BY Dana Hachwa & Amr Youssef

Del Patrick has a favourite table at the Atwater Library and Computer Centre. He sits there with magazines and newspapers fanned out around him, and a large collection of books arranged in rows at his back.

“I just find it a quiet place where I can do my work, so to speak, mental work,” says Patrick. “Home is usually too many distractions.”

Patrick partially retired in 2018, he lives alone, and visits the Atwater Library at least four days a week. With a highlighter in hand, he reads his favourite newspaper, The New York Times, which he says he can’t find anywhere else.

The New York Times for me is like my bible,” says Patrick. “I just love the writing and they have such interesting articles.”

A man sits at a library table, looking through magazines.

Del Patrick at his favourite table at Atwater Library and Computer Centre. Photo by Dana Hachwa.

Sometimes, Patrick leaves his stuff at his table to go for a jog or hop over to the nearby Montreal Forum to watch a movie. Almost everyone at the library, patrons and staff alike, knows who he is.

For many like Patrick, libraries in Montreal are essential third spaces – places outside of home and work where people can spend their leisure time for little to no cost. They are dependable locations where individuals can connect with others in their community.

“Right now, if you come to the library, silence is no more a rule,” says Marc-André Huot, manager at the Parc-Extension Public Library. “People come here to socialise… we want to let them do that.”

Since the turn of the century, Montreal’s public libraries have taken on an increasingly social role. One marker of this shift can be found in data collected on public libraries by Bibliothèque et Archives nationaux du Québec. From 2007 to 2019, the programming organised by public libraries in the City of Montreal grew from 16 thousand activities to nearly 32 thousand. This includes both online and in-person events for children, adults, and seniors.

The increasingly social role of a library is not only unique to Quebec but is a phenomenon happening across Canada and the United States. Providing a diverse range of social services and engaging programming is now part and parcel of a library’s mandate.

“That’s what we are taught at the university when we do the information science program to become librarians,” Huot says.

A guest book lays open on a plinth at a library.

The guest book at Atwater Library. Photo by Dana Hachwa.

At the Parc-Extension Public Library, books in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and more are provided to meet the needs of the borough’s large immigrant population. But it doesn’t stop there.

They also collaborate with the adult francisation centre next door, which has led to a variety of events aimed at helping immigrants practise their French. There is also programming intended to help people find jobs or to grocery shop on a budget.

Huot explains that many newcomers are often isolated when they arrive in Montreal, and the events are essential for them to form connections.

“Specifically women and mothers are isolated in their apartments, so we try to reach them with those activities,” says Huot. “We have a lot of art workshops, it can be making jewellery… drawing, painting, things like that.”

President of the Quebec Public Library Association Denis Chouinard recalls a different sort of place from his childhood.

The public library in his hometown was small and sparsely-staffed. He could do little else other than borrow books – there wasn’t even a place to sit. In the not-too-distant past, many libraries were not places where you could stay for too long.

“You enter the library, you go to the shelves. You find your books. You take them, you bring them to the desk. You say I want that, and you go home,” says Chouinard. “You don’t stay at the library.”

Chouinard, who began working at Mount Royal’s Reginald J. P. Dawson Library in 1987, noticed a marked shift in the years since.

“For the last 20 or 15 years, and I would say more and more, public libraries are also a place to meet and exchange,” says Chouinard.

Today in Montreal, many libraries have an entirely different face. People can engage in as diverse activities as borrowing seeds for their garden, playing board games in French, or attending mommy and me yoga classes.

Closeup shot of someone sifting through small seed envelopes in a drawer.

An Atwater Library patron sifts through their seed collection. Photo by Dana Hachwa

Chouinard explains that the diversification of a public library’s role only bolsters a library’s fundamental purpose, which is to harbour and exchange knowledge.

“To disseminate information is also to have these workshops, conferences,” says Chouinard.

He explains that individuals can meet, chat, ask questions, learn, and even problem-solve. And if they couldn’t find the information they were looking for, the library would still enrich them in other ways.

“If they don’t have answers, they could just comfort each other,” says Chouinard.

By becoming de-facto community centres, libraries can support their communities in unprecedented ways.

Origin of the Shift

Lisa Del Greco, who worked as a public librarian for 11 years in Ontario, believes this change happened because of a library’s adaptive nature. Their role is to be community chameleons.

“Libraries have to constantly evolve to the needs of their community,” says Del Greco.

A library’s services and programming are a result of a constant conversation between library staff and the people who frequent it. This sensitivity to change may also be due to their accessibility, as Montreal’s public libraries have always been free to use.

