Saturday, December 31, 2011

Favourite children's books of 2011

Picture books:

Cat Secrets by Jef Czekaj - Many reviews have compared this interactive story to the Pigeon tales of Mo Willems, and with reason: the suspicious feline narrator of this book addresses the reader, refusing to divulge cat secrets until readers prove they are, in fact, cats themselves.

The Can Man by Laura E. Williams - A poignant story about a young boy who struggles to save enough money for a skateboard, something his family cannot afford to buy for him. He strikes upon the idea of collecting cans to make some quick cash, but soon finds that he is infringing on the livelihood of the Can Man, a local homeless man who used to live in his building. The Can Man generally keeps to himself, but pitches in to help the boy; the boy, meanwhile, struggles with why the Can Man does what he does, and whether the Can Man's desire for a winter coat is more important than his need for a new skateboard.

Won-Ton A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw - A shelter cat tells his story in his own words. A great introduction to poetry in a classroom setting, and a touching story about a tough cat with a vulnerable core. Hate That Cat for the younger set, with fewer tears and more laughs, but just as much heart.

Honourable mentions to two titles technically not published or first read in 2011:

Taming Horrible Harry by Lili Chartrand - This was my go-to book for outreach visits to the K-3 set this year, of which I made significantly fewer, alas. This is the story of a monster who becomes captivated by books and learns to read. A joy to read aloud (with opportunities for roaring (kids) and licking (adults... don't ask....)). Translated from the French.

Not All Princesses Dress in Pink by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple - Yolen and her daughter co-authored this charming rhyming picture book depicting a variety of princesses (some with power tools, some in sports gear ... all in crowns and NONE in pink). The illustrations are not my favourite, ever, and the crown refrain is a bit tiresome, but this is a good pick for adventurous girls everywhere. Kirkus called it "A joyful and much-needed antidote to the precious pink pestilence that has infested picture books aimed at girls." Ha.

Best book trailer for a picture book: My Rhinoceros by Jon Agee

Middle grades:

The Odious Ogre by Norton Juster - The titular ogre terrorises entire communities until he is utterly confounded by an unfailingly pleasant young girl: “Are you new to the neighborhood?” the girl asks sweetly. “Please don’t leave until you’ve had a muffin.” Ponders the ogre, "I can't be liked. It's bad for business." Verbose, exaggerated fun for the whole family, this book is full of life and wickedly funny.

This Child, Every Child: A Book About the World's Children by David J. Smith
Each page illustrates aspects of children’s lives (at home, at work, schooling, gender inequality, being “on the move” due to adoption, kidnapping, immigration, etc.) and has the text of a related Article from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in a box at the bottom (the simplified text was a bit jarring to me, but appropriate for children). Sometimes, one child’s situation is used as an example of a certain aspect of children’s lives; sometimes, two or more are juxtaposed. There is a section for “learning more” and a great list of sources for all the statistical information in the book. The Children and the future section is a bit of a platform for UNICEF programs, but it is still very good.

The Adventures of Jack Lime
by James Leck - Short detective stories written in the style of a 1950s potboiler. And I quote:

"What you are about to read are some of the more interesting cases that have crossed my desk. You see, I'm a detective, a private investigator, a gumshoe. What I do is fix problems for people who need their problems fixed. My name is Jack Lime, and these are my stories."

This book fell into my lap several months before Leck made a series of successful and entertaining class visits to several OPL branches (including Rockcliffe Park, which I was temporarily supervising at the time). Leck was fun to work with, and was great with kids. I hope to see more of Jack Lime, since it's always a struggle to find funny, interesting middle grade books with appeal to both boys and girls.

A Second Is A Hiccup
by Hazel Hutchins - A book about time (and thus, math) for the middle grades set. In other words, a pink polka-dotted unicorn. Thank your lucky stars for this charming, engaging book that illustrates different units of time with real-life examples. For instance, "A second is a hiccup--the time it takes to kiss your mom, or jump a rope, or turn around," and "If you build a sandy tower / Run right through a sprinkly shower / Climb a tree and smell a flower / Pretend you have a secret power / That should nicely fill / An hour."


Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis - A Regency England tale for young girls, about a widower parson, his three unruly daughters, and a family secret. As previously blogged, this tale features "three quarrelling sisters, two highwayman (real/not), secret family magical powers, romance, the clergy, and a flying teacup." Flavia de Luce for the 8-12 year old set.

Plain Kate by Erin Bow - An utterly captivating read. Few of you will know that I am tremendously sentimental about animals (in film and books - I was influenced early and deeply by The Velveteen Rabbit, wept at The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, avoided The Underneath and am currently studiously avoiding War Horse). As such, I am compelled to point out that the cat, Taggle, made the book for me, here. I read this shortly after my cat died and every time Taggle found himself in a sticky situation, I was falling to pieces. I wept. Seriously. ANYWAY, feline attachment aside, this is a rollicking good tale about an orphan who is the victim of a small town's superstitions. Alone and abused, Kate falls under the spell of the mysterious sorcerer, Linay, who, in exchange for her shadow, promises to grant her heart's wish. As Kate agonises over her (limited) choices, she befriends a young girl and learns that her fate, as well as that of her new friend and her deceased mother, might be connected to Linay's world in more ways than one. A truly dark and dangerous fairy tale.

Lily Renee, Escape Artist by Trina Robbins - Seen via the fabulous Elizabeth, this is a graphic novel biography of a real-life comic book artist and Holocaust survivor, Lily Renée Wilheim Peters Phillips. Lily escapes Vienna in 1939 via Kindertransport, arriving in Leeds at the home of her pen pal. She soon realises that some people in wartime England aren't quite as welcoming as she had hoped, and the book follows her as she works various odd jobs (mother's helper, servant, caretaker, candy-striper), eventually securing her (aging, ill) parents' passage to England after years spent unsure if they were still alive. Lily went on to work as a penciller for early comic books, creating and illustrating stories about Jane Martin, a female pilot, and Senorita Rio (at left). The facts of the book are compelling, and I agree with Elizabeth, who writes at Fuse #8 that "one thing about the book I liked without hesitation was the backmatter. In addition to the Glossary of German to English terms there are wonderful sections explaining everything from the British Internment Camps (something I’ve never encountered in a book for kids before) to automats." (Seriously, automats. Read all about them).

The Summer of Permanent Wants
by Jamieson Findlay
This was such an odd little book, but I really loved it! Eleven-year-old Emmeline, who suffers from aphasia since an illness abroad, sets off with her grandmother in a boat rigged up as a traveling bookstore one summer. Aboard "Permanent wants," the two voyage down the Rideau Canal Waterway, in towns real and imaginary, encountering characters both possible and impossible. This book works as a novel but is best understood as a series of linked short stories about Permanent wants's various ports of call, and the mysteries Emmeline and her grandmother encounter there. From a lonely woman whose vocation is to be a mailwoman between doppelgangers, to a fraudulent sea captain, to a reptile zoo and its extravagant owners, this is a book rich with diverse characters and suffused with tenderness.

