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How libraries can help newcomers adjust to life in Canada

October 9, 2021

More than just reading material, libraries across the country offer a wide range of services such as settlement resources, learning opportunities, meeting spaces, fun activities and more.

When Nigeria-born saxophonist, songwriter and arts manager Perpie Nwaefido came to Canada, she discovered one place where she could find all kinds of help she needed as a newcomer. This was at the Calgary Public Library.

“It was such a different experience from the one I had in my country,” she says as she recalls her surprise. “Back home the library is just a place you go every now and then, because you probably have most of the books in the school library or in your own home collection – libraries there are not regularly purchasing new titles and updating their catalogues, so not much to do when you visit them.”

She found she could access a wide range of resources. “I could come every day to Calgary Public Library and spend hours reading, researching, using the computers and receiving invaluable professional help in so many areas – from interview skills and resume writing to music production. The library even lent me musical instruments. I also enrolled my children in a chess club.”

Much more than books

Across the country, public libraries provide newcomers like Nwaefido with free information and settlement services, job search assistance, learning opportunities including free English and French classes, courses in computers and new technologies, lectures on health, personal finance and legal issues, etc.

Visitors can find just about anything – programs and activities for children and adults, groups who share similar hobbies and interests and even free passes for galleries and museums.

At the branches, visitors have free access to computers and wireless internet. Scanners are also available in most places. There are locations where members can book study rooms and meeting rooms.

Newcomers who consider starting their own businesses in Canada can also join various libraries’ initiatives for entrepreneurs. And there are even preparation classes for the Canadian citizenship test.

To ensure the wide variety of services to newcomers, most public libraries collaborate with settlement agencies and organizations. Toronto Public Library, for example, provides settlement support at 14 of its branches through the Library Settlement Partnership – a project funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). The Partnership involves the Toronto Public Library and seven local settlement agencies.

“Most of the settlement workers have been immigrants themselves,” says Elsa Ngan, senior services specialist, Multicultural Services at Toronto Public Library. “So they are up-to-date with all the different issues that the newcomers might have questions about – ranging from health care, skills development and education to a sense of belonging and community connections.” The Library Settlement Partnership continued its services even during the pandemic.

Promoting arts and culture

Libraries also actively promote the arts, host exhibitions and cultural events and show films. Being chosen to be the 2021 Newcomer Artist in Residence, Nwaefido gave a concert at Whelan Performance Hall at Central Library in Calgary in September this year.

Nwaefido was happy to find the performance space. “It’s remarkable – the setting, the plan, the design, the colors, it’s so beautiful! I was really honored and I was grateful to perform here. In my country it would cost a lot of money to have access to such a space.”

Those who love to share their reading experiences can join book clubs. There are also clubs that discuss books in languages other than English and French. The Chinese Book Club at Toronto Public Library, for example, holds online meetings every month and is popular among Mandarin speakers.

To enrich their collections, libraries regularly buy new books, digital books, audiobooks, magazines, newspapers, CDs and DVDs. Members can also suggest materials for the library to purchase. So far, catering to Canada’s diverse population, the collections include materials in about 40 languages.

Online resources

Given that more and more people are going digital, libraries are offering a range of online resources – eBooks, digital newspapers and magazines, digital audiobooks, streaming video and music. Students and researchers can also benefit from the libraries’ subscriptions to academic publications. From the Academic Search Ultimate section on the Vancouver Public Library’s website, for example, readers can choose content from over ten thousand magazines – from popular to peer reviewed.

Online borrowing became even more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns; however, most libraries around the country managed to continue lending printed materials, CDs and DVDs. Readers could go to the website of their library, place holds on the items they wished to borrow and then pick them up at their local branches. Even though most of the events and in-person activities were suspended, a variety of courses and settlement services continued to be offered online or by telephone.

Currently, in line with provincial guidelines, most libraries in the country have opened their branches for indoor use, and staff and library visitors are required to keep social distancing and wear masks. Some libraries, like Toronto Public Library, have adopted a mandatory vaccination policy for their staff.

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