Share this post!

Last Modified: September 6, 2021
Feature image for the article Writers in Residence in Alberta, featuring a photo of Lori Hahnel
Writers-in-Residence at Alberta Libraries

By Jessie Bach

One of the myriad ways that public libraries foster literacy, community, and access to the arts is by hosting Writers-in-Residence. According to the Writers’ Guild of Alberta, “Writer-in-Residence programs host a writer who spends their residency interacting with the community.” A writer will hold a temporary post at a public library to provide mentorship to other writers in the community by reviewing manuscripts and providing advice and insights about the publishing world. They may also hold public events like presentations, workshops, and readings. Writer-in-Residence programs will look a little different at every library, and each writer brings their own special flair and ideas to the position. 

In Alberta, three public libraries are offering Writer-in-Residence programs in 2021 – Calgary Public Library, Edmonton Public Library, and Airdrie Public Library. This year’s program is already underway at Edmonton Public Library, where they have engaged two Writers-in-Residence. Playwright Vern Thiessen (writer of Of Human Bondage and Vimy), is serving Edmonton Public Library, while Nisha Patel (writer of the poetry collection Coconut and Canadian Individual Poetry Slam Champion) is the 2021 Regional Writer-in-Residence serving Strathcona County Libraries and St. Albert Public Library. Calgary and Airdrie will be offering their programs this fall – Calgary has just closed applications for this year’s position, while Airdrie will be inviting applications towards the end of the summer.

To learn more about what it’s like to be a Writer-in-Residence, I connected with Calgary Public Library’s 2020 Author-in-Residence, Lori Hahnel. Hahnel is the author of two novels and two short story collections, the most recent of which – Vermin: Stories – is a finalist for the High Plains Book Award and the Canadian Authors Association Fred Kerner Book Award. Below, she shares how she got the gig, what it’s like to serve in the position, and why she loves libraries.

Photo of Lori Hahnel
Lori Hahnel, 2020 Author-in-Residence at the Calgary Public Library. Photo provided courtesy of the author.

Jessie Bach: How did you become Author-in-Residence at the Calgary Public Library (CPL)? What was the application process like?

Lori Hahnel: CPL’s Author-in-Residence position had been my dream job since I worked in circulation and on the reference desk at CPL in the 90’s and early 2000’s. The competition for writing residencies is fierce and I applied a number of times before I got the job last year. The application process itself is straightforward: they are looking for a cover letter, CV, proposals for public programs, and a sample of your writing.

Jessie Bach: Tell me about a favourite moment or experience during your time as Author-in-Residence.

Lori Hahnel: My favourite and now bittersweet moment was having a Zoom consult in November with Brian Brennan, a writer friend who served in the Author-in-Residence position in 2012. I didn’t know at the time that he was ill, but he passed away in February, and I was so glad to have had a chance to chat with him and read an excerpt from the memoir he was working on.

Jessie Bach: Do you feel that the experience helped you to grow as a writer? How?

Lori Hahnel: I’ve always learned from the writers I work with whenever I have done residencies or mentorships or taught. For one thing, I never fail to be amazed at the wide variety of writing that is out there, and while not everything you read as Author-in-Residence is ready to be published, there are many times when some tips you can offer the writer will make a huge difference. Any writer at any level can benefit from having another set of knowledgeable eyes on our work, and it’s important to keep that in mind.

Jessie Bach: You mentioned you have a soft spot for libraries (me too!). Why do you think libraries are important/necessary in this day and age?

Lori Hahnel: Libraries are always important and necessary, perhaps now more than ever before as we fight a massive onslaught of misinformation and outright lies on the internet concerning COVID. It’s critical now that more people understand what are credible sources of information and what aren’t. It really is a matter of life and death at this point, and libraries can play a crucial role.

Jessie Bach: What advice do you have for writers applying to this year’s Writer-in-Residence programs?

Lori Hahnel: Keep in mind that in addition to having books published, the selection committee is also looking for a solid teaching track record. As well, I suspect there’s a good chance that much if not all of the residency will be conducted virtually this year, as it was in 2020. Finally, if you are turned down, keep applying. There are a lot of qualified writers out there who are interested in the position!

The program at CPL is not the only opportunity to become a Writer-in-Residence this fall. Airdrie Public Library will also begin recruiting soon for their residency. This will be Airdrie Public’s second year running the program after hosting their first Writer-in-Residence, C.B. Forrest, in 2020. Eric Pottie, the Programming and Customer Engagement Manager at the library, spoke to me about what it was like to plan, recruit for, and oversee their inaugural Writer-in-Residence program. To find their writer, Pottie says, the library “advertised in the local papers, through our website/social media, and reached out to author organizations in Alberta like the Writer’s Guild and the Alexandra Writing Centre. The process was pretty simple, we asked for potential applicants to submit their CV, cover letter, author bio and four ideas for potential workshops. With it being our first time we were looking for a writer with a wide area of expertise and experience—this was so future participants could get good feedback if they were writing a novel, poetry, or even a screenplay.”

Pottie also detailed programs and services that Writer-in-Residence C.B. Forrest offered. They included hour-long blue pencil editing meetings that could also be used to ask questions about writing, publishing or marketing – whatever the patron wanted to learn – held either virtually or in-person. Forrest also hosted four public presentations during his tenure. There were three writing workshops; The Business of Writing, A Writer’s Roadmap, and Dealing with Rejection. The fourth presentation was a reading from his latest novel.

According to Pottie, “the feedback we got was all very positive, the public thoroughly enjoyed the whole program. We had over 80% of people that filled out evaluation forms give the program a 10 out of 10.” He says his favourite memory of the 2020 program was “seeing how engaged participants were in the presentations. At the end there would be time for questions and comments and people would share bits and pieces of what they were working on and Chris would do a great job of offering advice, but even other attendees were asking questions about their writing and offering support.” 

Airdrie Public Library will soon begin recruiting for their 2021 Writer-in-Residence program, which will be held in the late fall. Keep an eye out for the job posting, which is expected to be available by the end of the summer on the Airdrie Public Library website and social media, as well as through local writing organizations.

Writer-in-Residence programs at public libraries are a fabulous opportunity for experienced writers to grow their network, hone their skills, and connect with others in the community. For library patrons and aspiring writers, these programs offer a unique opportunity to learn about the publishing industry, receive feedback on their writing, and meet new people. Eric Pottie told me that, “it was really great to see so many people come together and make their own little writing group.” Ultimately, that’s one of the things that libraries, and programs like these ones, do best – bring people together.

For further information about Writer-in-Residence programs in Alberta and a listing of current residencies, visit the Writer’s Guild of Alberta website.

Beyond the Stacks is a column about libraries in Alberta and the useful and necessary services they provide.

Photo of Jessie Bach, author of this articleJessie 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 for the article is of Lori Hahnel, provided courtesy of the author.