Previous children's lists: 2010, 2009, 2008.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Children's Book Bank

On our last visit to Toronto, the Husband and I were fortunate to receive a tour of The Children's Book Bank from our friend, Jackie Flowers, the organisation's assistant executive director.

I first read about The Children's Book Bank in 2010, in this article in the Toronto Star. Later that year, we parked directly outside the Bank on our way to the newly-renovated Parliament Branch of TPL. The Book Bank was definitely something I was aware of, but, to be honest, the impact it has on children's lives was most powerfully observed in person when we visited last month. Both the Husband and I were getting misty-eyed.

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 neighborhood (Canada's oldest and largest social housing project), on the main floor of a lovely old rowhouse. Founder Kim Beatty, a litigation laywer, 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.

The Book Bank 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 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." As a librarian, I can 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, both in terms of lifelong learning habits and in terms of personal pride and self-worth.

When we visited The Children's Book Bank on a busy Saturday morning, it was hard to find a place to stand where we weren't in the way of one of the visiting families. In the front room, where the desk and infant / parenting books are, people were coming in and on their way out (every book is stamped before leaving with a personalised stamp that reads "This book came from The Children's Book Bank and now belongs to _____"). In the back room, a girl and her father were offloading a half-dozen boxes of donations from a book drive she organised at her school. In the early readers room (heavy on series such as The Magic School Bus, Junie B. Jones, and the other usual suspects), a young girl stared shyly at the Husband and I (he smiled at her; she hid) as we perused the warmly-decorated wooden bookshelves and the spectacular table display of medieval stories. In the back room (more novels, and many picture books), we came upon a mother reading to her son in an oversized armchair, and a family sitting on a back bench under a window, also sharing a story. The walls and tops of bookcases are decorated with stuffed animals (all book characters; Jackie says occasionally some find their way home with visitors!) and photos of visiting children with their hand-written book recommendations (see above, at right - "Hannah recommends Ms. Nelson is Missing"). The sense of excitement and wonder was palpable.

For more information about The Children's Book Bank, please check out their Facebook page and blog. They are also on Canada Helps as BN: 844532952RR0001 (registered as: The Children's Bookbank and Literacy Foundation).

At the moment, the Children's Book Bank exists only in Toronto; for more information about future plans, write me (alexandrayarrow -at- yahoo -dot- com).

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bookmobile news round-up

My team: Paul, Leslie, France, Beatrice, Martin, me, Emilie

This may be the last Bookmobile round-up for awhile, as my time with this amazing team comes to an end. I promise to monitor the news on a less frequent basis, though, and save the juiciest morsels just for you!
  • Bus –>Public library, via Recyclart
    "A conceptual vision for a new public library, which would be housed in a waste tram at the “Otets Paisiy” Street in the town of Plovdiv."
  • Hitch on bookmobiles: "Christopher Hitchens: 'God is not great' - but bookmobiles are" via the Christian Science Monitor
    "“When I was very young I lived in a remote village on the edge of an English moorland,” Hitchens recalled. “Every week, a mobile library would stop near my house, and I would step up through the back door of a large van to find its carpeted interior lined with bookshelves.... If I live to see retirement, I would quite like to be a driver of such a vehicle, bringing books to eager young readers like a Librarian in the Rye.”"

Friday, December 23, 2011


Well, that was quite the month.

I've been writing fewer original posts about life in general recently, not from lack of news, but from a surfeit of news, really. I needed to let the dust settle (both in life and inside my head) before I distilled some things in print here (wow. Mixed metaphor. Sorry).

One of my favourite professors from Marianopolis, Dr. McKendy, had several "bits" he used to employ in class as humourous reminders of salient points in our course. One of these was a piece of tongue-in-cheek advice: if you are ever writing an essay piece for a final exam, on a piece of literature you have never read, or you have run out of time, scrawl down "THINGS CHANGE." This will always be applicable to any novel.

I often think of Dr. McKendy, and of THINGS CHANGE (it's always in capitals, ok, and it's always in his voice, too). My entire month of December can be thus described. It was a month in which I found myself contemplating two roads diverging in a wood. It was a month in which I had to give up several dreams, but found another I perhaps needed to fulfill first. It was a month in which I discovered that people I thought were enemies were perhaps at the very least receptive and friendly, and people I thought were friends developed a more complicated, troubled relationship with me. It was a month in which I packed up offices in three libraries, and moved into a cozy one tucked under a staircase, with a bay window. It was a month in which I was able to use extensive knowledge about grief in the workplace. It was a month in which I broke down leaving a thank-you voicemail for a wonderful City of Ottawa employee, with whom I had developed an unexpectedly great rapport with on a City-wide committee this year. It was a month in which I made some mistakes, and was saved only by the generosity and support of my team. It was a month in which I moved beyond projects and external goals, and saw for the first time in my career that maybe I really influenced a team for the better.

It was also a month in which I tabulated the final grades for my Acquisitions class, read voraciously for BOYCA, accepted the role of the Chair of the Local Arrangements Committee for CLA Conference in Ottawa in May 2012, agreed to be on the Ottawa IMPAC committee, trained an employee, coached another, sat on an interview committee, judged some poster sessions, went to Toronto, and fêted the retirement of our City Librarian (one of my own mentors, and a friend).

Maybe I should be clear now.

Late last month, I accepted a new position as the Coordinator of the Carlingwood Branch of the Ottawa Public Library. Carlingwood is one of our larger branches, with some of the highest circulation of material in the entire system (Q3 2011 circ was 145,888, surpassed only by Beaverbrook, Main and Nepean Centrepointe). I'm really pleased to be back in a large branch for the first time since I left Westmount, but I do miss the community feeling in a smaller branch. I already miss doing storytime and find myself lingering in the children's department like a pathetic loser, but I enjoy having more time to focus on supervisory tasks. I am worried about leaving the downtown marginalised populations I have grown to love and admire so much, and with whom I see so much more to be done, even as I know I will discover other groups in my new neighbourhood in great need. I am getting to know the teams I work with, and I continue to be amazed by the great people we have working at the library, full of ideas and ready to go out of their way to support each other and serve our patrons. Everything this month has been a bit like Elizabeth Bird's Fortunately, Unfortunately blog post of last year (brilliant, btw). I am finding myself paralysed when people ask me how things are at Carlingwood: no one really wants the full answer... it would take too long to list all the good things, and all the things I am sad to lose! There is so much going on! THINGS CHANGE!

