Books and beans, Avi's dreams

By Linda Rogers, November 2011

Young librarians with fresh ideas are creating a new kind of library.

In dreamtime, a movie plays on the library walls. Someone is riding a magic book-cycle in and out its windows. Even though the downtown building still presents like a prison—brick walls, fenestration squinting into a dark courtyard—new energy shakes its sullen facade. The main branch is waking up to the fresh reality: social media, electronic borrowing, wired librarians, art partnerships, and community outreach. 

If this isn’t cool enough they also have Avi Silberstein, the resident philosopher-fool thinking up ways to engage kids and adults in book-loving behaviour, and riding his bookmobiles, sometimes dressed as a carrot offering vitamin P (poetry).

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

These lines, from our most-beloved poet Leonard Cohen, describe the metaphorical crumbling of the fortress where our books once gathered dust in shadows cast by a bewildering apathy. The light was always there, hidden under an imagination deficit, and now, after the trumpet blast that announced a new administration and new ideas, the building has doors that open both ways.

In the Dark Age of the Greater Victoria Public Library, the euphemism for street people who came in from the cold was “library patrons.” Now, with an initiative in partnership with Project Literacy Victoria, books are escaping through the beautiful cracks and moving out into the traffic.

One vehicle is Bucky Bookcar, driven by amazing retired social worker and Literacy Victoria worker Madeline Bakker as well as the intrepid Silberstein, who has to fold himself like Peter Pan’s shadow to get into the tiny Japanese truck. Every Tuesday morning the intrepid bookers restock the shelves at community organizations like the Rock Bay Landing shelter, Sandy Merriman House, the Salvation Army, Our Place (where they offer sidewalk service), and Mustard Seed Food Bank. 

This has given rise to a new lending category—“Adult in Transition”—which makes it possible for citizens without addresses to acquire library cards.

Silberstein also delivers books by bike-mobile—a library initiative supported by the Times Colonist Raise-A-Reader fund. Right now its trailer is parked in the closet where we used to have secret meetings to plan impossible events in the time BTLGI (before the light got in).

What is it doing in the closet?

“It’s a good-weather program,” Silberstein says. “This year, we took books out to the street from July through September. Then the rain came.” 

Library While You Wait, Silberstein’s other seedling—also supported by Raise-A-Reader—puts new books in waiting rooms at Cool Aid, the Ministry of Social Development and other social and medical offices where even short waits can seem interminable, especially for restless children. “These are generally ‘short’ reads,” he says, showing me children’s books, books of poetry and humour. Who doesn’t need to laugh while they are waiting to see a dentist?

Book selection is driven by consumer wishes. “We had no idea there would be so much demand for non-fiction,” says Silberstein, mentioning the popularity of history, sports and self-help titles. 

Silberstein suffers from terminal good nature. He is now a familiar and welcome face on the streets of Victoria. When asked about a favourite moment on the pavement, he describes filling a special request from a sidewalk patron. “I was asked for a book by Robin Stevenson, a local author. No sooner had I loaned the book than Robin herself showed up.” What lovely synchronicity.

Many perfect coincidences have brought Silberstein to Victoria. Born in Chile to an architect father and Canadian librarian mother (“My mother is the best children’s librarian in the world,” he says, modestly), he came to Canada to study psychology and environmental science at McGill, and dreamed of farming. A self-confessed book nerd (“I read at the table, in the bath, under the covers, everywhere. The only time I put my book down was to play basketball.”), he soon reverted to plan B.

“I realized I couldn’t start an organic farm without money, so I went into the library business, which needed no start-up capital,” he says with a big, big smile.

In his free time, Silberstein volunteers building community gardens in schools and urban spaces. It is a no-brainer that under-utilized space can be used to feed people. The young librarian knows how to market ideas as well as beans and books. In fact, one of his great schemes is gardening plots at the library. The synchronicity is not that far-fetched, a library that feeds the body and the mind. The gardeners could sit reading beside rows of corn and cabbage planted in book-shaped plots, following narrative plots while the vegetables grow. “That was one novel lettuce,” they would brag in the new parlance, a language understood by children, grandparents, special needs people, all citizens of Library City, his ideal society.

Patricia Eaton, manager of public services, says, “Avi is representative of a new generation of librarians who have this very physical approach to their craft. Other generations were trained to find information for patrons. The new librarians want to find patrons and connect them with information. It’s much more elastic and plastic because it invites shared participation.”

All the librarians at the GVPL are buzzing about “library Valhalla,” the new open-planned Surrey Public Library designed by Ron Thom, a light-filled book palace that resembles New York’s famous Guggenheim Museum. “That is a building that invites everyone in,” Silberstein enthuses. You can see the wheels turning in his hungry mind. This kind of civic envy just might put a fire under the city that has been called the book capitol of Canada. 

“Avi is a people magnet because he is genuinely interested in engaging the real world. He and his contemporaries define what it means to be a librarian in 2011,” Patricia Eaton enthuses, “You just feel that the future of libraries in a new age is going to be very bright indeed.”

Linda Rogers is a booklover who loves great ideas. She is the author of numerous books, including poetry, fiction and children’s literature. This month marks her last as Victoria’s Poet Laureate.