Libraries in action in 2015

Three exceptional library stories made the news last week.

Mike Selby

Three exceptional library stories made the news last week.

The first was the story of Ron Hagardt, who graduated from high school at the age of 48. While he was all ready to graduate back in 1985, a final semester of hard drinking and harder drugs all but guaranteed this would not happen.  None of this bothered Hagardt, who — after struggling with decades of substance abuse — was finally able find sobriety and a career managing a series of restaurants.

Yet this wasn’t what Hagardt wanted to do in life. What he really wanted was to work with his father, who ran a large and successful barbershop. This is also what his father wanted as well, as he hoped to retire soon and turn the business over to his son.  But there was just one catch.

To attend barber college, one needs to have graduated high school.

Enter the Los Angeles Public Library.

Through a special program which paid his tuition fees, Hagardt was able to earn his diploma right at the Library. For a period of six months he spent eight hours a day in front of one of the Library’s computers, only taking breaks to read various texts the Library provided, or to receive assistance from the staff.

And just last week, Hagardt put on his cap and gown and finally received his high school diploma. His mom watched from the front row, tears flowing down her face. “This is his first graduation,” she said, beaming with pride. It was a time for double celebrations, as her son was also accepted into California’s Pro-Barber College that very day.

He wasn’t the only one. 30 other dropouts were also able to complete their education at the Los Angeles Public Library, providing, what the LA Times called, “a chance to give themselves and their families a day they’d never had.”

A much different chance is being given to the youth of Englewood — a downtown section of Chicago and one of America’s most dangerous neighbourhoods. Once a month, the West Englewood Public Library hosts ‘Barbershop at the Library’ — a program which offers free haircuts to anyone between the ages of 12 and 19. While barbers throughout the city volunteer their services, much more than a haircut is offered.

“What do you all think about Englewood” is all the teen librarian need ask the group of about a dozen young men.  “Too much gun violence” is a frequent response, coming from youngsters where shootings are a daily occurrence. “I wish the police would destroy every gun” was a comment made by 12-year old who was new to the area.  A free haircut may have got them in the door, but many begin to frequent the Library on a daily basis.

“I just love this library,” one teen stated. “You can actually talk to these people and they’ll listen and understand what you’re talking about.” It is a safe place, one free of gangs and violence where young people can be themselves, and think about their future and opportunities.

The final news story hails out of Southern Ontario, from the locales of Bradford and Barrie. Library staff in both towns were able to serve some very special first-time visitors through their doors—the Syrian refugees. Through a provincial grant, public libraries in any city belonging to Simcoe County (just north of Toronto), are able to take part in ‘Library Link’—a new pilot project aimed specifically at welcoming new immigrants.

While Canadian public libraries have traditionally been welcoming destinations for new arrivals, Library Link helped participating libraries bring their services much more front and centre.

New arrival Lena Tawana is particularly appreciative of these efforts. The purge of Christians in her home village in Syria forced Tawana and her family to leave their homeland. Although they can now sleep without fear, a new country is still an overwhelming and often confusing experience. The Library Link program in Bradford has helped the Tawanas feel more at home, access material in their own language, and discover the resources and opportunities their new country has to offer.

Attending the Library’s English as a second language club, Tawana has met fellow immigrants who hail from Albania, Iraq, and Russia. All think the Library is a “great thing” as it helps them discover community information as well as attend pertinent events.  There is also a book club created specifically for new immigrants, which includes people from Germany, Korea, Serbia, and Mexico. It is something this simple which can not only help newcomers transition more smoothly into their new surroundings, but also helps to combat feelings of isolation.

“It is not easy to live here in Canada,” said a recent immigrant from Iraq. “But the Library helps a lot.”

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library