I'm just getting my bearings, still exhausted from wrapping up a multitude of projects at Bookmobile, training my replacement there, and saying goodbye to three teams: Bookmobile, Homebound, and Rideau Branch (for the first time in five years, no longer my substantive job, my home base amid renovations and repairs and mat leave replacements....). I've hardly even started to make a list of the ideas for Carlingwood swirling in my head. I still have at least three boxes hiding under my desk that I have to unpack.

Here's to turning the page to an exciting new year.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Seen reading on OC Transpo

Ottawa in 1800, at the Walkley transitway station

  • Better than chocolate by Susan Waggoner
  • The daring deception by Brenda Hiatt
  • Me: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, my students' exams
So, my lovelies, discuss: why are readers on the #87 reading such absolute shite? And why am I reading a Western? It's like Opposite week!

Bonus reading + public transit link: "Bus-stop books – Israel's newest public library," by Karin Kloosterman: "Wait in line at the bus stop, shuffle through a few books, and take one with you on the commute? The idea could not only increase literacy rates in communities, but also serve as a new way of connecting people [....] Israel already has professors giving scholarly lectures on trains. Maybe thanks to this new project, new authors will give public reading at bus stops. Shoshan thinks such a project could work as a community-builder in disadvantaged areas as well." (with thanks to C for the link)

Friday, December 9, 2011

RA in a Day 2011: Serving Readers with Library Building Projects

Our last session of the day was Serving Readers with Library Building Projects: Toronto Public Library, Mississauga Public Library, Ottawa Public Library

I was presenting, so no notes on these sessions. My session was Serving Readers at Ottawa, and here are some of my speaking notes.

I opened by speaking about GASP - a set of standards for graphics, ambiance, style and presentation developed by American consultant Peter Robinson, and first implemented in West Palm Beach Public Library (see here). I talked about how this unifying set of standards was very challenging in a large library with 33 branches, but necessary: it doesn’t mean OPL locations have to have to be cardboard cut-outs of one another, but they do have to be identifiably part of the same family. GASP standards apply to everything from promotional posters and customer service to renovations and new buildings. We implemented some of OPL's GASP standards in several of our renovations, and these proceses relate to serving readers, as part of an over-arching idea of customer service in the library.

In several renovations, for instance, our use of slatwall, the use of angles as well as lines, and our common chair and carpet designs, unified branches with a similar visual style.

In serving readers with renovations, one important element is to emphasise the library as a place of discovery. This was something we really tried to highlight at Rideau Branch, for instance: says manager Philip Robert, “I hope that people can walk around [...] and discover ideas, authors, books, etc. that they were not thinking of when they arrived at the branch.” We created small display spaces/nooks as best we could, within the constraints of the building. These mini-displays creates sense of discovery for patrons throughout branch and allows you to use small collections in small branches for small displays.

Other renovation ideas that directly serve readers and highlight collections include gondolas and tiered shelving. The latter is both less intimidating, and invites people down the aisle if you use the flat top for display – this was creatively used in a Vanier Branch renovation to pull people into a somewhat arhcitecturally awkward space in children's non-fiction).

In terms of overall architecture, creating an unobstructed view of stacks is helpful for readers, and invites discovery, as does effective use of lighting and floor. Floor colours and materials can be fun to play with - for instance, at Rideau we created the "green carpet" runway that both complements the oak ceiling beams (you can't fight your architectural bones) and leads patrons to the Information desk; we also placed alphabet carpet tiles along a whimsical hopscotch-style pathway in the children's section. Adorable seating in the children's section add to the atmosphere: staff are commenting that young families are staying in the children's section longer and more often after the renos at both Vanier and Rideau. "One of our goals was to make that section into a destination point for young families," observes Philip, and it definitely worked!

If you know Rideau Branch, you know we are lucky to have 30 foot ceilings, which invite the kind of spirit of imagination and inspiration that I am hinting at as an overall theme for serving readers with building projects. These windows both allow us to capitalise on a "cathedral" atmosphere and display selections from the City art collection, further encouraging and supporting creativity in the library.

Moving on to Greely Branch of OPL: Greely's previous library was a 946 square foot space in the fire hall; now they have 3000 square feet. Greely is the fastest growing rural village in the City of Ottawa, and, in fact, one of the fastest growing in Ontario. We received $400, 000 each from ISF, and federal and provincial gov'ts for this new build, with the City contributing the remaining costs. Again, here, you can see how we capitalised on small spaces using some of the same techniques as Rideau and Vanier to create spaces for readers: we used angles rather than straight lines, we made a Teen "nook" behind the circulation desk with a special reading bench, and tucked a display space on the other side of the circ desk. We also used slatwall and adjascent windows to create a small adult reading area: a space of quiet contemplation, cut off from the traffic in the branch.

Words of wisdom from Ottawa Public Library managers and staff:
  • Know your natural environment: the way the sunlight streams into those lovely windows at Rideau affected our plans (after the fact). We realised that we had moved the circ desk into the path of direct sunlight, and had to order custom blinds!
  • Win some, lose some: gradual height increases in shelves opens up the area for display and browsing, but you lose precious shelf space.
  • Re-use and Re-cycle: OPL manager Tony observes, "at both Alta Vista and Ruth E. Dickinson, we were able to re-use and re-cycle many pieces of furniture. The end panels of the shelving at Alta Vista were of excellent quality so we refinished them and we re-purposed shelving from the old City of Ottawa archives. Similarly, at Ruth E. Dickinson we are having chairs with good quality wooden frames re-upholstered in flattering new fabrics."
  • Check the latest accessibility guidelines for design (eg. aisles) . In high use public areas, aisles and passageways, a minimum of 1675 mm wide is recommended to allow two persons using wheelchairs or scooters to pass each other easily. 1200 mm width is required to allow one person using a wheelchair and one ambulatory person to pass. Interior barrier-free routes shall be minimum 1100mm wide with a 1600mm by 1600mm turn-around space a minimum of 30m apart. Know the rules before you make your plans!
My final observations came from:

Lawson, Bryan. "Healing Architecture: For a long time, we have supposed that good design will improve patient well-being. Now we have figures to prove it. Bryan Lawson reports on how patient treatment and behaviour improved with new architecture. (Theory)." The Architectural Review 211.1261 (2002): 72+. Academic OneFile. Web. 4 July 2011.

A study was done in a new wing of a hospital, observing patients’ responses to their surroundings. Patients in the newly designed environments gave significantly better ratings to their treatment and thought more highly of the staff treating them, even though in some cases, it was the same people and the same service. The study concluded that there is a direct relationship between people and their environment, and important factors included:
  • the colours of surfaces
  • the temperature of rooms
  • high and airy spaces
  • an environment that appears loved and cared for
It also cconcluded that it is EVEN MORE IMPORANT how the environment mediates the relationships between people:
  • Matters of privacy or how spaces enable people to establish community or maintain personal place.
So, what does this means for us in a library environment? Although library patrons are not as vulnerable (hot/cold spaces, privacy) as hospital patients, there are some ideas here about serving a variety of people with a variety of spaces and options, being aware of how high and airy spaces are inspiring and formal, whereas lower ceilings are cozy and informal, and about noise versus quiet. Think about how people currently use your space: you can prescribe use by changing elements, and you can capitalise on current spaces/touchpoints by targeting areas for specific reader-oriented activities.

