Writer in Residence

Acknowledgements: Elton D'Costa, Librarian

By Evan Munday

Book publishing, as an industry, is not unlike a Jenga tower held together by sheer force of will. If the industry works at all, it's only because many dedicated and diligent people work or little reward like that horse, Boxer, from Animal Farm. (Though it's not all gloom-and-doom; it can certainly have its moments.) Many publishing workers remain invisible to readers and even authors, toiling away on initiatives and tasks unfamiliar to all but those already deeply enmeshed in the publishing world. 'Acknowledgements' is an interview series that aims to change that in some small way.

Many readers, authors, and publishing workers have fond childhood (and adult … but not, like, adult) memories of the public library. And in Toronto, we're spoiled with one of the world's largest and most frequently used library systems, the Toronto Public Library. While many of us make use of the library's many services, most of us don't know what a librarian does all day. To be perfectly honest, librarians are often unfairly neglected in the publishing ecology, being outside of the normal retail chain of events. Yet few would deny the importance librarians have in introducing readers to excellent Canadian books. The gracious Elton D'Costa has worked for the Toronto Public Library since 1998. Most recently, he was the Youth Librarian at the Parkdale Branch for five years. Currently, he works as Branch Head of Toronto's Humberwood Branch, near Finch and the 427. I dragged him away from his important duties to ask him a few questions about what exactly I was dragging him away from.

Librarians don't just sit around reading. (Obvi.)

Sitting in the library reading all day?! …. Uhhhh, nope. Not today! There really isn't a typical day, but some of the duties/tasks include:

  • Serving at the information desk, helping customers find resources and the next fiction book to read, interacting with the customers, showing them how to use the computer, helping them take out or return their books and helping people through book-a-librarian.
  • Planning and conducting programs, like class visits, youth advisory group meetings, computer classes, book clubs, video console gaming sessions, movie nights, local music concerts in the library.
  • Community outreach, attending meetings with community partners, working with partners in developing new programs.
  • Managing collections, keeping our collection up-to-date, creating displays to highlight different books and other formats based on subjects/themes.
  • Emails – responding to a lot of emails!
  • Committee work. I've had the opportunity to work on the Youth Material Selection Committee for three years. We were responsible for selecting teen fiction for the whole system. Each librarian on the committee was responsible for a geographical area. It was a ton of fun! I am also on the Make Some Noise group where we plan all those concerts in the library

Kid (library patron)s say the darndest things.

A couple weeks ago I stepped in at the last minute to cover a class visit for a co-worker. One of the children in the class raised their hand and asked, 'Where is Mary? I like her programs and stories.' I very briefly said, 'Mary is away today, but I am here!' She looked at me skeptically. We only did one book that day, a wordless picture book, Tuesday. After the book, everyone in the class wanted to share their stories and ideas of what the book was about. As the class was leaving, the same kid from the start came up to me and goes, 'You are just as good as Mary. So if you want, you can be here next time we visit.' I was just speechless.

He's got library in his blood. When he was born, they didn't give him a name. They gave him a Dewey decimal number.

I've worked for the library since I was fourteen! It started as a part-time job while in high school as a page – you know, shelving all the items that are returned and keeping the shelves in order. While studying for my Bachelor of Business, I stayed with the library working as a Public Service Assistant – checking in and out all those items and assisting with customers' inquiries. After that, I went on to complete my Master in Information Science and stayed on with TPL working as a librarian.

Even though he worked at the library for years, his first days as a librarian were a bit overwhelming.

I don't remember my first days on the job as a page, but I do remember the first few days after becoming a librarian. There was still so much to learn and do, even after being with the organization for so many years, the new position was whole a new ball game.

I remember the first day I walked into the new location to start as a librarian. The head librarian met me, we had a quick introduction. And we were whisked away to the auditorium for a training session on the newly installed audio-visual equipment in the branch. Don’t ask me why I remember this, I guess it was something that just got stuck in my head. By the way, I am a pro now!

A little reverse psychology can encourage lifelong readers.

A recent display we did was on banned books. Across the front of the display we put up some caution tape to make it visually appealing. Just as the display is being finished a child comes up to me and says, "Does the caution tape mean all those books should be avoided? Because that just makes me want to read them all!" She then proceeded to sign out a half-dozen of the books from the display.

So how does a book end up in the local library?

The library has a collection development department that has primary responsibility for the collection. The department has various committees for each type of material, and reading level (i.e. Adults, Teen, and Children). The committees are chaired by a librarian that works in the collections departments and is comprised of librarians who work in the branches. The librarians from the branches each represent a different geographical area in the city and select the items for the branches in their area. Other librarians in the branches liaise with the selectors on the committee to let them know about the needs of the community. Other resources are consulted in making decision about what books to select based on book reviews and recommendations from the library users and the publishers. I've simplified the process a bit in my explanation but that gives you an idea of how selection of books is done for the Toronto Public Library. The library has a material selection policy that guides the selectors in developing the collection. Of course, being located in Canada means there is special attention given to ensuring the collections have a strong representation of Canadian content. It is so important that part of the Material Selection Policy talks about those items specifically.

This ain't your grandma's library.

Libraries have changed over the years. They have become a community hub. It is a place people can find books, resources, access computers and the internet, attend free programs, get assistance filling out documents, a place to relax, learn new skills, catch up with friends, and so much more. Online content is also really important. Having databases that people can access 24/7 makes the libraries accessible even when the brick-and-mortar locations are closed. Librarians have changed as well. Librarians do a lot more than just recommend books to people and help people find material or assist with research. They conduct programs including books clubs, computer classes, and Maker Spaces to name just a few. They teach people to use the computer, engage youth in the latest technology. They conduct community outreach and build partnerships with other organizations in the community.

But who really uses the Toronto Library? Like, really?

The simple answer is everyone! Each branch will have different make-up of users. For example, at my current library branch, children from junior kindergarten to Grade 8 are the largest user group. That is followed by teens, adults, and older Adults.

The biggest professional problem he regularly has: too many books, too little time.

But seriously, adding to my 'to read list' all those new books that come in! Guess I will have a long list to read when I retire.

On shushing.

Ha ha … I thought that only happens in movies?!

See what's happening at the Toronto Public Library by visiting torontopubliclibrary.ca, or follow them on Twitter at @torontolibrary. And stay tuned for more 'Acknowledgements' throughout May.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Evan Munday is the author and illustrator of the acclaimed book series for young readers, The Dead Kid Detective Agency. Both The Dead Kid Detective Agencyand its sequel, Dial M for Morna, were nominated for the Silver Birch Fiction Award.

Evan has worked in book marketing and publicity for ten years, eight of which were as publicist at Coach House Books, and he has since worked as a freelance illustrator and ebook designer.

Find out more about Evan on his website, idontlikemundays.com or follow him on Twitter at @idontlikemunday.