Article by Jiyoon Ha
I get a wicked satisfaction out of discovering niche spaces: either the physical ones that accommodate the corporeal forms of myself as well as other, equally smug explorers; or, the spaces of communities (both in meatspace and the virtual) that exist and operate just outside of the average person’s periphery.
These kinds of communities often fight for a very specific cause towards resolving a very specific issue, and are rather difficult to come across unless one actively searches for it. They often remain obscure for one of the two main reasons: 1) members in said niche community keep the space tightly controlled, calculating every current and whisper of mention to the outer world, or 2) they have difficulty grasping the attention and passion of the public, despite their desperation to accumulate fighters of their cause.
Growing up, I spent nearly all of my childhood summers searching for the physical, untapped spaces where I could be freed from the racket and mayhem of the playground. The spaces that I found, and frequented the most, were in the library: between the towering shelves, or nestled among the stacks of paperbacks, or in the dustiest corners of the building. Then, in immersing myself in a good fantasy tale, I could become a part of a community within an alternate reality, fighting alongside Hermione for the equal rights of Muggles.
As life often does, this childhood ritual, paired with my lifelong exploration of unknown spaces, circled back to me when I had the opportunity to meet with Sita Kumar at Thierry Cafe, in the heart of Downtown Vancouver. Sita, who works at Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch, has been working primarily in the acquisitions department for the past three years, ordering and receiving the library’s new materials.
Being a closed division, her acquisitions position doesn’t require her to directly engage with the public. But when I ask about her favourite part of working at VPL, her answer is unexpectedly people-oriented. “I really love my coworkers!” she says. “I’ve worked for sixteen years, have worn a dozen different hats, and worked at many locations. And the people I work with are beautiful.”
Parallel to that, she says, “I love that the library strives to serve its community; every single person,” she says. “I love that. And if it’s not doing that, it’s trying to. It keeps asking, ‘Who are we missing?’”
Her answer shouldn’t be surprising; after all, she has been working at VPL for sixteen years, outgrowing over a dozen different hats in a dozen different places. In addition to her current acquisitions position, she also juggles training other library workers in a customer service excellence workshop that reflects on how the library engages with the community, as well as being an on-call staff for VPL’s Inspiration Lab. But despite being a former child library dweller, Sita’s account of her various positions unveils the inner workings of the library that had remained invisible to my blind eye. It’s a colossal revelation for the unassuming public, who still assume the library’s role as unchanged from its ancestral purpose: lending books.
At its core, though, the library has always been about making information accessible to the wider public. And for a long time, print books were the only medium available to do so. But VPL and its workshops, e-books, and creation spaces like the Inspiration Lab make it clear that the modern library is evolving alongside society and its technological developments.
“Everyone that I’m looking at in this cafe, I think, ‘There’s something for them,’” Sita says, scanning our lively surroundings. “That’s what excites me. But you know what, I still don’t know about all the things we have… we just have so much!”
Sita’s roots as a library worker stem from her days as a university student in Montreal, where she first worked at a library. After, she moved to Calgary and worked in a small, independent bookstore. “I had to deal with the special orders,” she explains, “And the manager at the store trained me how to find specific things, and I developed an interest in what was out there, and how to find things.”
She then applied to the libraries in Vancouver, which she had originally intended to be a student job while attending Emily Carr for photography. “I finished Emily Carr… and I’m still at the library!” Sita laughs. “You’d be surprised how many artists, and musicians, work at the library.”
Although her passion for photography was overridden by her passion for community, the library, and ceramics (“I like working with my hands,” she reveals), her inquiring spirit never wavered. For example, she has recently been harvesting an interest in the water systems of the Salish Sea. What spurred her concern was merely being near the water on the West Coast for the past seventeen years, and interacting with its wildlife.
“Being close to the water, seeing the orcas… the connection has deepened, and wanting to know more has deepened,” Sita says. “If I were in Nepal, it’d be different, because then I’d have no access [to the water]. I think I’m fortunate in the way that I have access to this way.”
First and foremost to deepening her understanding about the water systems, Sita is currently working internally by reading articles to build her knowledge and figure out how she’s going to connect with people with information about our waters. “I’m being out there by educating myself,” she says. “The more I research, the closer I’m getting to know what I want to do.”
On top of that, Sita is also taking an open water swim class. “Although it’s exercise, it’s bridging me [to the water], and making me understand how I want to learn about the ocean, and the animals,” she says.
Sita, in a way, is the ultimate proponent of the niche, unknown spaces that exist beyond the periphery, only these spaces that she is active in are fundamental to progress. The spaces that Sita is active in: the acquisitions department, the customer service excellence workshops, the Inspiration Lab, the independent bookstore in Calgary, and the ecology of the Salish Sea all amount to an attitude that is crucial for societal functioning and betterment. The average book-borrower takes library services for granted, yet is oblivious to the acquisitions team that worked hard for the book to be in the borrower’s hands. Likewise, Vancouverites pride themselves on being a sustainable city, but don’t probe further into the well-being of the water systems we heavily rely on. What we need are more Sitas, or at least, more people with her will to self-educate and be proactive.