P.S. The computer crashed mid-way through my presentation (it was all a bit "Computer says no") and I had to ad-lib the rest with no pictures - the greatest tragedy was people missed out on the owl (slide 19 above).

Most of the other presentations (very visual!) are online:

Seen reading on OC Transpo

  • Navarro's Promise by Lora Leigh
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry (spotted by P!)
  • The Estrogen Effect: How Chemical Pollution Is Threatening Our Survival by Deborah Cadbury (A
  • My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
  • Something by Sidney Sheldon
  • Me: The Summer of Permanent Wants by Jamieson Findlay (local author alert!) - excellent....

Friday, December 2, 2011

RA in a Day 2011: The Psychology of Reading Fiction with Dr. Keith Oatley

Dr. Keith Oatley is Professor Emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, and it is due to the hard work of committee member Diana (pictured here!) that he graced us with his presence at RA in a day. His slides are here.

Dr. Oatley has written extensively about the psychology of reading fiction (see here). He opened his talk by describing character in a novel as being made up of both actions and what happens “beneath the surface,” what is visible and invisible. The relationship between the two is what the psychology of fiction is all about. One of the unique things about a novel or a film is that we can be ourselves and another character when reading or watching: this is “the centre of the psychology of fiction. We take the author's instructions and we mentally create the imagined world.”

Oatley made an interesting comparison with the process of meditation: in reading fiction, we insert the intentions of the protagonist into the part of our mind with which we usually make our own plans. In essence, their plans become are plans: we feel our own emotions in the circumstances in which the protagonist finds him/herself. Studies are beginning to show a correlation between reading fiction and empathy: the more fiction you read, the more empathetic you are and the better you are at understanding others. This could be a kind of “expertise” being developed: for instance, if you read a lot of novels about romantic relationships, you develop better skills in these relationships in real life.

An interesting study was done by Oatley and his colleagues in which a “small personality change” (proportional to the emotions felt) was documented by subjects who were given a Chekov story to read, compared to a control group given a nonfiction re-writing of the same story. One might be able to conclude that “the story enables people to change, but it doesn't make people change.”

Another interesting observation Oatley made was that studies have shown, preliminarily, that people who may be “avoiders” of emotional engagement in real life actually feel empathy more strongly in fiction – perhaps fiction can circumvent that avoidance?
Oatley closed with two wonderful quotes:
  • Proust on his books: they allow people to be readers of themselves, not of my book. My book is the “magnifying glass by which I could give them the means by which they read within themselves.”
  • George Eliot on writing: "It's a set of experiments to see what we humans are capable of."

Seen reading on OC Transpo

Take your book and move to the back of the bus, please!

  • The cluttered corpse by Mary Jane Maffini
  • Alone with the devil: Famous cases of a courtroom psychiatrist by M.D. Ronald Markman, Dominick Bosco
  • Sugar and spice by Debbie Macomber
  • Me: I am half-sick of shadows by Alan Bradley and I am Canada: Shot at dawn: World War I, Allan McBride, France, 1917 by John Wilson

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Newsy news!

Where does the day go?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

RA in a Day 2011: Luncheon speaker, Charlotte Gray

I was the convenor of this session, and Charlotte’s “handler,” so I have to confess I didn’t get many notes down! But here are some observations:
  • I had never heard Charlotte speak before, and I was kind of thrilled to discover that she has a very sharp sense of humour.... Speaking about Dawson City in the 1890s, Charlotte deadpanned: “150, 000 people and 3 public toilets: that's what history smells like." She also protested my introduction of her was fulsome....Bah!
  • Charlotte spoke about her most recent book, Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike. Gold Diggers follows the stories of six historical figures who arrive in Dawson City, Yukon during the gold rush. Charlotte sketched several of the characters in her novel for us, including Father Judge, a Jesuit priest, Belinda Mulrooney, who became the richest business woman in town by opening a hotel in nearby Grand Forks, and Flora Shaw, colonial editor and correspondent for the London Times, who crossed the White Pass trail in 1898 and wrote about it; Sam Steele, the head of the RCMP’s Yukon detachment.
  • Charlotte spoke about the fine line writers walk when writing historical non-fiction: as she described it, "I do not invent, I imagine."
  • She explained that the dialogue in her books is what people really said, taken from their diaries and letters.
  • She gave us some great snapshots into her research processes, sitting at LAC reading Flora Shaw’s letters, or consulting the Sam Steele collection at the University of Alberta.
  • Charlotte also gave us an idea of why she began writing historical non-fiction: when she arrived in Canada from England, she expected it to be very similar to Britain, and found that it wasn’t. She described what she called an uniquely Canadian character: an endless landscape, the idea of "the North."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Seen reading on OC Transpo

In line

Ambition is not a dirty word, and neither is change

One of the most comforting things about NELI was being around other people who are driven to make a difference in the library world(s). I honestly had a moment: wait, you mean these people are like me? There's nothing wrong with me?

In other circles, this is called enthusiasm. In still other circles, it is called ambition. In many of these circles, these are derogatory terms.

Ambitious people seem to thrive on change. I've been thinking a lot recently about my past, and about how the library world is at a bit of a turning point that perhaps my whole life has helped prepare me for. My next (home) move will be my 12th; my next professional move will be the 13th different job title I have had in libraries, since starting as a library assistant in the Marianopolis College Library in 1998 (and I'm not even counting working at Vanier during Rideau's renovations, or temporarily supervising Rockcliffe Park, but I did count Westmount 3x, since I had about five different job titles there - whatevs. Read more here).

I kind of hated moving houses so much: making friends and losing friends was difficult for me. I was painfully shy for a long time, until my early teens (ya. I know. Libraries totally never attract shy people. Don't get me started on how this kills us....). At that point, having spent several awkward years alone at (different) church coffee hours, waiting for my mum's parishoners to be done with her so we could go home, I saw years of more of the same stretching ahead of me, and decided that the only way to make this all less awkward was for me to change. I began initiating converstions, learning about the parishoners, asking after their children; in many ways, although it isn't a time I look back on exclusively fondly, it made me a better person: more thoughtful, more compassionate, and more independent.

