Consistently ranked as one of the world’s most livable cities, Vancouver, BC has a temperate climate and plenty of green space. Flanked by mountains, this seaport has water everywhere (you can even commute via tiny Aquabus ferries) so the quickest route here is often across a bay or a river. In fact, though I stayed in North Vancouver, since the Joe Fortes Branch of the Vancouver Public Library was just over the soaring Lions Gate Bridge and through bucolic Stanley Park, it was easier to reach than any of the libraries in my suburb.
Though the front could easily be mistaken for a funky café, this branch is actually part of a large joint operation with the West End Community Centre and the King George High School. Its cavernous parking garage is a nice convenience for the shops and restaurants of this diverse neighborhood. Very well used, with one of the highest internet use/machine at VPL, the space is way too small. But with real estate at a premium, especially in this charming area, they try to use it as efficiently as possible.
As you enter, there’s a little waiting area on the right with a bulletin board and seating. A book sale cart is near a basket of freebies. Through the hustle and bustle of this busy place, a welcoming sign beckoned.
While chatting with Susan Watson, the branch’s Head Librarian, and Laurel, a library technician, I discovered Stanley Park is so close, Susan eats her lunch on one of its beaches most nice days. Joe Fortes (JFS) serves a real mix of people – young and old, with lots of diversity thrown in – and Laurel and Susan love working here because it’s so lively and interesting. Like most urban libraries it has its share of homeless – in fact one of their favorite patrons lives in Stanley Park and is always so clean and crisply dressed you’d never know it to look at him.
As she showed me around a bit, Susan mentioned that the district has lots of New Canadians (English is the second language for over half of Vancouverites) and Seniors, so they have a good sized large print collection and ESL kits, along with foreign DVDs, CDs and hardcovers in languages from Chinese to Persian with most of the romance tongues represented as well. Plus they have some foreign language magazines and newspapers.
The VPL website expands these offerings – it helps new users get started in eight different languages and the system has a Skilled Immigrant InfoCentre, ESL conversation groups (along with one where you can practicing your Canadian accent), and even book clubs that read Spanish titles.
Nearby, a young library staffer was shelving items from the Rainbow collection. JFS’ users include a large gay population and the branch celebrates Pride Day in August.
VPL serves over two million people in the InterLINK metropolitan area. For this huge, resource-laden system, having 22 branches means there’s always one within walking distance for the city’s 600,000 residents.
The website has downloadable ebooks (with an extensive selection of the Eyewitness and Rough Guide travel series) and audio books, staff reviews, and lots of databases including the Canadian Encyclopedia and Encyclopedia of British Columbia. You can apply to become Vancouver’s Poet Laureate or the Writer in Residence, or if you’re more dramatically inclined, scan the lists of auditions and productions scheduled by local theatre groups. The system also lends video games and has 12,000 square feet of meeting space.
This branch has wifi and 12 computers – three express and five hour long internet stations (one filtered) and four research computers – that give you a choice of high or low chairs.
It was dedicated to the memory of Joseph Seraphim Fortes in 1976. Joe immigrated from Trinidad and Britain in 1885 and is the Vancouver Historical Society’s Citizen of the Century. He was the city’s first official lifeguard – quite an important role in a place which sometimes seems to be surrounded by water. He saved at least 29 lives and played a huge part in changing residents’ racial attitudes. By some biographical brochures, a framed case houses his cane and some snapshots. Nearby are photographs of him lifeguarding in an old-fashioned bathing suit and looking like Monet at Givenchy as he opens the gate to his charming flower wrapped cottage.
The Children’s Nook is decorated with colorful quilts in spring designs and has information on Joe Fortes, stuffed animals and windows decked with dinosaur cutouts and a rocket ship. Tots also come to the branch for storytimes with activities for the whole family.
Other system events and classes include job search, computer learning and small business help, all ages summer reading, movies, book clubs (including one for plays), a button making program, author readings, Read Dating, writing camp, poetry readings, and a contest where teens win cash for creating a bookmark or a video trailer of a book. Sign up for the eNewsletter to stay informed.
Not far from Kid’s, a Celebrate Canada Day! display featured titles by Canadian authors and everywhere large user friendly signs announce nonfiction categories – Fitness, Gardening, Pets, Women’s Health etc. Sensibly, TV series DVDs are separated from feature films, hard cover mysteries have their own section and the paperback spindles are arranged by genre.
There’s also a long circulation desk where old pictures of Vancouver showing beaches and English Bay grab your attention while you wait.
The motto here is “inquire ● learn ● enjoy” and the branch’s atmosphere really reflects that attitude. In fact I noticed many people taking advantage of the people watching opportunities afforded by the plate glass windows that look out onto tree lined Denman Street’s bistros. JFS definitely isn’t meant for quiet reflection or intense scholarly research – instead, it’s a hopping, fun and friendly place that perfectly suits its environs.