Thursday, February 21, 2008

Librarians at the gates

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 21, 2008


Every morning, a queue forms at the main entrance of the downtown branch of the Victoria Public Library. A half-dozen men, their clothes reflecting the thinness of their wallets but not the fullness of their intellects, await the opening of doors behind which can be found a cornucopia of knowledge.

The men race upstairs, where they will spend hours perusing the latest newspapers and magazines.

Yesterday, those doors stayed firmly closed.

Library workers have been locked out. So, too, have been those for whom the library is a home away from home.

The other morning, a dozen library workers could be found patrolling the entrance to the central branch on Broughton Street. They wore hoodies and knit caps, gloves and mittens, puffy fleece vests and bulky winter coats. They have been forced to hit the bricks when they would prefer to be shelving books.

This is no ordinary labour dispute. Jenny Griffin, a 39-year-old circulation clerk, spent the weekend researching pithy quotes. Where else will you find picket signs decorated with statements from the likes of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Goodall and Robert Reich? The lone labour leader cited was Cesar Chavez, who organized itinerant farm workers, many of them illiterate.

Among those on picket duty was Peter Thompson, 58, for whom the morning chill was a reminder of his previous working life as a fisherman. Once, he trolled for salmon. Nowadays, he fishes for answers to the questions posed by patrons who find him at the reference desk just inside the locked doors.

"If you don't like working with people," he said, wiping a runny nose, "you won't like librarianship."

He thinks of his workplace as much more than mere stacks of books. As he puts it, "The library isn't a vending machine for factoids."

Patrons ask for information on diseases that they otherwise hide, on relationship troubles they otherwise keep secret, on curiosities they otherwise dare not reveal. A librarian hears the confessions of strangers.

Mr. Thompson wore several layers of clothing, rubber boots and wool mittens. He was joined by Alan Schroeder, his sidekick on the reference desk, and by Mary-Ann Connaghan, supervisor of the magazine and newspaper department. The trio have a combined 70 years of experience at the library, which is an indoor oasis for those patrons without a permanent address. On the second full day of a lockout with no predictable end, the workers spoke less about their own predicament than that of their patrons.

"What are the homeless going to do? This is their living room," Mr. Thompson said.

"What are the blind going to do? This is where they come to listen to books. What are the students going to do? This is where they come to study."

The library also delivers books to shut-ins.

"Often, it's the only social contact they get in a week," Ms. Connaghan said.

Reading programs for children have also been halted.

Patrons here will tell you the library isn't simply a book depository. For many, it is the place where they first surfed the Internet, or listened to a compact disc, or viewed a DVD. In suburban Saanich, teenaged patrons - and perhaps the occasional adult trusting of the staff's discretion - can borrow the latest video games.

The library workers are approaching their 14th month without a contract. Local 410 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, representing nearly 300 library workers, counts 167 days since they launched strike actions in an attempt to restart negotiations.

The union is seeking pay equity for its workers, a majority of whom are women, who traditionally earn less.

An escalating series of job actions by the union - including the withdrawal of Internet services and a refusal to collect fines - led the library board to declare a lockout at 5:01 p.m. on Sunday.

Before the due date, patrons cleared library shelves, some leaving with as many as 60 titles.

"It looked like a closing-out sale," Mr. Schroeder said.

In announcing the lockout, the chairman of the library board said the move was necessary "to protect the assets of the library."

Go on down to the picket line at one of the nine branches and you can meet your neighbourhood library workers. What a fine bunch of assets they are.

"I've never been ashamed to say I'm a librarian," Mr. Thompson said.

That's a statement not many of us - and certainly no newspaper reporter - can make.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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