I talked about these skills at NELI, crediting my mother as a role model, which she certainly continues to be. I entered the library profession as a young adult familiar with organisational change, comfortable coming into a new situation and evaluating the dynamics. I also saw my career as a vocation, something I felt I was doing because I believed that education and lifelong learning were vital to our modern world. I quickly had my heart broken, having to leave the library at which I had made my home (the longest I had been in a community, in any capacity, my entire life). This ended up being the best decision I ever made. It taught me that sometimes the best decisions are the hardest ones, and the most unlikely; it also taught me that sometimes you might be ready to change, but you need a kick in the pants.

I arrived in Ottawa wanting to stand out. Because my talented mother was treated like crap by the church. Because I felt I had a lot to offer, and I was sick of having my heart broken. Because I am by nature someone who gives everything to a project or a person she believes in. Because, because, because.

And now that I am perhaps entering the mid-career phase, I am attending this slew of retirement parties, and we're all dancing along the cliff edge of baby boomers leaving the workforce. The world is opening up, career-wise, and it's both a fascinating and a truly dynamic time to be in libraries.

I'm also feeling the backlash against that. Many of us are scared, facing the first changes in staffing or organisational structure they have ever faced. I understand that. Many are saying, "gone are the days when someone worked for one institution for 40 years," and I'm thinking, when were those days? My parents never did that (but then, my situation is a bit, ahem, weird, right?) I've lived through a lot of change - and hated it at the time - but I've come through the other side more or less intact.

And now, as they say, I have a taste for it: in my own career, I have been so lucky to work with great people, and I have also sought out opportunities for diverse projects and new challenges. You only get one life: you might as well not get bored. I inherited a strong work ethic, and I am proud of my parents for instilling that in me. I have a fierce passion to make public libraries the most amazing places that they are capable of being, and I am proud of myself for that. I will go anywhere where I can do that (I almost wrote, "preach that gospel" - see? Can't shake your roots). I also have come to believe in myself, and each new change has shown me how much more I have to develop, and how much more I can grow.

It's not so bad over on the other side of change. You grow a lot. Life is rich.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bookmobile news round-up

Prey on the weak much? "Library board mulls cutting jobs, literacy program in budget crunch," via the Globe and Mail
"A clear majority [of the Library board] have no interest in a reduction of hours, something Chief Librarian Jane Pyper suggested as a means of lopping 4.3 per cent off the agency’s budget, the remaining amount it must lose to meet Mayor Rob Ford’s demand of a 10 per cent cut. The board had already consented to a 5.7 per cent cut by eliminating 100 jobs and introducing new technology. But Ms. Pyper gently reminded the board that if it doesn’t squeeze 4.3 per cent in hour reductions, it will likely have to consider dropping adult literacy, bookmobile and student homework programs."

"Wielklem voor bibliobus in Maurik", via YouTube (and via Dr. Mary Cavanagh!)
There is less and less money for libraries. Many municipalities have cut back. Neighbors is the first municipality that decides to not have money to spend on a library. Children today are therefore the plans into action. They can take a chain of children all about the mobile library to go.

"Rosendale Primary School was announced winner of the SLA Library Design Award for 2011, " seen via Twitter
"Rosendale Primary School's Library Bus is ‘visionary’. Not in the sense of a library in a bus, as that is certainly not unique. But the concept of a school community volunteering together to design and build a new school library in a bus… this is truly visionary. Rosendale Primary School has 700 pupils housed in a cramped Victorian building. They needed a library, but there was neither the money nor space to build one. Instead, parent Kate Gorely had the idea of converting a London bus into a fit-for-purpose library. At a cost of slightly over £5,000 a group of 50 volunteers achieved just that in only nine months."

"Boonslick Regional Library gets some new wheels," by Megan Tilk, Boonville Daily News
"Recently, the library purchased a 2006 ELF Farber Ford E450. With an original cost of $182,500, the library's purchase cost came in at a lot less. previously used and kept in storage for two years, the library was able to purchase the new set of wheels for just $62,999 [....] The best part of the new van is that it comes with a kneel-down feature. It has the ability to raise and lower depending on the curb height so that way people can access the vehicle without steps. It also has better lighting, computer access and an exterior canopy."

"An Airstream Ingeniously Repurposed into a Library," via Poetic Home
"A vintage 1959 Airstream was converted into a traveling bookstore gallery no less, complete with exhibits of independent magazines, artist publications, and more literary goodness."

When he was homeless, "Mendonça took refuge in reading.He says he faced discrimination at the Mário de Andrade Municipal Library.“When I would approach a table with a book in my hand, people would get up and leave,” he says.Mendonça was also unable to borrow books because he didn’thave a permanent address.In 2002, he got off the streets, but he never forgot the people he met there.Through his NGO, he’s helped the homeless people return to their hometowns, get jobs at hostels and enroll in vocational courses.With his Bicicloteca, Mendonça provides the homeless with access to books without any bureaucracy and in an environment where they feel comfortable."

Friday, November 18, 2011

Seen reading on OC Transpo: Bonus two-week edition!

Me, on the #95
  • Persuader by Lee Child
  • Ameliorer sa memoire pour les nuls
  • Vernissage magazine
  • A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3) by George R. R. Martin
  • Vanish In Plain Sight by Marta Perry
  • The End of the European Era: 1890 to the Present by Felix Gilbert and David Clay
  • something by Clive Cussler
  • Sovereign by C. J. Sansom
  • Me: The Antagonist by Lynn Coady, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner, Wildcat Run by Sonya Spreen Bates, and Justine McKeen, Queen of Green by Sigmund Brouwer (Justine was kind of adorable - great for middle grades...)
  • The Husband: An Imperfect Offering by James Orbinski

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Oh, my pretties! I miss you!

I'm so sorry it's been all automated posts without real thought or insight.

I'm feeling devoid of any more thoughts or insights these days! I'm enjoying my term with OPL's Diversity and Accessibility Services (since March), but my manager and I were both saying today how we feel that it's been about a week since March. The time is flying by this year at work: I pointed out that we've done a lot of great things, but I think we are both going home at night exhausted (I know I am: it's all I can do to say hi to The Husband, eat, rouse myself briefly for Two Broke Girls, make a salad for lunch the next day, and then fall asleep somewhere between 9-11 pm).

Today, a training session I was scheduled to attend was cancelled, which bought me a morning "free," so I got a few things done, but it's like feeding a cranky elephant one peanut - it's just not going to cut it. I woke up at 5 am today, worried about several different things.... Most of which, of course, I have little control over. Bah. Overthinking things. Too emotionally invested in things. Pick the crappy explanation you prefer.

Some days, it's just a fish-eat-fish world....

(That's the Fish Hall in McGill's Engineering Building, btw)

I do have some (read: more than one!) fun projects up my sleeve (shhhh my pretties..... Soon!), so that's good. In the next little while, I'm going to nominate people for awards, give out cards, clap when a dangerous area of our offices gets re-paved, oversee two VIP ride-alongs on Bookmobile, and go on two outreach trips (bringing three new-ish employees for professional development)... all while attending at least two more retirement parties (this year has been WHACK for that stuff) and at least three OPL Christmas parties.

