Smitty Miller

Library is ‘Live and on Tour’

Smitty Miller and ‘Lili’ are making the rounds, reconnecting residents with the library and all that it has to offer

It’s lunchtime on a Friday, and music is blasting in the courtyard outside the Gateway of Hope’s dining room.

From Hedley to Fun, all the latest pop tunes fill the small outdoor space as people file into the Langley City homeless shelter for a warm meal on a cold and rainy afternoon.

The source of the loud music is a charcoal grey Nissan Cube parked at the far corner of the patio.

Decorated with an orange, blue and green wrap that advertises the Cube for what it is — the Fraser Valley Regional Library’s ‘Live and On Tour’ vehicle — Lili (short for Library Live) is customized with an estimated $25,000 in donated bells and whistles. The powerful stereo system, flat screen TV, xbox gaming system and lights are all designed to attract people — specifically young people — explained  Smitty Miller, the FVRL’s community development librarian or, as it says on her business card, “Tour Manager.”

“It’s not the first time a library has done community development, but it’s the first time (anyone has done it) in a hot rod car,” she laughed.

Miller, a Langley resident, was hired by the FVRL to connect with that segment of the region’s 700,000 people who have either never used or, for whatever reason, lost touch with their local library.

Without enough grant money to build a traditional bookmobile, however, Miller had to think smaller and smarter. If she was unable to bring the library to people, then maybe she could find a way to get out and help people to reconnect with their local library.

In Lili, Miller travels around the 15 communities served by the FVRL — from Boston Bar and Yale in the Fraser Canyon, to Delta at the mouth of the river — attending community events and stopping at places, such as the Gateway of Hope, where she is most likely to encounter the people she’s tasked with finding.

At each stop, she is able to give out a collection of brand new books (purchased with grant money), issue library cards and officially forgive any fines that might be hanging over people’s heads, preventing them from using the library.

The lowered access cards that Miller (who is joined whenever possible by a local librarian) issues, permit the holder to take out five items at a time, rather than the 60 that a full card member is allowed. The difference is that the holder does not have to provide proof of address.

Today, the majority of that activity happened while clients were waiting for the doors to the dining room to open.

With the help of a staff member from Langley City library, 12 community cards were issued and several fines wiped away — including one for almost $40.

“A guy came up to me and said I’ve got nine movies (that are overdue),” said City Councillor Gayle Martin, who represents the municipality at both the Gateway of Hope and Metro Vancouver.

It was knowing that he owed money for fines that kept him from returning to the library, she said. Now, with his record wiped clean, he’s free to return without fear of  embarrassment.

Once most of the clients have gone inside to eat, Miller is free to chat for a few minutes about her job — work she clearly loves.

“The public library is one of the last bastions of community service which guarantees access to everyone,” she said. “This effort is about letting people know that the library belongs to them — not just to people with nice addresses or nice shoes.”

Lili has been on the road since April, Miller explained, but Nov. 23, marked her first visit to the Gateway of Hope. The Langley shelter will become a regular stop on the tour now, with visits  on the first Wednesday of every month, beginning at 11:30 a.m. and wrapping up around 1:30 p.m.

“Gateway is ecstatic at this partnership. We have many individuals who are shy. If they have fines, they will avoid a place,” said the shelter’s executive director, Major James Hagglund.

Part of the shelter’s mandate is to connect the people using the facility with the rest of the community, added Les McAusland, manager of emergency shelter and opportunities program.

“We don’t have the capital to do extensive programming, but a lot of our program is using resources in the community and connecting people with them. When this came, it was an incredible opportunity,” he said.

Among the shelter clients who have been issued a library card on this visit is Michael.

The last time he can recall having one, he was a teenager.

He’s not a big fan of fiction and when he reads, it’s to learn new skills or facts. Mostly, he said, he expects to use the library for Internet access.

In fact, technology is a huge draw for many library users who know that they can not only surf the web, but download books, magazines and even music for free — all they need is any type of e-reader (with the exception of a Kindle).

“We’re modern, but we do a bad job of letting people know,” Miller said.

Of course, the library offers scores of free programs as well, from author readings to seminars, children’s programs to art critiques.

At its heart, though, will always be the books — rows and rows of shelves, stacked with thousands of volumes that can teach a reader a new skill, fill their head with fantastic tales or instill a mountain of historical facts.

“A book has a lot of emotional meaning,” Miller said. “The memories can reconnect you with good associations — something you loved as a kid.”

On this single visit, Miller has broken a major record, she announced. She has managed to give away every one of the between 75 and 100 brand new books she brought along.

“This is just crazy good,” she smiled, gesturing around her. “I’m so happy.”

To learn more about Lili and the FVRL’s community development program, go to libraryliveandontour.com.

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