Much more than books

The GVPL is the community's livingroom, says CEO Maureen Sawa

Is that a book GVPL CEO Maureen Sawa is holding?

The Greater Victoria Public Library is so much more than a repository for paperbacks.

“It’s a community living room, a creative commons,” says GVPL CEO Maureen Sawa. “Regardless of your age, background or economic advantage — we have such a mix of users and equitable access for all.”

In these tough economic times, free access to information and technology is one huge benefit of the public library system, one that 79 per cent of Victorians take advantage of.

“We have one of the highest circulation rates in the country,” says Sawa. “I think it’s because A, we have a darn good library system, B, we have a demographic of people who love to read and are committed to lifelong learning and C, we have such a huge number of students and retirees.”

And each one of those 79 per cent borrowed an average of 19.2 items in 2009, a number that rises with each year that passes.

But that’s not the prediction that most expected for libraries with the proliferation of the internet and other new technologies like ebooks and ebook readers.

But for any critics who think libraries might go the way of the dodo, Sawa will reassure you that libraries aren’t going anywhere, and that Victoria’s libraries are adapting with the times.

“Sometimes I think people forget how adaptable public libraries have been over the years.” says Sawa. “We’re all dealing with a huge seismic change in the way business is being done, but libraries have been evolving ever since they started.”

“When radio was first introduced, when TV was first introduced, you heard the same noise — no one’s going to read anymore, they’re going to listen to the radio, they’re going to watch TV. Well people are reading more than ever, look at the Harry Potter phenomenon. If anything, the ebook is generating even more interest in reading.”

And GVPL isn’t taking that idea lightly. It has more than 26,750 copies of 12,454 ebooks titles in a number of formats and 47 Kobo ereaders (original, wireless, and touch versions with 745 patron holds ).

“Sometimes people just need to try it out before they decide it’s something for them,” says Sawa.

“Circulation of ebooks has exploded,” says Sawa. “Circulation in October 2011 is 4,439 compared to 870 in October 2010. That’s an increase of over 400 per cent over the past year, and 450 new patrons signed up to use our ebook collection in the past month…this is consistent with past months, as we have 400-500 new patrons signing up to use this service every month.”

GVPL also rents Blu-ray discs, Wii and PlayStation games, audiobooks, Sony’s complete music catalogue and the latest additions to the catalogue — family passes to both the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and the Royal B.C. Museum.

“What a wonderful partnership between like-minded institutions,” says Sawa. “We’re trying to inform and delight our community and help promote the use of our public institutions for people to learn in another way.” Currently there are 1,012 holds on the 20 RBCM passes (good for two adults and two children) and 383 holds for the 40 AGGV passes.

The library catalogue has also taken on new features with the addition of social networking with the new software Bibliocommons, which allows users to create  lists of favourites and share them with friends.

The GVPL recently released its 2011-2014 Strategic Plan, listing three strategic priorities for the years to come; create great library space to meet unique user needs, online and in person; engage passionate supporters to advocate, donate and participate; and lead the way to lifelong learning through partnerships and outreach.

Walk into one of ten branches of the GVPL and it’s quickly apparent they live up to their mantra.

“When you walk around the library you notice that people are working in different ways, but they want to stay connected — you’ll see that people don’t mind sitting next to strangers. There’s a sense of community and people are happier coming in doing that than being home in an apartment by themselves, even if they have the hardware available to them. There’s something about the human experience, being at the public library.” M

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