Canadian Library Serves Community as Olympics Host

The Winter Games were an opportunity to show the world that libraries are more than just books

March 22, 2010

The 2010 Olympic Winter Games are over and the Richmond O Zone celebration site here in British Columbia is being dismantled, but Richmond Public Library (RPL) staff are still reflecting on what it means to host the world.

But let me shatter all your illusions right up front: We started out being a library, thinking that guests from around the world would rush to the International Living Room we established for visitors to use the internet and check out news from home. Next thing you know, we’ve turned into a TV lounge, tattoo parlor, popcorn-serving cinema, face-painting salon, and Ralphy the Rhino photo op.

Just so we’re clear, I’m definitely not pooh-poohing our Olympic experience. Far from it: Richmond Public Library staff, on the whole, had a blast being part of the O Zone celebrations. But were we strutting our library stuff to the world? Not really. We started out one thing and turned into another real fast … because that’s what our visitors wanted. And like fishermen say: You gotta bait the hook to suit the fish.

Before the Olympics, we thought of the games as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to show the world that we’re way more than just your average public library. But in a sweet turn of irony, we showed them that under exceptional circumstances, a library has got to be more than just books, movies, and technology; it’s got to be a flexible, fluid entity that responds to (or better yet, anticipates) its audience. It starts out with noble intentions, and then it gives the crowds what they really want: a warm, dry place to congregate , watch Olympic sporting events, get a Canadian flag tattoo, and pose with children’s-book star Ralphy.

It was a bonus when visitors happened to stumble on the Crossroads area of our International Living Room, where we proudly displayed our Canadian Showcase of books, magazines, and BookCrossing selections. And if they actually looked at the books and magazines, even better. But more often than not our awesome “Feed me Books” book bags caught their eye, and the cultural experience was over.

We got comments like: “This is the coolest library I’ve ever seen” and “This is what every library should be. It’s beautiful. It’s comfortable. And it’s friendly!” and “My little girl said this is a good day. She didn’t expect to come to the library and get a Muk Muk painted on her face . . . and you can watch TV here!” You couldn’t  help but know that people liked what they saw.

My impression is that a lot of international visitors were surprised by the cool interactive Coach exhibit we had for kids and the life-size Ralphy the Rhino standees where they could have their pictures taken. Huge “Story of the Games” displays documented each day’s medal triumphs on the front pages of the Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers. What they’d expected was books and maybe internet stations, but what they got was way more.

All I can deduce is that the muses must have been shining their beatific smiles on us, because not only did we get an unpremeditated drawing demonstration by Trevor Lai (creator of the Ralphy the Rhino book series and round library card) which 200 people attended, but we also discovered talented RPL staff that could face-paint the Olympic mascots on our littlest visitors, freehand.

We weren’t surprised that people used RPL like a home-away-from-home TV den where they could put their feet up and watch the games. After all, we didn’t call it the International Living Room for nothing. So, like I always say: You can lead an international visitor to a library but you can’t make ’em read a book.

Sometimes a library is just a library. Other times, it’s, well, the coolest place on earth.

SHELLEY CIVKIN is communications officer at the Richmond Public Library in British Columbia.


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