Bud Osborn’s book collection: a prophet’s companions

I approached the bookcase with dismay. Someone had picked the lock on the glass door and it was evident that several books had been stolen. I was angry. The books were from the Bud Osborn social activism collection in the Carnegie Centre*, and I had gone to some effort to find a place for them that would be accessible to the community – perhaps too accessible. My initial reaction soon faded, as I felt a hint of comfort when I had the odd thought that Bud Osborn might have been amused by the theft. Apparently he had his run-in at the University of British Columbia bookstore, during more desperate times. Instead of condemnation, he would have handed the thief the keys to the kingdom.

If you are not a resident of the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, or an activist regarding the rights of drug users, or an aficionado of alternative Canadian poetry, the name Bud Osborn may be unfamiliar. I only learned about his legacy one month after his passing, when I arrived at the Carnegie Centre to become the new Branch Head of the library. I soon learned that many regarded him as a hero of the DTES, especially for his contribution as a founder of VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users), his work to develop safe, supervised injection sites, and his protests over the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of people in the DTES to AIDS and other preventable disease (ie. 1000 white crosses at Oppenheimer Park – July 1987).

A stunning photograph of Bud hangs in the Carnegie Centre, up the marble staircase and beyond the stained glass windows of Shakespeare and Milton. He is a dramatic figure, strolling in front of a protest scene on Main street with the Balmoral hotel sign in the background. While he appears cool, casual and distant, his written and spoken words could be blunt and direct. Bud’s poems were a battle cry for justice for the poor and the marginalized.Osborn-Bud-for-WEB

My interest in Osborn began when I received a phone call from a friend of his (S.B.), who was helping to disperse Bud’s belongings from a storage unit. She had arranged for his extensive Downtown Eastside archives and personal writings to be acquired by a local University, but more books remained. It made sense for the Carnegie to receive the material since Bud had aligned himself with the Centre and was frequently published in the bi-monthly Carnegie Newsletter.

I rely on donated items because unlike any other library we host a weekly giveaway directly on Hastings street to cater to the community. Every Friday at 2:30pm I roll out four totes (and a tent if it is raining or snowing) and spread a table full of books, magazines, and movies. The selection includes items that we cannot add to the collection because they are dated, “well-loved,” or we simply have too many copies in the system.

While the Carnegie Library offers fine-free membership options there are still barriers for people who want to come inside the Centre – primarily the policy of no drug use or alcohol consumption. There’s also the reality that when an individual lives on the streets, their backpack full of library books can easily get stolen or mangled, resulting in penalties. To provide equal access to reading material we host this giveaway without fail, and it has been a legacy for at least a dozen years.

As I push my trolley round the corner I see the usual dedicated crew anticipating myself and a co-worker to arrive at the table. I’m aware that many are avid readers, but some may be selling the books down the street at the sprawling black market. At least their inclination to steal directly from the library is reduced and eventually the books will be read, so who am I to judge?

After the mob disperses we bring out another box to share with random passersby. This is when the magic happens. A book stands out like a golden amulet, calling someone’s name. It is exactly what they were looking for! Those words make breaking-up the occasional fist fight and tug-of-war worth it. It is the highlight of my job to connect a book to the one who needed it most. It doesn’t matter if it’s an Ann Rule true-crime novel, a textbook that someone can’t afford, heartfelt poetry, or a Bible. I’m there to make the connection, share in the delight of discovery, and constantly be humbled by the life stories revealed.

Since the giveaway is weekly we go through feasts and famines based on the flow of donations. When I received the call from Bud’s friend, it was a time of drought and I was desperate. And yet, the process of this particular donation was more involved. It turned out to be both a librarian’s dream and nightmare.

As a new Branch Head I was very keen and would say “yes” to anything, whether it was library students needing a project, organizing a street festival, or a community group developing a program. I was also starstruck to be speaking with Bud’s friends – renowned activists in their own right.

When the day came to receive Bud’s books, my jaw dropped when I saw a station wagon roll up in front of the Carnegie packed with boxes. There had been a typo in an email, and while I thought I was receiving forty individual titles, the reality was forty overflowing boxes.