Del Greco explains that inclusivity is paramount, particularly for unhoused and vulnerable individuals who don’t feel welcome in other public spaces.

“Libraries I believe sort of fill the gap that communities are missing,” says Del Greco.

During her librarian days, Del Greco remembers assisting people from a nearby group home who would visit every Saturday to rent books and DVDs. She describes the sense of pride they would have when handing over their library card.

“They didn’t have bank cards. They didn’t have the autonomy to go to the grocery store,” says Del Greco. “The only autonomy that they had was to come into the library and say ‘hi’ to Lisa and have me check out their books and ask them if they liked their movie last week.”

Montreal’s 45 public libraries are funded by their municipalities. A public library’s programming, much like its collection, is subject to city politics as well.

“There is governance,” says Del Greco. “And in governance, you need to be in alignment with the values of your funder.”

“The capacity of adaptation of the public library is phenomenal,” says Chouinard. When he first began working in libraries in the late 80s, he remembers being pleasantly surprised at finding two computers at the facility.

“In 1987, in homes, there weren’t computers. It was too expensive,” says Chouinard. “This is what I’m saying when I say they adapt to what are the new things in our society.”

A library’s adaptability extends beyond the mere digitization of collections. There is also a sensitivity to emerging social and cultural sensibilities.

The concept of inclusivity in spaces in recent years has become a concern of Montreal’s public libraries as well. Adapting to this has been organic according to Chouinard.

But some decisions in programming have also been intentional, and Chouinard gives drag queen storytimes as an example.

“That’s also inclusion,” says Chouinard.

Bookstores in Montreal are different from its libraries. Video by Amr Youssef.

Lynn Verge, the director general at the Atwater Library and Computer Centre, describes a different experience.

“From the very beginning in 1828, the organization had a broad educational and cultural mandate,” says Verge. “Our buildings have always been hubs of community life.”

Following the pandemic, their ability to deliver programming virtually meant they could reach their target audience outside Montreal.

“We doubled our efforts to develop partnerships with community groups serving English-speaking populations throughout Quebec,” says Verge.

Unlike Montreal’s public libraries, the Atwater Library is an independent, privately funded library led by a volunteer board of governors. It also differs in that it serves Montreal’s English-speaking population, and Verge says that the 196-year-old library has always had community outreach as a priority.

A Community’s Toolbox

As libraries strive to fulfil a broader social role, there are concerns that these responsibilities may overburden library staff.

Chouinard explains that librarians are not sufficiently trained to meet more precarious social needs. The Atwater Library, for instance, only has nine full-time employees and has to rely on volunteers for full operation.

Some public libraries across Canada, such as the London Public Library in London, Ontario, have begun hiring social workers to meet the needs of those who are unhoused, dealing with substance abuse issues, or suffering from mental health illness.

In another case, during the Quebec teachers’ union strikes of 2023, parents dropped their kids off at the Parc-Extension Library when they couldn’t take them to school. Usually, the library’s busiest days are on the weekend.

“But during the strikes, pretty much every day was like a Saturday or a Sunday,” says Huot.

Huot says the Parc-Extension Public Library was able to handle the pressure. But the same may not be true for other libraries that don’t have sufficient funding. At the Atwater Library, for instance, Verge explains that they can’t afford to hire social workers.

Del Greco explains that working at a library, a place she believes is a safe space for everyone, can become a very thankless job.

“How do you be that place for everybody?” says Del Greco. “It’s very challenging.”

Over-the-shoulder view of a man looking through magazines at a library table.

Patrick looks through magazines with a highlighter in hand. Photo by Dana Hachwa.

Despite this shift, Chouinard emphasizes that a public library’s collection is still king. The collection includes both physical and digital books, newspapers, magazines, and learning materials. Data from Bibliothèque et Archives nationaux du Québec shows that collections at public libraries in the City of Montreal have risen from 3.7 million in 2007 to 4.1 million in 2022.

And unlike what many doomsayers would believe, both Del Greco and Chouinard are happy to say that physical books aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Aside from an inevitable dip during the pandemic, public library attendance has also been on the rise in Montreal, from 5.9 million in 2007 to 19.7 million in 2019. Chouinard estimates that attendance rates in 2024 have since recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

This is good news for people like Patrick, who prefers leafing through the pages of what he’s reading.

But even Patrick the bibliophile, who insists he is only at the Atwater Library to read and think in silence, admits he’s there for more than just that.

“I’ll talk to anybody, and everybody knows me here,” says Patrick. “And it’s important. You don’t want to be isolated, you want to get out there.”

Main image by Dana Hachwa.
Published May 8, 2024.