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by Jessie Bach
This month’s library profile takes us to High River Library in the Southern Alberta town of High River. There is always something happening at the library, including programs for all ages, multiple book clubs, artist residencies, contests, partnerships with local businesses, themed reading lists, and more! According to their 2020 Annual Report, over six thousand people attended a program online or in-person at the High River Library last year—it’s obvious that Director Mary Zazelenchuk and the library staff have fostered an extraordinary level of community engagement.
About the Town:
High River is a beautiful historic town on the Highwood River, about seventy kilometers south of Calgary, with a population a shade over 14,000. It lies just where the prairie meets the foothills and is billed on the town’s website as “the backdoor of Kananaskis Country.” High River is known for its quaint, small-town charm and Western hospitality. Former Prime Minister Joe Clark grew up in High River, there’s an annual hot air balloon festival, and the television series Heartland is filmed there.
About the Library:
The High River Library was established in 1939. It has been located in the building at 909 1 Street SW since 1981, which was described in an article from the time as “startling modern in concept.” It was also one of the first members of the Marigold Library System. In fact, Lucille Dougherty, who served as High River’s (one and only female) Mayor and Chief Librarian at the time, was one of three visionary Alberta women who founded Marigold, increasing access to library service for thousands of residents in High River and much of south-central Alberta.
About the Library Director:
Mary Zazelenchuk has been the Director at the High River Library for five years. She aims to demonstrate that libraries are important hubs where people will find not only the resources they need, but a sense of community too.
I spoke with Mary about what it’s like to lead the High River Library, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their services, and the innovative “things” and programs available at the library.
Jessie Bach: First things first! What’s your favourite book by an Alberta author or publisher?
Mary Zazelenchuk: I really liked Monoceros by Suzette Mayr. It has some gorgeous, dreamlike prose.
JB: What makes the High River Library special?
MZ: Our staff and our patrons. The library is a real meeting ground. We still have that small-town feel and staff have forged personal relationships with our diverse community members. Especially after the 2013 flood people really felt a need for connection, support, and continuity and the library was able to help them out.
Most people still think of libraries as quiet repositories of reading material, but we’ve been adapting to community needs for a long time. Today’s libraries are centres for hands-on community learning supporting education and culture, employment opportunities, introduction to new technologies, health and wellness, and much more.
JB: What’s a typical day like at the High River Library?
MZ: The beautiful thing about libraries is that there’s rarely a “typical” day. On any given day we might be doing any of the following: making book recommendations while fielding requests for tech help, laminating vaccination records, installing art exhibits, packing interlibrary loans, building early literacy for toddlers in Animal Alphabet Adventures, and 3D printing mini-looms for kits. There’s always something new and something different.
JB: What do you love most about your job?
MZ: Perhaps that there isn’t a typical day 😊. As director I do a lot of the less “fun” work—budgeting, collection development, occupational health and safety, human resources, strategic planning, and spend a lot of time in meetings, but there’s still variety and scope for creativity. I get to be a part of the library growing and evolving to serve the community and that’s tremendously rewarding.
JB: What is the biggest challenge you face at your library?
MZ: As with many public services, funding is always a concern. We do a great deal with what we have though and I’m lucky to have a supportive board and Friends of the High River Library group for fundraising.
JB: Looking back at the past two years, how has the COVID-19 pandemic changed how your library delivers service?
MZ: I do worry about how the pandemic has affected the public sphere and public events. Will people be as eager to gather with people they don’t already know as they were before COVID-19? Will foot traffic and in-person transactions recover or surpass pre-pandemic levels?
Over the past two years we have been intermittently open and closed depending on public health circumstances. The first closure was an adjustment, but we were able to shift fairly seamlessly to promoting online resources available through Marigold Library System, offering Zoom-based and kit-based programs, and distributing items via curbside service. One of the things we found was that asynchronous programming really worked for program participants. When families didn’t have to worry about being in a specific place at a specific time for a program, they were more likely to pick up a kit and participate on their own. That’s a pandemic lesson that we’ll carry forward into the future.
JB: Your library has a pretty cool Library of Things collection. What are some of your most popular “things” and how have patrons been using these collections?
MZ: Some of our most popular items are guitars, a sewing machine and serger, a Nintendo Switch, a telescope, Cricut Explore Air 2—which is a DIY cutting machine for scrapbooking, quilting and other precision cutting. It’s a wonderful way of trying something out or accessing equipment that you might not own. We have a patron who borrowed the KitchenAid stand mixer to make Christmas cookies with his family and another who borrowed the ladder because she couldn’t reach the ceiling lights in her apartment. This year we added smart hubs and Chromebooks to the collection to help bridge the digital divide for patrons. We also have some great in-library items—a piano, equipment for converting VHS tapes, records, and cassettes to digital files, a 3D printer, and board games. Sometimes you’ll walk into the library and there’s music all around; it’s a beautiful thing.
JB: What other exciting programs, opportunities or initiatives are on offer at the High River Library?
This spring we launched a book bike to reach underserved areas of the community. It acts like a full small-scale library branch—we offer programs at local parks, check items in and out and can deliver items to patrons who can’t make it to the library. It’s a great employment opportunity for a student in the summer too!
JB: Anything else you’d like to add or share about the High River Library or your experience as the Director?
MZ: Just that libraries are the best! They’re a great way to support readers in your community. Check out what your local library has to offer and work with them on new initiatives—you may be pleasantly surprised by the things you can do together.
Beyond the Stacks is a column about libraries in Alberta and the useful and necessary services they provide.
Jessie Bach grew up on a family farm in Southern Alberta, and is a life-long library user and book lover. She has a degree in history from the University of Saskatchewan, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. Jessie has worked in archives, academic libraries, corporate records management, and now public libraries. Her current role is Bibliographic Services Manager at Marigold Library System where she manages the team that does acquisitions, cataloguing and processing of library material for Marigold’s thirty-six member libraries. She currently lives in Calgary with her partner and, in true librarian fashion, four cats. Jessie likes to read (of course), knit, consume way too many true crime podcasts, and lift weights in the gym.
Feature image credit: Photo of High River Library provided courtesy of Mary Zazelenchuk, Library Director.