If I had done my research I would not have been surprised by the quantity. Bud’s sister, Leslie Ottavi shared with the Globe and Mail that, “He was a voracious reader, he loved to read; his father left behind a lot of books” (Stoffman). In an interview for BC BookWorld, Bud explained,

I had a lot of trouble growing up, many kinds of destructive situations. I began writing on my own. Later on I found out there were poets whose lives were as messed up as mine. They seemed to understand me better than anyone in my life. Reading poems helped me get through another hour, another night, another day. I had been very suicidal until then (Twigg).

Bud discovered his soulmates, and he collected and devoured their works.

The Carnegie Library is only 1900 square feet with two rooms, and a staff area that resembles a walk-in closet. It may be the smallest branch in Vancouver, but it has the highest foot traffic with an average of 1100 people a day, tipping 1500 a day in the winter. It is a refuge and cherished “living-room” for many who incorporate a visit into their daily rhythm, perhaps to pick-up a photocopy of the crosswords, read the newspaper, or have a conversation. It is also open 365 days a year.

To be the recipient of forty boxes was not possible. We had nowhere to put them, so we came up with a new plan. I would receive six boxes every week to be distributed as I saw fit, and we would slowly work through the collection. This sounded ideal until I opened the first box and my heart melted. Inside was an absolute treasure trove, and every book contained a memento, such as a photograph, protest flyer or postcard. My inner oldschool librarian wanted to keep them all! I wanted to create an inventory, organize them by subject, arrange them in alphabetical order and collect all the paraphernalia. These books were sacred.

I made an announcement to the community, seeking advice in determining the fate of the collection. We had a special event featuring a few hundred of the books, for the public to browse and offer feedback. My secret hope was that there would be some contemporary Andrew Carnegie who would create a Bud Osborn “reading room” in the neighbourhood. This did not happen, but I did meet some great allies.

We determined that the four hundred most heavily-underlined books were probably the ones that Bud loved the best. Books by writers like Kim Chi-Ha, César Vallejo, Ernesto Cardenal, Frantz Fanon, Gustavo Gutiérrez, James Cone, and Walter Brueggemann would be kept and inventoried. Any books that looked pristine, which was evidence that Bud hadn’t bothered to read them, would either go into library circulation or be dispersed through our giveaway. We also consulted interviews which expressed his high regard for Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Ginsberg. Those poets were also retained.

As the weeks passed I built a fortress around my desk of boxes and lingered over the highlighted books. Eventually I made the call that art-related books such as titles about Jean-Michel Basquiat, Van Gogh, and Mexican murals would go to Gallery Gachet (the local gallery showcasing artists who suffer from mental illness). The theology books including many works by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Elull, and Henri Nouwen, were enthusiastically received by Jacob’s Well (a drop-in space hosted by a grassroots Christian group). And finally, a bookcase in the Centre* was cleared for the social activism books on the third floor, and I was able to cluster all the beloved poetry books inside the branch. It was some effort to sort out the collection, but definitely worth it.

During the sorting process one of his friends wrote me an email, which was especially meaningful.

Hi Natalie,
Thanks so much for agreeing to take Bud’s books, sort through them, and determine how they might benefit the community. Sorry for the mix-up in communication; we should have confirmed with you before hauling them over to Carnegie. Anyways, no worries; we’ll be able to get a few boxes a week to you and over the course of a few months should complete the project.

I just wanted to let you know a couple of things about Bud and his books. As a person with very limited income, he put much of his resources into purchasing books and he loved being surrounded by them. He was a keen reader, particularly of poetry; he was interested in many issues and topics and the authors he read were like conversation partners for him. His books were his most prized possessions, and in many ways the collection reveals what he was most interested in and what shaped his understanding of the world around him.

I think he would be glad that they are going to the Carnegie library and from there out into the community.  He gave so much of his life to the DTES community, and it gave life to him as well; and the Carnegie Centre was a significant space for his life and work in the DTES. So sharing his books with the community seems very appropriate… Anyways, thanks again for taking on this effort. It means a lot to us. (D.D.)

Carnegie patrons are now able to read Bud’s books in-house, or check them out for a week. There was still plenty to fuel the book giveaway, and that gave his family pleasure knowing that his books were also flowing freely in the hands of the people.

