Amanda Vyce | CUPE Staff
Aline Patcheva | CUPE Staff

Kathleen Brennan

Canadian Library Month is a time to celebrate our libraries and the indispensable services provided by library workers in our communities, schools, universities, and colleges. Libraries are so much more than book repositories, and library work is a much wider spectrum of responsibilities than people might think.

To highlight the crucial contribution of CUPE library workers, we spoke with Kathleen Brennan, a library access technician at Keyano College in Fort McMurray, Alberta. A member of CUPE 2157, Brennan currently sits on the local’s bargaining team, and previously served as the local’s vice-president and executive secretary. She is also CUPE Alberta’s young worker vice-president and the liaison to the Alberta Library Employees Committee.

Brennan brings a wealth of experience from each subsector, having worked in a post-secondary library, as well as a public library and two school libraries. Her insights shed light on the diverse world of library work and its often surprising facets.

Question 1

What sparked your interest in library work, and what aspect of your work are you most passionate about?

I grew up in a family of avid readers. I remember when I was young, my dad and my grandmother took me to the public library regularly. Later on, in high school, I faced some mental health challenges that prevented me from attending regular classes, but I couldn’t stay at home either. So, I spent a semester going to the school library every day and that’s when I truly fell in love with books and reading.

Libraries offer a safe space where people can be themselves and aren’t judged based on their background or financial status. When people are struggling, like I was as a teenager, they look for commonality among people around them, or in the stories they come across. We can find those stories at the library. The library is the great equalizer in the world.

As a library worker, I am passionate about introducing people to the vast resources available beyond just books, and meeting them where they are at in their reading and learning journey. Libraries are wonderful public spaces, even for people who will never pick up a book.

Question 2

How long have you been working in libraries and what is something surprising about your current role?

My first library job was in a public library in Ontario during college, where I worked for five years. I was then employed as a school library worker for three years, before moving to Alberta to start my current role at Keyano College in February 2018.

The first school library I worked in was an Ontario K-12 school with 1,500 students. I had no budget to purchase resources, as is often the case in Ontario schools. Then, I worked in an Ontario high school with 700 students. There were 26 schools in the board and my high school was the only one with a library worker on staff, but I was provided with a small budget of $1,200.

Kathleen Brennan

In my current role at Keyano College, in Fort McMurray, I meet students who have never seen a library in a school before. So, my favourite part is to have the tools and a modest budget that allow me to get new resources and be creative.

Our library is staffed by three library technicians, three librarians, and a handful of student assistants. I am responsible for acquisitions of everything from books to technology, videos, office supplies, and more. I handle fines and financial holds, and I create programs, virtual and physical displays, and newsletters to promote our resources. I also manage our participation in NEOS, a library consortium that collaborates to create and maintain an online catalogue of collections shared across institutions.

People might not know that I play a significant role in promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion – also a priority for the college. For example, I create LibGuides focusing on these themes, to organize and showcase various library resources and services available for research and study. LibGuides feature library assets in multiple formats including books, databases, journals, and freely accessible online content like podcasts, articles, and community events.

Question 3

What role does the library play in the lives of the Keyano College community?

We are constantly looking for ways to support students and fill the gaps in their lives. For example, during the pandemic, it became obvious that many students lacked access to technology. Access to the internet and technology can be unaffordable for some people in Fort McMurray. When the college switched from in-person to online classes, we helped start a laptop loaning program with as little as 10 laptops. Each year, I found money and grants that enabled me to purchase more laptops, and we now have 70, ensuring equal access to technology. We aim to remove roadblocks students encounter on their educational journey.

Kathleen Brennan

Additionally, I run a staff summer reading challenge called Keyano Reads. Reading is an important tool to promote mental health and stress relief for staff too. I’ve also been involved in book clubs for students, and in supporting students who are discovering their identities, creating safe spaces within the library for them when they are transitioning.

Question 4

How would the absence of library staff at Keyano College impact students?

It would be terrible. Students would lose essential and much needed support, such as one-on-one help with research and citations which professors can’t provide due to large class sizes.

Keyano College also serves a large, non-traditional student base, including individuals training for new careers and parents attending evening and weekend courses. They all need to be able to access the library, and the support of library staff is crucial. Without us or with reduced hours, their access to library resources and services would be severely limited, which would be detrimental to their success.

Question 5

What challenges are you and other library workers facing in your library, and how could they be addressed?

We are constantly expected to do more with less. Staffing is always at the top of the list. This year we had a couple of vacant positions and student employees were filling in the gaps, even though they are not suited to perform qualified work. The employer has a hard time finding staff with relevant skills and training, but they are offering shorter contracts, fewer hours, and lower pay. People are understandably unwilling to accept these positions long term.

Adequate funding is the key to addressing this issue and providing better working conditions. It would enable the employer to hire qualified staff and to extend library hours to enhance accessibility, especially for our non-traditional and international students.

Question 6

What message is vital to share about libraries and library work during Canadian Library Month?

Most people don’t know what goes on in a library. Library work is essential, specialized, and should be well-compensated. Libraries offer a unique and irreplaceable resource that can genuinely improve someone’s life.

A great example is the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program, funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada through the Settlement Program. It provides free English language training to adult newcomers on a part-time or full-time basis in post-secondary education libraries across Canada. Therefore, our library has curated a collection of resources to support learning English as a second language or an additional language (ESL/EAL).

It is incredibly fulfilling to connect with these learners, fostering a sense of belonging and support in their journey to language proficiency.

Jackie JefferyIf you ever had to choose between schools, the one with the library would be the obvious choice – libraries play a pivotal role in enriching lives and supporting education.

CUPE members were the first library workers to go on strike

The London library workers, members of CUPE 217, went on strike in 1970 demanding equal increases for all library board workers. The settlement called for across-the-board 13% wage hikes, a maternity leave provision and dropping of management demands to eliminate library heads from the union.

In this photo, London library worker Jackie Jeffery from CUPE 217 confronts books which were returned during their two-week strike. It was the first strike ever by library workers in Canada and brought them equal increases for all workers.