘do their work’. As one of the first urban library in Canada to implement a system-wide community-led service philosophy, 19 community librarians work at service points throughout the library system. The Library’s Community-Led Service Philosophy was initially defined as a way to build relationships and to improve EPL’s ability to identify customer strengths and meet customer needs, with a focus on anyone facing barriers to using library services. “Anyone facing barriers” could include not only homeless and socially excluded people, those who simply lacked awareness of library service, but also for example a middle-class mom who had a bad customer experience during a program and did not want to return to the library. This broad approach has allowed service points to prioritize, within EPL’s overall strategic directions, services based on the needs of their specific communities.

Efforts at implementing a more integrated, system-wide and strategic approach to community-led work at EPL was inspired in part by both John Pateman’s work in the UK and by Canada’s Working Together project. However, distinctions from the Working Together approach emerged at EPL in three main ways: 1.) EPL’s model is a system-wide framework used by all staff in varying degrees (“one library, one staff”), promoting community service as a shared value 2.) EPL’s community librarians are expected to do community work both inside and outside library walls; and 3.) EPL’s focus extends beyond socially excluded populations to include anyone who faces barriers to library service.

The application of the Community-Led Service Philosophy varies according to the nature of the communities served by the various library branches. Community librarians work with organizations representing a range of individuals and groups, including Aboriginal, multicultural, Somali, seniors, newcomers, youth, students, preschoolers, persons with mental health issues, women who have been abused, and the City of Edmonton. In 2010, community librarians worked with over 310 organizations in Edmonton for a total of 145 hours per week on average. These collaborations have yielded some substantial impacts.

Other collaborations have resulted in significant system-wide practice and policy changes geared towards reducing barriers to library services: EPL created a six-month computer/Internet pass card for individuals who are ineligible to obtain a full library membership, because they do not have a fixed address; an agency referral letter was created, allowing agency clients with no permanent address to obtain a library card using the agency’s address; a 5-item-limit library card was created for customers who have difficulty returning items; and EPL revised its Customer Conduct Policy to diminish the rigidity of its provisions. All of these initiatives reflect a commitment to reduce barriers, to be socially responsible, and to establish policies based on self-identified community needs.

Efforts are now focused on evaluation and further integrating this community-led service framework into all library staff roles. For example, Library Assistants now accompany community librarians on visits to various agencies and deliver early literacy and computer training workshops outside the library.

Halifax Public Libraries

As a project, Working Together produced a number of specific learnings and deliverables. As one of the original Working Together sites, Halifax Public Libraries focused on integrating the community-led approach across the library system (Williment, Grant and Somers, 2011). Halifax believes that community-led work should not be the focus of a few designated staff, but should be incorporated across the system. However, the systemic incorporation of community-led work into the day-to-day approaches library staff use to work with community takes on increasing complexity outside the confines of a pilot project. In order to help facilitate the use of the community-led approach at Halifax, a Manager of Community Development position was immediately created at the end of the Working Together Project to assist in the regional application of the approach.

Library staff have the most direct contact with the community through library branches. During the Working Together Project, Halifax concentrated on developing a “model branch,” where learnings and approaches to incorporating community-led work were used by branch staff. Initially, two library branches were targeted for piloting the community-led approach. In both of these branches, the work completed with library staff and community has varied, based upon existing staff strengths and community-based need. Additionally, it was quickly recognized that engagement opportunities needed to be explored with existing library users and targeted communities (Williment and Somers, 2011).

By implementing processes which actively engage community, Halifax is able to develop a better understanding of community needs and priorities. Through discussions with community based partners, during a recent regional based initiative known as Art Attack, the library was able to develop and sustain strong relationships – resulting in truly hearing community based needs. As a result, both community and the library system collaboratively realigned the direction and objectives of the initiative. This demonstrated and ensured that the community sees value and understands the public libraries role in community.

One of the major outcomes of community-led work in Halifax is the development of multi-phased regional service plans. These formalized plans provide library staff with pathways, support and accountability for collaboratively identifying, developing and implementing relevant programs and services to targeted communities (e.g. Service to Immigrants Plan). Each service plan initially includes the baseline understanding of internal library based strengths and assets while discovering community based or external assets. The second phase of the plan ensures increased library staff capacity while creating stronger and sustained relationships with external communities. Finally, resulting changes to programs and services are based on collaborative work with community.

