Amanda Foster: Welcoming all people to the library

Amanda Foster didn't set out to become a librarian. She wasn't the kind of kid who had their future career planned out. In fact, as an undergraduate at the University of Waterloo, Foster still wasn't sure what she wanted to do for a living. She had applied to Waterloo's Arts and Business program, but still had to settle on a major.

She knew she liked history, but after taking an anthropology class "it was so interesting," said Foster and it helped that her grades were good, too. Graduating with the unique degree in anthropology and business, Foster then had to figure out what to do next.

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With her studies focused on such an unusual combination, her decision to take library information sciences made an odd kind of sense.

"Masters of library information sciences is a pretty accessible degree. Basically, your undergraduate degree can be anything.

"When I was in university I'd get obsessed with something and write a 12-page paper with 50 sources. I'd always spent a lot of time in libraries, so when I was finishing my degree I was like, ‘what do I want to do? I think I can do that.’”

Describing herself as a random person, Foster's wide range of vacillating interests – non-fiction topics she gravitates toward include anything from travel and economics to sociology and zoology – was weirdly suited to library sciences. It didn't hurt that she'd grown up around libraries, having a mother who works as a library technician.

After graduating from the University of Western Ontario with her master’s in library information sciences, Foster still didn't have a clear view of what came next. She ended up returning to her hometown of Thorold, Ont. and worked for a library vendor. After a few years Foster decided it was time for a change, a big change. She got a job in charge of acquisitions for Abu Dhabi's community college system and was based in a women's college in United Arab Emirates’ architecturally modern capital.

There were drawbacks, too. Foster said she felt guilt living in a country known for the indictment by Human Rights Watch for its state-wide exploitation of migrant workers.

"It seemed like an exciting place to go and just so different," said Foster, recalling her initial feelings. The reality of living there proved eye opening and after a year Foster returned to Canada, this time to Labrador.

For Foster, when it comes to a job, she says "the location is a bit secondary." While Labrador was interesting, it took "isolation to a new level."

"People talk about it being isolated here. I was 560 kilometres to the nearest Walmart."

After a year and a half in Labrador – which Foster jokingly says "was plenty" – she again made a career move. Foster has been North Battleford Public Library's head librarian for more than four years. Having travelled extensively between job positions and moving multiple times to places foreign to her, Foster said the move across the country to a new job didn't get to her.

As North Battleford Library's head librarian, Foster is familiar with usage numbers – how many people are coming to the library, how many items are withdrawn, how many people have memberships – and her findings often contradict the public perception that libraries are becoming obsolete.

"I've been in this field for over a decade and I've heard people saying the same things a decade or more ago. There has been changes in that time, but they haven't been as dramatic as you'd think," said Foster.

As for what's causing the disagreement about the future of libraries, the answer might come down to what we think about when we think about the library. For some people, libraries have a reputation as stuffy places to store books, but in fact, North Battleford Library has seen a dramatic increase in electronic media items such as CDs and DVDs being withdrawn.

Libraries as a public space began to change well over 20 years ago with the introduction of computers and Internet access. In the time before ubiquitous personal computers, individuals could work on a resumé or check email. Though free Wi-Fi has become commonplace, people still count on the library for Internet access.

It's evident that libraries are no longer just for books. In fact, you don't even need to leave your home to take out a book.

"[Libraries] aren't all physical anymore," said Foster, referring to the popularity of ebooks that can be accessed online. People might assume books cost the library more to buy than an ebook, but modernizing has its costs.

"Ebooks are often several times more expensive than a print book for a library to buy, because of licensing and publisher restriction," explained Foster. Libraries are changing and "we have more pressure to have things in more formats."

Libraries may be becoming digital, but Foster noted the North Battleford Public Library also hosts many events for adults and kids to try to get people to stop by. There are regular movie nights and recently the library hosted a "bad art" night and a Lego night for adults. Their kids programming follows the MakerSpace blueprint of "fun, but educational." Past events included a green screen puppet show and using equipment that draws an image input into a computer.

"There's more that's offered than ever," said Foster. And the North Battleford library also offers something very few, if any, public spaces do.

"We've got a lot of local history books that you aren't going to find in many other places. Some people, maybe they don't read, but they have an interest in their family history. They can come and look at genealogy books."

Trying to offer more kinds of entertainment in more formats than ever, libraries have had to adjust how they budget. With the recent provincial budget announcement that regional library funding will decrease by 58 per cent, or $3.5 million, that adjustment is necessary more than ever.

In response to colleagues across the aisle's questions about the cuts, Saskatchewan Education Minister Don Morgan referenced a decade of declining figures – including an overall drop of 1.6 million items checked out and the number of library cards declining by 175,000 – during a recent Question Period at the legislature. 

In North Battleford, at least, this downward trend hasn't materialized. "The last few years our door counts have been up and our circulation has been up," said Foster. "Books for us are actually fairly steady. Things like DVDs and CDs are sky rocketing. And print items like graphic novels are too."

Foster also had a response to the data the government looked at when making their decision to lower funding. 

"I think a lot of it is how they look at statistics. One of the reports said there are a lot fewer library cards than there were in 2007," said Foster. "In 2010, the province integrated as one system. Before then, it was common for a person to have a card in many systems.

“I think there are more people using the library, but that's what the government is looking at on paper."

Still, Foster isn't one to obsess over the negatives. Instead, she just wants people to know what is available to them.

"With taxes, libraries cost the price of about one hard cover book in a year. It's such a good value and it's a good thing to know, if you somehow need it, it's here. It's somewhere for everyone.

"There's so many things you pay your tax dollars to and with this anyone can use, you don't need an appointment and as long as you haven't lost your card, you don't have to pay anything," said Foster. "You can stay here as long as we're open. It's for everybody, that's my message with libraries."

The library located at 1392 - 101 St. will continue to open its doors seven days a week to anybody who needs it. Here now for more than four years, Foster said she never had an overarching plan for the future. In fact, she said, "a lot of it just kind of happened."

Being a librarian has led Foster to "live in a lot of interesting places," and she has seemingly found a good fit at North Battleford Public Library.

© Copyright Battlefords News Optimist

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