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Your library is not like it used to be

A father teaching his son how to play an acoustic guitar
At several public libraries, including Kamloops, you can borrow a guitar. It's part of the trend towards libraries offering the likes of hiking backpacks, birding backpacks, laptops, and cameras to card-carrying members.

10 things you may not know about B.C. libraries

There was a time when public libraries were almost entirely about taking out a book, or perhaps sitting down to use reference materials for a school project. They were all about quiet – beware the shooshing librarian should you make too much noise – and earnest study.

But while libraries are still a quiet place crammed with the wonder of tens of thousands of books, the digital age has transformed them. Increasingly, they've been serving a slew of diverse groups, wireless hot spots that can offer everything from a classical guitar concert, to an expert speaking on open source animation, to ID clinics where experts can help adults navigate the struggle to replace their lost IDs.

And libraries are just a pleasant place to hang out.

"Libraries have become real community hubs for people to go to," says Wendy Wright, director of the Smithers library in northwest B.C. "They're that third place – they're not work, they're not home. They're a place where you can go for free, which is almost impossible to find these days. And anyone can go. You don't have to look a certain way, or have a certain income, or have a cultural background. Everyone is welcome."

We consulted two B.C. librarians for their ideas on what has changed at B.C.'s libraries, and what makes them so special.

See also: Books, movies and TV picks from BC Hydro's employee networks

1. Many are ditching fines for overdue books

A big trend in libraries across Canada is an end to fines on overdue books and other borrowed items. Instead, libraries are opting for grace periods after due dates, with an automatic charge for a book's replacement applied to the user's account after about three weeks after the due date, or losses of privileges for those with more than 10 items overdue. Vancouver Public Libraries and Okanagan Regional Libraries are among those who have ended fines for overdue items.

Wright is overjoyed that Smithers Public Library has adopted a no fines policy. She recalls the heartbreak of working years ago at a small Gulf Islands library and having to tell a single mom with two kids that they couldn't borrow any more books until they had paid an accumulated $8 in fines.

"My heart broke because there were two little kids who were voracious readers and they were no longer allowed to use the library," she says. "Most people can afford to pay fines, so it's not a deterrent. But for people who are really struggling financially, it can be a barrier to access."

2. You can borrow stuff like a laptop, a backpack, or a guitar

It varies greatly from library to library, but the list of borrowable items is growing. In North Vancouver, you can borrow a Chromebook laptop, camera, birding backpack, or a first language storytime kit. And libraries are getting into hiking gear, including Richmond and its Hiking ExplorePacks, and a BC Parks partnership to bring hiking backpacks (including hiking poles, compass, first aid kit and other emergency gear) to libraries in Prince George and various Northwest Library branches, including Smithers and Prince Rupert.

A cozy seating area in the Smithers Public Library
Smithers Public Library added an electric fireplace to help create a cozy area for relaxation, along with chairs that look to the outdoors. Libraries are now go-to hangouts for seniors, students, and those who want a change of scenery from working from home.

3. They're a place to learn new skills, from financial basics to digital literacy

Many B.C. libraries are using tech drop-ins or tutoring sessions to help people learn the basics of using a computer. Larger libraries offer a potpourri of in-person seminars, cooking demonstrations and other skill development sessions. Branches often customize programs to meet the needs of diverse communities and languages.

"With our book clubs, we try to showcase authors that might be outside the mainstream, featuring Indigenous or trans authors, for example," says Lorraine Crema, who has worked at several Burnaby Public Library branches. "And we really try to cater to new Canadians. We do a lot of English conversation circles or game nights for English language learners. And we help people with digital literacy, especially seniors."

4. E-books are all the rage

The digital revolution has made our libraries a much more modern place. If you have an e-reader such as a Kindle or Kobo, don't miss out on the convenience of borrowing an e-book. E-books and magazines are great for those who live in rural areas where visits to libraries may be infrequent, and for seniors with failing eyesight who can easily adjust the size of print. Wright says that while the numbers of paper books borrowed in Smithers are gradually recovered from pandemic lows, e-book loans have skyrocketed. In a town with only 5,200 people, e-book loans in Smithers in 2022 hit a record 23,633.

5. Audiobooks serve diverse communities and interests

Take a look at the Victoria Public Library site and you'll see a long menu of audiobook themes, from mystery, to self-help, romance, and historical fiction. Audiobooks are great for time at home, in the car, or for a long walk. And many people just prefer them. They're understandably popular with those with visual impairment, but Wright has found they're a plus for those with dyslexia. And there's some evidence that kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are finding audiobooks preferable to text, as they can provide verbal cues around subtleties such as inflection or sarcasm that might be lost on a page.

6. There's been a quantum leap in kids fun

Keeping kids engaged and introducing them to the wonder of discovery remains a priority. But the way that's happening is a lesson in creativity in action. Depending on the branch near you, you'll find everything from book clubs, to babytime hangouts for new parents, to Lego clubs, family movie afternoons, puppet shows, and iPads equipped with literacy apps for young learners.

7. Holds are worth waiting for, and there are options

Bestsellers and award-winning books can be so popular that you may face a list of dozens of people on the hold list ahead of you. Don't end your search there. If you have an e-reader, look for that title as an ebook, or possibly as an audiobook. You can also search for the book beyond your local library – your borrowing privileges can cover any libraries in your region.

And don't give up on a long waitlist – it's a wonderful surprise when your name finally comes up.

8. You can borrow books, and use libraries, while travelling across B.C.

Armed with a public library card and photo ID, you can walk into any other B.C. library and get a BC OneCard. It allows you to borrow or return books from any participating library in B.C., and if you're on vacation with kids, they can drop into Summer Reading Club events around B.C.

9. You can find help with resumes, and access to computers

"It's easy to assume that everybody has a smartphone or Internet access, but that's not the reality," says Wright. In Smithers, she sees a steady stream of seniors and others who might need a computer to fill out an online government form, and may need some help doing it. And then there are the warm and fuzzy moments.

"For some people, a computer is the only way they connect with friends or family in another part of the world," says Wright. "I'm getting teary remembering the time we helped a woman in her nineties, whose family was far away, use a computer to view a photo of them. Without the help, she wouldn't have been able to do it."

10. If your library doesn't stock a book, you can request a purchase

Library budgets are tight – some ebooks can cost $140 or more for a license – but it's worth requesting that hard-to-find book that's not in the library catalogue. Unless it's a very expensive book or a technical manual, there's a decent chance a library will add it to their list.