One tool Halifax has worked extensively to develop and refine is asset mapping. Asset mapping shifts conversations with community members: from libraries providing information out to community – to libraries hearing about community-based strengths, gaps, and community-identified linkages and roles for library services. There are a number of additional outcomes that have resulted from asset mapping, including the development of close relationships with community-based service providers, direct access to hard to reach community members, and community recognition of the library as important community-based partner.

It has also been vital to constantly document and communicate successes and challenges within the library system and externally. So library staff can respond to community identified priorities, community-based information is shared internally with decision makers. Additionally, to help other library systems incorporate community-led approaches, Halifax has been very active, presenting at conferences regionally, nationally and internationally, and publishing papers.

Finally, a number of other major activities at Halifax embody many of the characteristics of community-led service development. The recently updated vision Halifax Public Libraries: Where we shape the future together…Imagine the possibilities and mission Connecting people, enriching communities, inspiring discovery both reflect the central role of community in library services. Additionally, the building of a new Central Library in Halifax has been dramatically impacted through an extraordinarily inclusive consultation process. This process allowed both library staff and architects to learn and adapt the new Central Library to meet the needs of various communities, and resulted in other libraries considering the adoption of similar consultation processes (Chianello, 2011).

Communities’ Perceptions of Library Services

As public library systems in Canada either begin or continue to incorporate collaborative service planning within their localized communities, libraries will evolve. Involving the community in these discussions will help libraries expand their role beyond the traditional stereotype of a place to just get a book (Moloney, 2011), to a wide range of possibilities, including diverse social gathering spaces, places to co-create and share information and knowledge. This positions the public library as a democratic institution that facilitates civic engagement. When this occurs, it will be important for libraries to effectively communicate these changes with the broader community.

While the community-led approach provides library systems with a mechanism to become and to remain relevant to the needs of local communities, this change process will take time to communicate, not only to library staff but also to the community.

Final thoughts

The traditional service development process provides a number of ways in which library staff can internally generate programs and services to meet library staffs’ perceptions of community needs. Community-led service development provides a new set of tools which library staff can build upon to ensure the continued relevance of public libraries that truly meet community needs. Unfortunately, systems which continue to guess at community needs will run the risk of being left in the 20th century. This may lead to the development of two tiered library service development, where 1. dynamic library systems respond to community needs beyond those of traditional library users while 2. other systems minimally engage users and try to maintain their relevance to community by marketing and informing communities of ‘their’ services.

As with all other professions, industries and organizations, public libraries need to embrace innovation, thus ensuring that their services are relevant to both funders and the people they are meant to serve. The discussions and innovative practices occurring in Canadian public libraries are exciting because – ultimately – change will occur. The question will always remain – who will determine how public libraries will adapt? It will either happen proactively and internally, and hopefully based on collaborative decisions made with library staff and their communities – or else passive public libraries will be at the mercy of the outside forces imposing the change.

Works Cited

Campbell, Brian. (2005/2006) “’In’ vs. ‘With’ the Community: Using a Community Approach to Public Library Services,” Information for Social Change. 22. Found at

Chianello, Joanne. Ottawa Citizen, (October 19, 2011). The future of Ottawa’s Central Library should run through Halifax. Accessed December 19th, 2011 from

Edmonton Public Library. (2010). Community Led Service Philosophy Toolkit. Found at

Moloney, Paul. Toronto Star, (November 29th, 2011) Should Libraries Stick to Books? Accessed December 6th, 2011 from–should-libraries-stick-to-books

Muddiman, David et al.. (2000) Libraries for All: Social Inclusion in Public Libraries. The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, London. Found at

Muzzerall, Darla et al. (2005) Community Development Librarians: Starting Out, Feliciter 51(6) (2005): 265–67.

Tess Prendergast “Beyond storytime: children’s librarians collaborating in communities”, Children and Libraries, Spring 2011, pp20-26, 40. Found at

Williment, K. (2009). It takes a community to create a library. Partnership: the Canadians Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research. 4(1), 1-11. Found at

Williment, K. Jones-Grant, T., and Somers, D. (2011). From Project to Branch Integration and Sustainability: Community-led work at Halifax Public Libraries. Public Libraries. March/April 2011. Found at

Somers, D. and Williment, K. Community-Led Library Service in a Rural Community: Musquodoboit Harbour Branch. Feliciter. 57(2), 50-52. Found at

Working Together Project, Community –Led Libraries Toolkit (Vancouver: 2008), Accessed December 6th, 2011


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