Another wonderful discovery I made while unpacking was a small 3” squared notebook mixed in with his poetry books. It had barely been used so perhaps when his possessions were being sorted for the University archive, it was passed over. As a librarian the sole paragraph he wrote delighted me. Bud recounts his own discovery and it made me wish even more that we had met.

A second [hand] book shop in Portland, Oregon. I found a book I’d been searching years for searching as though for the biggest nugget in a gold creek, I was almost afraid of touching it as if it might disappear – it was a book so battered and taped together as it’d been buried for eighty years, and it was the one book I most dearly wanted and despaired of ever finding – an anthology of writings by and about Chi Ha Kim – I had a few excerpts of his poems from various texts, a book by Andrew Sung Park who represented Kim as an example of a Minjung poet (Bud O.).

With that description, I looked up at the shelves beside me and landed upon the one scrappy book bound in duct tape. Sure enough, it was Chi Ha.

It is tempting to make assumptions about Bud based on his library. I would be hesitant to label him a “man of faith” in the Western sense, but the title “prophet” resonates. The role of a prophet is not a glamorous one. It often condemns the individual to isolation when their news is undesirable. While flipping through Bud’s copy of The Prophets by Abraham J. Heschel with an introduction by his son, I couldn’t help but notice some underlining that must have impressed him.

The prophet was an individual who said No to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism. He was often compelled to proclaim the very opposite of what his heart expected. His fundamental objective was to reconcile man and God” (xxix).

The prophet’s theme is, first of all, the very life of a whole people, and his identification lasts more than a moment. He is one not only with what he says; he is involved with his people in what his words foreshadow. This is the secret of the prophet’s style: his life and soul are at stake in what he says and in what is going to happen to what he says” (7).

The prophet seldom tells a story, but casts events. He rarely sings, but castigates. He does more than translate reality into poetic key: he is a preacher whose purpose is not self-expression of ‘the purgation of emotions,’ but communication. His images must not shine, they must burn. The prophet is intent on intensifying responsibility, is impatient of excuse, contemptuous of pretense and self-pity. His tone, rarely sweet or caressing, is frequently consoling and disburdening; his words are often slashing, even horrid – designed to shock rather than edify” (8).

For Bud, his passion lay in the realm of truth and justice, and his actions showcased that he was willing to be an outcast, and fight for the poor, the addicted, and the dying. His bold declarations exposed hypocrisy and advocated for those rejected by society. In the purest sense, his path was Christ-like and his role was prophet, as some of his closest friends would agree with.

When questioned directly about faith, Bud admitted that as an individual suffering from addiction, his life had been literally “saved” many times, and sometimes in very mysterious and dramatic ways. He also explained that,

I don’t know how to define theology very much, but I realize now that I don’t have the last word. Human beings don’t… There’s another hand involved, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. The hope of bringing possibilities out of impossibilities, that sustains me. And it sustains some of the people that I’ve met who have said, ‘Don’t stop. Whatever you’re doing now, just don’t stop. Don’t stop fighting’ (Twigg).

Bud lived through a time of crisis due to AIDS-related deaths, overdose, and lack of clean drug paraphernalia, and I believe that if he was present for this current Fentanyl epidemic, he would be calling out for justice and compassion, so “don’t stop fighting.”

To be respected in the Downtown Eastside requires a combination of integrity and lived experience. Bud Osborn was once the thief stealing from the university bookstore, a junkie coping with his violent childhood, but eventually he chose to live for his neighbour, and use his talent to inspire change.

This donation reminded me that every individual coming through the Carnegie or stopping at the giveaway or even the one being administered Naloxone, has the potential to be a future Bud Osborn. Whether one decides to fight for safe injection sites, equitable welfare rates, and accountability from slumlords, or forges on despite living with the residue of sexual abuse, or is currently trapped by addiction and social stigma – they matter. We are all living stories to be treated with awe and reverence.

*Note: the collection on the Carnegie Centre third floor on social activism that was partially stolen is now moved inside the Classroom. 

For a more thorough biography of Bud’s life, please click on these titles:

To read Bud’s poetry online, head to this UBC repository which some of my student interns created for their assignment, or consider borrowing them from the Vancouver Public Library:




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