Broughton Street bibliostar Maureen Sawa

By Linda Rogers, April 2011

Running a library is a lot like conducting an orchestra.

Former Ontarian Maureen Sawa may have visualized a flood of books swimming across the Saanich farmlands when she flew into the Victoria airport prior to her first interview for the top job at the Greater Victoria Public Library. Did she see the potential for harnessing the force of a paper tsunami, the ultimate transformation? Like the great Mogul generals, Sawa has campaign history and a bird’s eye view of Constantinople and Samarkand, cities built on cultural excellence. She must have been considering what it would take to shape the random energy of our notably literate population into a Victorian Golden Age. 

The new Library CEO welcomes visitors to her office with tea, chocolate-covered biscuits, and a galaxy of bright intentions. It is clear a bibliostar has landed in our collective garden. In Hamilton, her home till this past fall, she had developed a reputation as a forward-thinking director of public service and community development for the library system. 

Our New Lady of Broughton Street, a micro-aware Alice Munro devotee who crackles galactic energy, brings with her a stellar list of credentials: Earlier in her career, in Kitchener, she initiated the groundbreaking “Library Links for Life” which takes books to where people are, in homes and community centres. In Hamilton, she introduced the award-winning “One Book, One City” program. She is a recipient of the Children’s Librarian of the Year Award, a member of the executives of the Canadian Association of Public Libraries and the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, and president of the Canadian Association of Children’s Librarians. She is also the co-author of Car Smart, a pre-driver must-have book, and author of The Library Book, a children’s history of libraries from camels to computers. 

The daughter of journalists, Maureen Sawa grew up with the motivation and the tools to transform. Her father, a pianist and music critic, and her mother, a newspaper stringer who worked in the Kitchener Library when she wasn’t reporting on local murders (“Murders were big events in our family”), encouraged curiosity and a work ethic in Maureen and her two younger brothers. That inquisitive nature still drives her inner child through the portals to Narnia, where her ethical imagination was nurtured.

“Check out the chapter ‘From Combustion to Computers: How a Car Works’ in Car Smarts,” she suggests. “That is my key to management.” It reads, “But a car is a complicated piece of machinery. Like a symphony orchestra, it depends on all its parts—its diverse operating system—performing together in harmony.”

The lesson learned from her father, reinforced by her decade-plus marriage to symphony conductor Victor Sawa, is the transparent value of the conductor in bringing together the components for beautiful music.

Back to the airplane circling over Victoria: “I could see the resources,” she says, “They just needed to be orchestrated.” Sawa doesn’t touch her cookies. She has been lunching with everyone since her arrival in October—“Turning the key in the ignition”—and clearly doesn’t want to get too big for her britches. She will stay fit for the challenges ahead, running with the pack.

“It’s a team effort,” she says. “My priority is partnering with all the diverse elements in our cultural community. Already we have created an incentive for book borrowers to visit the Art Gallery, and we hope to make infrastructure links between all the cultural institutions.”

Sawa agrees with the findings of the recent Arts Scan study of the desiderata of Victorians. Ideally there could be one glorious roof keeping the rain off writers, artists, musicians, actors, dancers and audiences hungry for unity in diversity.

“This is all affordable when we consider the expense of duplication of services. Think of the library as an agora, a living marketplace where there is cross-pollination of ideas and services.” That includes the new technology and social media, the matrix of emerging generations. Flexibility is the key to absorbing the shock of change and riding the waves of innovation. E-books have created a whole new reading constituency and another partnership for the library system. “We adapt,” says Sawa. 

Councillor Pam Madoff, who had hinted before the announcement of Sawa’s appointment that the people of Victoria would be thrilled with the new library head, attributes the unanimous decision to hire her to celestial navigation: “Sometimes one feels that the moon and the stars align in providing the right person to do the right job at the right time. Maureen’s energy, enthusiasm, passion and professional skills should make us all feel very excited and optimistic about the future of the GVPL system.” 

There is no doubt that our savvy conductor, in concert with cultural workers and benefactors who share her vision of a healthy and vibrant community where children are raised to find creative solutions to social and environmental challenges, can facilitate this transformation. She has done it before. The Hamilton library, thanks to her championship of affordable integration of services, is the model. 

Although fundraising is a board priority, Sawa insists that many incentives are “thrifty.” Street citizens known to the staff as “library patrons,” in from the cold, are part of the new outreach. The library has been sending books to Our Place. Another creative solution to the family breakdown that occurs when a parent goes to prison is her suggestion that inmates create spoken books so their children can listen at home. Nothing bonds parent to child or child to learning like storytelling. This simple initiative can have a profound effect on literacy, which is linked to crime prevention. The bottom line is: We can actually save social resource money by reading to kids. How simple is that?

The lights are on at the library, illuminating all kinds of exciting and innovative programs. Sawa, a hockey mum who worked and finished her university training while raising her son Jake, a well-integrated 25-year-old computer engineer who is thinking of medicine as his next career, puts kids first. There is a rumour that she has empowered a librarian dressed as a carrot to commit random acts of poetry. Canine literacy (paws for reading) is a distinct possibility. 

For the first Victoria Poetry Day, Saturday April 23, Sawa and her staff are opening the library doors and the courtyard to a celebration of the spoken word. Beginning at 1 pm, kite poems will fly; the VIVA children’s choir will sing; and there’ll be an exhibition of royal wedding poems and pictures by students from Glanford and South Park Schools—all reminding library patrons that family literacy is an electric grid and Maureen Sawa is an awesome power source.

See other Victoria Poetry events in Focus’ arts calendar. As Victoria’s Poet Laureate, Linda Rogers will be out of breath by the end of Victoria Poetry Day.