Also, in the "not-really-important" category, you know what I love? (Chocolate-glazed doughnuts? Members of my team stretching themselves to learn new things? Cracking the spine of a new novel? Finishing a 3-month long project? Sitting in the front row of a ballet? Holding hands with the husband? Lunch with a friend? 3-day weekends? Kat Dennings? Malbec? Montreal and London?) No, no.... My office at Main Library. Basement and all, it's growing on me, but I think that's J. Alfred Prufrock's influence (words to live by, in this case - and the answer is YES!)

Meanwhile, here are some recent 10-second book reviews from since we last spoke:
  • State Of Wonder by Ann Patchett: reading it before Carrie kicks my butt. We have to schedule a mini-book club / debrief in my office when I am done. So far, really enjoying it.
  • The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: If you looked up "Contemporary (ok, 80s) American Novel" in the dictionary, this book should be listed. I definitely liked it; it had AMERICAN REALISM written all over it, but not in a bad way. I felt for Madeleine, especially when Eugenides focused on her reasons for / feelings about staying with a man who evidently has some mental health issues, but other readers might just want to smack her. Bonus points for saying nice things about Quakers (since my uncle was one, that is, in case you are wondering...)
  • Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner: A bit too out there for my taste (sorry, I am a total square) but, on an intellectual level, I appreciated it. Whoa, snap, that sounded bad. My Giller prediction to Kris, shouted out across the living room 2 minutes into the broadcast, was "If they want to be really brave and alienate the general reader, they will give it to Zsuzsi. If they want to be sort of brave , they will give it to Esi."
  • The Antagonist by Lynn Coady: Oddly compelling, despite subject matter that isn't usually up my alley.
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Beautiful book; couldn't really care less about the characters.
  • The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht: Disturbing, engrossing, weird. In the best possible way.

Must dash. Dizzy with fatigue.

Friday, November 11, 2011

"Give me the time"

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Ottawa, 2009

Give me the time to lie and dream,
To lull the hours with reverie
And set my sluggish fancies free
Upon the tide of beauty's stream.

Give me the time to rest my mind
From thoughts of massacre and war,
To think awhile of life, before
The chance is left too far behind.

Give me the time to seek for truth,
Wherever it may be concealed,
And time to savour of its yield
Before I lose the eyes of youth.

Give me the time to fill my heart
With draughts of love and ecstasy,
To pierce the core of life and be
The favoured sculptor of its art.

Give me the time to gain release
From war's insistent ache and stress;
Give me a glimpse of happiness
That I may know the ways of peace.

John Cromer, "Give me the time," Poems of the War Years: An Anthology. London: Macmillan and Co., 1950.

This is my great-grandmother's brother, Lew Jack Melhado. His sister had already left England for Canada, as part of the British Women's Emigration Association, when he joined The Northamptonshire Regiment, 6th Battalion. He died in France, on 1 July 1918, aged 23, at Pozieres, the Somme. Between 21st March to 7th August 1918, when Pozieres was lost and re-taken by the British, 14,669 men died.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"A lifetime burning in every moment"

"[....] So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years [...]
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. [....]

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment."
Eliot, T. S. "Four Quartets." The complete poems and plays. London: Faber, 1969. 182.

Monday, November 7, 2011

RA in a Day 2011: Keynote: "RA as a Transformative Act"

The keynote address at this year's RA in a Day event was given by the amazing Duncan Smith, creator and founder of NoveList. Here are my notes; his presentation is available here.

Duncan opened by reading a quote and asking us where we thought it was from:

"We will help you find the perfect collection of books for reflection resolution or relaxation."

Sounds like it could be from a library? It's actually from the website of an English bibliotherapist. Duncan first heard about her in an article in En Route magazine (“Geek Odysseys - Book Loving in London: Volume 2 Bibliotherapy”). The bibliotherapist profiled, Ella Berthoud, spoke about the importance of novels at life-changing moments, and how the reading of these novels allows us to come back to world refreshed.

Duncan then asked, what is the nature of readers' advisory work? He proposed the following four core ideas:
  1. To help readers understand what they like
  2. To assist readers in finding more of what they like
  3. To deepen readers’ appreciation of their reading
    (Smith told a story about Jane Goodall explaining in an interview how her interest in animals was sparked by reading about Dr. Doolittle and Tarzan. He also mentioned an interview with Mia Bauer, the founder of Crumbs Bake Shop, who spoke of being inspired to open her own business by Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence: “she didn't want to live a life of regret like Wharton’s characters.”)
  4. To support readers in sharing their reading with others (sharing comments via catalogue)
The true product of readers' advisory service is thus not circulation, or the number of interactions we have with the public, or the number of book groups our library hosts, but relationships:
  • between books
  • between readers and books
  • between readers (creating a culture and climate of sharing that deepens understanding)
  • between readers and books and us!
So where are the readers?
One essential thing that Smith identified that we need for effective readers' advisory services is the readers themselves. Those who use the library just for fun are approximately7% of all users, but account for 24% of all visits to the library. What is missing from their profile is interaction with staff. Stats from major Canadian public libraries show that the majority of people who come in to the library are not interacting with staff. Also, stats show increased placement of holds online, which means readers may not visit in person as much anymore. In the US, we see that typically 87% of holds are placed remotely. “People are searching for things they already know about, not coming in to find out more about other things;” they see the library as “a utilitarian service.”

Being connected

This use of the library as a utilitarian service speaks to a lack of connection to the library, and specifically to the skilled staff. Smith pointed out that above and beyond implications for readers’ advisory service, this lack of connection can also affect library funding, because “people who are not connected don't vote for increased funding.” Staff need to focus on not just saying "Sorry, we don't have that," but on starting a conversation with readers. Smith posed the question of how we are behaving in interactions with readers: “are we being reactive, invitational, suggestive, enlightening (teaching how to use Novelist), anticipatory, contributatory, participatory?”

Building relationships

We might think the world is now dominated by technology, but it's actually dominated by relationships and “social capital,” just in different places. Some modern places to build social capital include: in the library catalogue, on the library website, in the blogosphere, on social sites (GoodReads, Facebook, etc). With respect to social websites, Smith encouraged us to engage in outreach to them: ‘places like Good Reads are full of library lovers. We should be connecting with them!”

What is our value? According to Smith, there are three ways readers' advisory experts add value:
  1. Our professional stance: we talk about the promise or potential of books for all readers, not from a personal perspective (eg. “This book is great if you love 18th century mysteries because...” not “I loved this book because....”)
  2. Our focus on the reader
  3. Our “reflective practice:” our use of well-researched and thoughtful criteria to categorise reading (the appeal factors).
The majority of our users are connected “not with your building or your collection, but with you, the staff. And that's why we can't just sit around.”

