Melanie Houlden, Chief Library for Surrey Libraries and staunch supporter of the Library Champions project, will soon be retiring. I don’t know her personally, but I do know that when she walks in a room, she commands it with radiating warmth and a big, welcoming smile. On departure, she leaves you with a desire to strive harder, and actively help those around you. She spoke at our last Library Champion’s celebration and, reading her words, I’m sure you will feel the same as I do – her departure will leave a hole that will be difficult to fill.
“I am here today to share with you my thoughts on the impact that the Library Champions project is having at Surrey Libraries – and the impact it is having on me as well.
The Library Champions program is a result of an idea that a person who was new to Canada had, someone who I believe lives in Surrey! She realized that many new immigrants don’t know about the wonderful services and programs that are offered at the library, as many newcomers come from countries where public libraries are not the norm or are quite different. Her idea was that newcomers could help promote the library to their friend and neighbors, and that their language and cultural expertise would be a big bonus…
As so, the Library Champions program was created. Champions act as ‘ambassadors’ for the library. They go out and to talk with friends, family and strangers about the library, often in that person’s home language. Champions hang out at recreations centres, grocery stores, places of worship, businesses, and social gatherings of all sorts and help spread the word.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Library has benefitted significantly from the Champions project. Because of the work of the Champions the Surrey Libraries have:
- Expanded our reach into newcomer communities in a way we never could have done ourselves, because of language barriers, an incomplete understanding of cultural norms and the lack of a natural point of entry into some groups of people
- The Library has seen an increase in the number of newcomers coming to the Library. Champions help people overcome the hesitation some might feel in visiting what must seem to be a very unfamiliar or scary institution, by offering a personal introduction and a friend to explore with
- We have many new friends and supporters in the community, as more people come to understand the value of the public library and the services offered. Things that we consider a given are met with astonishment, for example, I understand that the idea that most libraries services are offered FREE of charge, is a point of delight for many
- The Library has seen improved understanding from our staff and insight into the issues newcomers must contend with. We are creating a more compassionate and caring workplace. Staff can see the benefits for the people they serve and how the Library can be part of the solution – a huge motivator.
As I mentioned earlier, I had a chance to meet some of the Surrey Champions at a thank you reception. After shaking hands, I asked what I thought was simple question, as a way to get to know people better. I asked “What did you like best (or least) about the Library Champions project”
People are proud to be associated with the Library and proud to share what they had learned. That the Library could offer treasures that would benefit others.
I learned that participating in the program made Champions feel like they are a part of the community, in a way they had never felt before
I learned that Champions now had a larger circle of friends, both library staff members and other Champions that could help them navigate the complexities of making a new home for themselves. That there are people they can talk to about any questions they might have about how Canada works, without feeling foolish.
I learned that the title ‘Champion’ gave them a sense of purpose and self-confidence that has helped them to overcome other challenges in their lives.
I gained a much better appreciation of what it means to move to another country, what is lost and what is gained, and the complexity of dealing with a new country, a complicated immigration system, a new culture and a new language
I learned about the difficulties associated with building a new social network, when friends, family, jobs and familiarity with your environment is left behind
Always a proud Canadian, I now have an even stronger appreciation for our country and our province. I am especially proud of our libraries, the settlement agencies we work with and the people who help newcomers become more comfortable in their new home.
This project helps to create a sense of belonging and turns strangers into neighbors.
The Library Champions I meet are wonderful people, filled with appreciation, excitement and boundless enthusiasm. We simply couldn’t manage this without you.
I would like to end with a big Hello and a heartfelt thank you to each and every Champion in the room – You are awesome!”
We, at NewToBC, wish you all the best on your new journey Melanie. Thank you for taking a leading role on this Library Champion’s project and seeing the possibilities of what it could be. You’ve created a community. This project did, indeed, “turn strangers into neighbours.”