The little library that could: The story of Salt Spring’s library
By Lavonne Leong
I have a confession to make: my family and I moved to Salt Spring because of the library. When we were first deciding where to put down roots in British Columbia, we visited lots of small towns. We had a good feeling about Salt Spring already, but when we saw the library, built to an environmental LEED gold standard, with its glass and light and books and art, and its legions of volunteers, we knew that this little community of 10,000 year-round residents had its priorities straight. It was like the soul of the island made manifest.
So we decided to stay.
I thought I was the only one, until I mentioned it to Karen Hudson, Salt Spring’s chief librarian, who has been with the library since 1999.
Actually, says Hudson, “a lot of people do that.” That’s how special it is to have this kind of library for a community of this size. But how did it come to be?
This year is the 60th anniversary of the library’s incorporation and it’s a good time to look at how we got here. Gorgeous public buildings don’t just appear. Even though the library itself is turning 60, the story of Salt Spring’s book-borrowing institutions goes back far into the 19th century.
There have been small lending libraries on and off on Salt Spring since 1898. The first opened across from what is now The Fritz movie theatre, starting with about 60 books. In 1930, a second library opened in a storeroom at Mouat Bros. & Co. As with most lending libraries back then, it cost a small amount of money to rent a book.
The Salt Spring Island Public Library began as a different kind of model, a public lending library, to celebrate British Columbia’s centennial in 1958. Spearheaded by Mary Hawkins, the project moved the library to a larger area of the Mouat Bros. building and opened with 1,300 books and $7.68 in funds. Two years later, the Salt Spring Island Public Library Association was incorporated, gathering a collection of more than 5,000 books by 1963.
The following year, having outgrown the Mouat Bros. building, the library found its present location on McPhillips Avenue, in an old boat-building shed. Though it was renovated several times (for a while, the library had the distinction of being the only one in British Columbia with a bathtub), the location never lost its nautical, slightly ramshackle, character.
“You’d walk across the floor with a book cart and there were soft spots on the floor,” recalls Hudson, of the library’s old digs. “We were afraid of [the floor] falling in, because of the weight of the book carts.”
The library thrived, says Hudson, with lively book circulation and programs for kids and teens nearly overflowing from the basement. But she also recalls that the library suffered from the side effects of being housed in an old building that needed more upkeep than it got: rats and mice nibbled through the internet and phone cables, causing user outages and costly damage. Black mould sprang up in the basement, where the archives were. But “when the otters moved into the basement, that’s when it got bad,” says Hudson.
Discussions about funding a new library on the same site started in 2002, but raising the resources required was a daunting task for such a small population. The Friends of the Library community group incorporated in 2005, raising nearly $250,000, commissioning architectural drawings from Chang Holovsky Architects, Inc., and purchasing the property next door to the boat shed. The library was “shovel-ready,” and a land referendum had passed by a majority in 2007, but a new building would cost millions.
Hudson says the community really aligned, not just behind the idea of a new library but behind the work to be done to get there, in 2008. A winter storm hit the island, piling up snow on the old boat-building shed until “the roof collapsed onto the Fiction-A section,” says Hudson. “At that point, the bookshelves were holding the roof up. So we lost our Margaret Atwoods, and we realized we needed a new building.”
In September 2009, the library received a federal-provincial infrastructure grant of $4.55 million — contingent on 30 per cent community funding being provided. Two months later, a community referendum to fund the remaining $2.75 million passed by 78 per cent. The library’s collections were moved to a temporary location on Jackson Avenue, and ground was broken on the new library on July 28, 2011.
The new library, the one you can stand in today, opened 17 months later on Dec. 20, 2012, just in time for Christmas. There’s no bathtub, but it features meeting and program rooms, a mezzanine for volunteers, a space for the Salt Spring Archives and an expansive children’s section that’s nearly the size of the entire old library.
That’s by design, says Hudson.
“We have so many children on the island, and we want[ed] to keep families on the island.”
The current kids and teens’ section has room not only for books but for story time and train sets, comfy reading chairs and tables, a play area, computers, and a dedicated meeting room that teens can use for free.
“It’s more than a library here,” says Hudson. “It’s a community centre.”
Last year, the library presented 698 programs, with a total attendee headcount of 14,738. That’s enough programming for a community three to five times its size, says Hudson, made possible by partnerships with community organizations who create and present the content, while the library provides the space and the advertising.
By way of illustration, Hudson pops open the program calendar on her computer: every day is packed with colour-coded entries, a literal rainbow of community group meetings, poetry, art, language and film events, game nights, talks and symposia.
All of that is possible because of Salt Spring’s unusual staffing structure; it’s one of just three non-union libraries in B.C., and it runs largely on love — on its volunteers. When the library first opened, two volunteers — one for check-in, and one for check-out — did 100 per cent of the work. The library didn’t have a single staffer until 2004, when it hired a part-timer. Today, the library has 4.5 paid staff and about 150 volunteers. The oldest Hudson can think of is 85; the youngest is in middle school.
“If you compare us to other libraries that serve midrange populations, you’ll see it’s incredibly different from the norm,” says Julia Wagner, who is Salt Spring’s newest staff librarian. “You could say we’re definitely punching above our weight.”
“I’ve never seen volunteers like the volunteers here,” continues Wagner.
There are book menders and bookbinders, cataloguers, shelvers and circulation desk workers, but there are also landscape gardeners and indoor plant waterers, display designers and book deliverers, book club facilitators, refreshment refillers, volunteer trainers and program managers.
And at the heart of the library, there’s the collection: the books, the movies, the music — more than 63,000 individual items — beneath soaring ceilings that will bear the weight of almost any winter storm.
Note: The library is currently closed to visitors, but there are many digital resources available to people with library cards.