Friday, November 4, 2011

Bookmobile news round-up

From Jordan to China to Indonesia, to the Boing Airplane Co. in Seattle and a boxcar in Montana- and now with more printables!
  • "Mobile Services, The Seattle Public Library -- The Bookmobile," via (editorial comment: Aweseome pictures)
    "On May 4, 1931, Seattle's first bookmobile, with 600 books, hit the road to West Seattle. Each day of the week, the van and its driver and librarian visited different parts of the city, making stops at prearranged locations. The last stop on Mondays was the Boeing Airplane Co. The bookmobile, designed by Arthur D. Jones of Seattle, featured four innovative bookshelves -- two on each side -- that rotated inside or outside. On nice days, borrowers browsed books from the street or sidewalk. In bad weather, they went inside the truck."
  • "Mobile library spreads joy of reading," via the Middle East North Africa Financial Network (Jordan)
    "The Ministry of Culture on Tuesday officially inaugurated its mobile library project for 2011-2012, with the aim of promoting literacy and cultural exposure across the Kingdom."
  • "Mobile Library brings joy of learning to children in China" via 4-traders
    "A mobile library funded by a Finnish foundation began its journey to schools for migrant children in China."
  • Printable 3-D paper bookmobile (hey, whaddya mean, "relic of a bygone era?" Maybe for readers of the New Yorker, Bob, but we're still on the road where there is a need!)
  • In case you didn't like that paper bookmobile, here's another.
  • "Project Sophia Mobile Library--Books without borders for post-conflict children in Indonesia" via the Peace and Collaborative Development Network
    "The Sophia mobile library is basically a library in a vehicle, moving from village to village. The library vehicle, which also known as “the magic box,” contains storybooks for children and teenagers, textbooks, drawing books, stationaries, puzzles, origami, Indonesian children's movies, and children's songs." One of its objectives is to "open a space for intensive and massive communications across generation between various ethnics and religions which allow dialogue to occur and in the end would contribute to the joint effort in building peace."
  • "Bookmobile driver shares joy of books on route," via the San Francisco Chronicle
    "She chats up the students, stokes their enthusiasm about new titles (" 'The Great Rabbit Rescue' comes out in December!") and at one stop reads a spooky Halloween story, "Bone Soup," out loud to the children. Most are the children of ranch owners and ranch workers; Jones knows each one by name. Jorge, a fifth-grader, is hooked on the Percy Jackson series, which retells Greek myths. Megan, a sixth-grader, is big in 4-H and searching for books on chickens [....] In the summertime when kids are not in school, we have 10 ranch stops. It keeps the kids reading for the summer, which is really important. We also get some of the single men who work on the ranches, and some of the moms take advantage of the materials to learn English."
  • "The Lumberjack's Boxcar Library," via Exile Bibliophile
    "Beginning in 1919, this railroad boxcar was refitted to be a library on rails to serve the mobile timber camps in western Montana [....] It was in use into the late 1950s as a library by the Anaconda Company. After that, it was used by the University of Montana at one of their lumber research stations-- first as a library then as a dormitory. It was later used for storage, until it was discovered by the museum and acquired for restoration and interpretation of the timber history of the region."
  • "Baldwin County's Bookmobile: Library on Wheels," via Alabama Live
    "Bookmobile patrons include [people at] retirement centers, retirement homes, assisted-living facilities, day-care centers, public and private schools that do not have an adequate library, the Association for Retarded Citizens, and some stops that are literally in the middle of nowhere. In remote areas, like Hubbard’s Landing north of Stockton, the Bookmobile stops at a fire station, post office, store or community center. Use of the Bookmobile has grown over the years," and the community now has 48 stops.
  • "Our libraries deserve your 'yes'," via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
    "We lived in one of the more obscure suburbs of Philadelphia then, and there was no library. But the library came to us in the Bookmobile. The Bookmobile was the coolest vehicle ever, a building with a steering wheel. When I was 3, if you had offered me the choice of someday driving a Ferrari or the Bookmobile, I would have snubbed the overgrown Matchbox bauble and gone for the literary bus."

Seen reading on OC Transpo

  • something by Nicholas Sparks
  • a comic book! I was cranning my neck to see what it was, but decided not to risk life and limb. It was exciting, though, and it made me think - that was the first comic book I have seen. Clearly I don't hang with the right crowd on the bus.
  • something by Ernest Hemingway (it was blue-ish and I am hoping it was Across the river and into the trees, my all-time favourite Hemingway, but I suspect it was the over-prescribed The old man and the sea)
  • Me: Peter Nimble and his fantastic eyes by Jonathan Auxier (CLA BOYCA reading)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

RSC Annual Symposium: Where have the books gone? Reading in our Public Schools, with Heather Reisman

I was blown away by Heather Reisman’s presentation, even though I already knew a bit about the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation, and I certainly knew about the (mostly sad) state of school libraries in Canada.

Reisman outlined the beginnings of the Foundation, when she visited Church St. School in Toronto in 2003. “What I discovered when I opened the door,” she said, “took my breath away.” There were lots of shelves, but few books; the books they did have had an average age of between 18-30 years old. School budgets, Reisman learned, were so tight that purchasing textbooks, toner for the photocopiers or even Band-Aids for nursing stations was proving a challenge for schools. The principal of the school, Judy, admitted it was “all she could do to maintain her half-time librarian and make a few acquisitions in a school year.” For Reisman, who learned to read at age 3 ½, this was unbelievable. She immediately invited Judy to Indigo and told her to buy everything she needed. Judy came, accompanied by students and teachers; none of the children who came to the store that day had ever been to a bookstore before. With these new acquisitions, Judy described to Reisman how the school “went from being a sad place, to being the absolute hub of the school.” Reisman added, “the overall energy of school changed, and student performance and test scores for Grades 3 and 6 improved.

This was the impetus for Reisman to establish the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation. Her work with the Foundation has “opened her eyes to the extent to which we are failing the economically disadvantaged children of this country” and “the extent to which we undervalue teachers and educators.” As Reisman observed, we are systematically widening the gap between haves and have nots; schools in wealthier areas are able to organise fundraisers to provide materials for their school libraries, whereas schools in more impoverished areas cannot do this. “You can't bake sale your way out of this problem!,” declared Reisman. Children at these schools are also doubly deprived, as they are the children more likely to not have books in their homes, either.

Reisman concluded by re-iterating that, if nothing else, “enlightened self interest should make us want to tackle this problem,” since a 1% increase in the average literacy rate of Canadians could generate a 2.5% growth, up to 18.4 billion Canadian dollars in additional money in the Canadian economy. "In my world, we would day this is a very high return on a very small investment," Reisman concluded.

