Day Job – Biker Librarian

Last week, I was told by a middle-aged Latino man that he could not picture me as a librarian and thought that I had too much fun energy and maybe should consider something else.  I suspect that he had a traditional vision of librarians being dowdy spinsters, rocking spectacles and a hair bun. We ended up talking about motorcycles, and he explained that when his father was young he was a high-flying dirt track racer.  One time he got in an accident, crashing into a vehicle and woke up in prison.  He was really confused and asked why he didn’t wake up in hospital… Well, it turned out that he had crashed into the limo of the President of Guatemala!  A letter of appeal was written to the President, and eventually my friend’s dad was released (after 4 nights in jail).  My friend reminisced about growing up around motorcycles and having a blast ripping around with his dad.  The conversation then led to him dreaming of returning to the country side, and how to prepare proper tamales.

The conversation also got me thinking about my job, and I actually still think it is ideal.  I work as the Branch Head of the Carnegie Library in Vancouver, which happens to be located in a somewhat notorious neighbourhood called the Downtown Eastside at Main & Hastings street. When I was a Community Librarian I got a taste of serving folks who were considered marginalized or had barriers in regards to the library (perhaps fearing institutions, feeling overwhelmed by fines…) and would go to soup kitchens and addiction centres to restore good relations, and often clear those fines.Biker librarian 2013

The next natural step was to dream about being the Branch Head at Carnegie, and then go for it when the position opened up last June.  It really is the only management position that still allows me to serve and connect directly with the public, since the staffing is so skeletal (essentially I’m the only full-time Information staff in the house). The Carnegie Centre does have security, and a policy of no alcohol or drugs, but it’s not foolproof and I’m often helping out folks with a variety of struggles from addiction to mental illness.  I really like it! There are some really curious, fascinating people and I like to hang out and have lunch or coffee with people, and hear their stories.

Essentially, I think that’s what people are looking for, more so than resources… they want someone to listen to their story and validate them. It’s not that hard to do, except that my outlook has to be that being “interrupted” is my job. And, it also takes a fair chunk of patience. The tricky part is that people who have not experienced a kind interaction in some time can interpret the conversation as a means to a potential friendship. I’m happy to be an acquaintance, but after a long day at work I need to disconnect… maybe ride my motorcycle! And the reality is that a connection established during my work time will probably remain a work-related relationship. I want to be hospitable, but with some barriers as my friendliness has been misinterpreted before and resulted in an awkward stalking scenario! Not cool.

Anyways, the highlight / most stressful piece of being the Branch Head of the Carnegie Library is preparing the annual Alley Health Fair.  Here is a link to our blog: Alley Health Fair. This will be the 7th round, as it began back in 2008 when the head librarian realized that people on the street would be more receptive to services about health if we came to them with direct contact to groups like AIDS Vancouver, street nurses, Insite harm-reduction, etc. Instead of receiving a pamphlet or book, the guests might acquire a hearing test, Hep C test, acupuncture, massage, etc.  As well, there are wheelchair repairs, bicycle repairs, haircuts, a free lunch and healthy giveaways.Alley Health Fair

It’s an incredible event in the city, but has caused me some sleepless nights planning it. Fortunately, there is a dedicated Steering Committee and my new friend is behind the team of Latino men cooking for 800 people! As well, there’s been some minor miracles, like meeting the co-ordinator of the Downtown Eastside Street Market, which hosts the weekly Sunday market in Pigeon Park. They offered me 40 tents, 50 chairs, 100 tables, set-up, tear down and clean-up for a good price. I am just so eternally grateful. As well, getting the permit to close off Columbia street (as the original “alley” of the Alley Health Fair was full of scaffolding because of a building renovation) was quite the ordeal, but when it came through after some bartering, I was so relieved. The key points were having the event before Welfare day so that folks would be inclined to come out and enjoy a solid meal, re-route a bus and appease two business owners that were grumpy (9 were happy to support it).

Overall, I’m trying to regard it as a learning opportunity because there’s been moments of irritation knowing that other Branch Heads at more traditional libraries don’t have to wear the hat of community “Events Planner” to this extent, and knowing that I have to sacrifice my time taking care of the actual staff and library, including the library collection.

I suspect it will all be worth it, once it is over. I’ll have made great contacts with over 30 service providers in the neighbourhood, who are attending the event, and hopefully get some positive feedback from the community. Plus, there was an article from the Vancouver Courier that came out right when I got the job, which made me a little uncomfortable but motivated to do a good job: “New Branch Head welcomes all to Carnegie library.”

In the meantime, I haven’t had any breathing room to work on my Triumph so ended up taking him to a garage for the first time! The bike keeps draining the battery, instead of charging it, which left me stranded at a friend’s house the other night. Fortunately, she has a garage and charger, so I left Jimmy to charge over-night and borrowed one of her four motorcycles to ride home! Perhaps it is best that I hand over the electrical details to a trained mechanic… he said it should be ready in a week if all goes well. Fingers crossed! At least the bike kicked over easy today, and it was a fun ride down to British Italian… even bought some sick goggles since mine are cracked and stretched. Will be cruising in style, in no time feeling light as air when the event has happened!natalie-porter article 2014


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