Reisman showed us several excellent videos about the Foundation’s work, with other statistics about early literacy, education, poverty, and student success (38% of Grade 3 students are failing reading; in the 1970s, school library budgets provided for 3 books per child per year, whereas now they provide for less than 1/3 of a book per child per year). One video is online here.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Seen reading on OC Transpo

A slow week this week, books-on-the-bus-wise. On Monday, I was happily given a lift, and otherwise the week seems to be a blur. Plus, you know, OC and I had a bad day on Wednesday, when in the morning the 97 was so far back in the line of buses at Mackenzie King that I missed it, so my commute was 9-95-116-98 (thanks for that!) and then in the afternoon, the 9 just plain didn't show at Hurdman, leaving me there freezing my toes off for 30 minutes. All this after I had actually left work early/on time for once and was looking forward to a hour's uninterupted reading at home alone. Grr. And on Friday, I enjoyed a really lovely walk to Main. OK, anyway....

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dr Jeffrey Turnbull: Addressing the Social Determinants of Health in a new Health Care Environment

Dr. Turnbull's talk last week at the Desmarais Building was the first in the University of Ottawa's President's Lecture Series. Dr Turnbull spoke to a full house of physicians, scientists, University faculty, students and stragglers like us. No surprise there.

I have been very impressed with Dr. Turnbull's work, especially at the Ottawa Mission, and was eager to hear him speak. Since his topic was the social determinants of health, and given that he serves the same population we sometimes see in the Library, I thought it would be valuable to hear his impressions and recommendations. This post is therefore a bit outside the scope of this blog in some ways, but very much not outside the scope in others: one of my primary interests has always been Library outreach to marginalised populations. You'll see that several of Turnbull's points below have implications for libraries: how can we appropriately (and best) support the health of all people in our communities through our collections, services and programs? With the below in mind, why not ask them?

Dr. Turnbull structured his talk around the "Top 6 ways to stay healthy:"
  1. Don't be hungry:
    In a country in which 868 000 Canadians use the food bank every month, many live great distances from a grocery store (on foot), many cannot afford fresh fruits and vegetables (see Ottawa Public Health's "The Price of Eating Well"), and those living in shelters may not have access to a kitchen to make their own meals, proper nutrition is still a tremendously large problem.

  2. Live in a nice community:
    There will be 1000 people sleeping in shelters in our city tonight. Very shortly, the shelters will begin putting out the mattresses in chapels, hallways and washrooms for the night; it's only October and they are already doing this (it's not even winter yet!). For those who do have a home, 3.1 million of them cannot afford their housing, and another 1.3 million are living in subsidised housing. There is a 21 year difference in average life expectancy between the poor and the rich; in cramped shelter quarters, it's easy to see how infections and illnesses can be spread quickly.

  3. Get a good education:
    There is a 25% illiteracy rate in the poorest bracket of Canadians; there is a 31% illiteracy rate on reserves in Canada. For more information, see ABC Canada's Adult Literacy Facts and a 2006 CBC News Indepth report. As CBC says, "Nearly 15 per cent of Canadians can't understand the writing on simple medicine labels such as on an Aspirin bottle, a failing that could seriously limit the ability of a parent, for example, to determine the dangers for a child." And as ABC Canada observes, "Literacy proficiency improves chances of employment, builds self-confidence and enables discussions and actions that affect the welfare of individuals and their community."

  4. Get a good job:
    6% of Ottawans don't actually make enough money to live in Ottawa. Many are living on the poverty line, or below it, while supporting their families.

  5. Get good health services:
    21% of homeless people in Ottawa shelters are HIV-positive; 80% have Hep C (for more general numbers, see Ottawa Public Health). There is a higher risks of contracting disease in Ottawa shelters, and in many of our poorer areas; in fact, the incidence of TB is lower in Bangladesh than it is on some Canadian reserves.

  6. But above all else, be wealthy:
    "The commodity of your wealth is your health," Turnbull says; "Money can't buy happiness, but it can certainly buy your health." In fact, the biggest predictor of health is your economic status.
So what are the implications of the above Top 6 list, and the attendant issues in Ottawa, for health care?
  • Isolation = social stratification. There are increased risks when people are crammmed in confined spaces together, resulting in diferential exposure of certain groups... We act surpsied when there is higher incidences of illness among certain populations, but isolating those populations together has increased the risks for them.
  • The idea of health care as a public service: This is one way of "levelling the playing field," but is it sustainable? The current health care system was not designed for the 21st century: it was designed on an acute care model, except now we see increased needs for chronic care, and increased numbers of chronic care patients. Observes Turnbull, "we use the chronic care sector as the default for meeting acute care needs."
  • Accessibility: ever waited for lab results? It takes awhile, and that's in an urban area, never mind in a rural area or on a reserve. Compared to other first world countries, "we are a bottom-of-the-pack perormer," despite high spending on health. In fact, health spending gobbles up funding that could perhaps better be routed to preventative measures, such as improving social or educational services, which would in turn improve health ("I just put myself out of a job"). As Turnbull phrased it, "healthcare is the monster eating everybody's lunch!"
  • The CMA wants to mobilise Canadians to "press for transformative chaneg to Canada's healthcare system," including 5 pillars of change: "building a culture of patient-centred care, providing incentives for enhancing access and improving quality of care, enhancing patient access across the continuum of care, helping providers help patients, and building accountability at all levels."
  • Our Canadian emphasis on equity of access to and delivery of health care expresses our values, ensures human rights are protected, and saves money (for more information about the economic consequences of health inequality, see "The economic burden of health inequalities in the United States").
  • We should thus shift this debate away from a conversation about providing charity towards a conversation about protecting the rights of citizens (who are entitled to protection, as enshrined in law and with respect for their human rights).
  • The outcomes of treatment in this manner include improved compliance, appropriate use of medical services (hospital, EMS), and a 64% reduction in risk behaviours, including substance abuse.
Dr. Turnbull spoke about the Ottawa Inner City Health program (of which he is co-founder and Medical Director). You can read a full history of the group here, but as Turnbull explained, it was born out of concern that, while many homeless people were using health services on disproportionate levels, their health needs were still not being met. The co-founders began to ask, what about other related services that the homeless clients might need, such as judicial and social services, etc?

As Turnbull concluded, Canadians can "do better," can serve homeless and marginalised groups better. The model that he envisions is to make the services a homeless person receives "equal to what an individual family would get in their home." It is our collective responsibility to advocate for health equality by advocating for "informed social policy decisions, effective health delivery systems for prevention and care, anti-poverty measures, direct health care services, and positive social change through healthy public policy."

I was fortunate to have a chance to speak with Dr. Turnbull after his talk, and let's just say we have a possible partnership up our sleeves......

A great event.