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Literacy Victoria's Bookmobile Outreach Librarian Avi Silberstein discusses favourite books with a man infront of the Our Place drop-in centre in Victoria, BC Tuesday July 5, 2011. (Chad Hipolito/Globe and Mail/Chad Hipolito/Globe and Mail)
Literacy Victoria's Bookmobile Outreach Librarian Avi Silberstein discusses favourite books with a man infront of the Our Place drop-in centre in Victoria, BC Tuesday July 5, 2011. (Chad Hipolito/Globe and Mail/Chad Hipolito/Globe and Mail)

Tom Hawthorn

Bookmobile takes library to the people Add to ...

A man cycles along the sidewalk, the neck of an acoustic guitar poking up from his backpack.

He stops at a table on the sidewalk, taking one foot off a pedal to lean over a plastic tub filled with paperback books. Finding a volume to his liking, he stuffs it in his pocket before cycling away.

On Tuesday morning, Literacy Victoria's Bookmobile set up shop on the sidewalk outside the Our Place drop-in centre.

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On the sidewalk, patrons perused an impressive collection of books by the likes of Margaret Laurence and D.H. Lawrence. The authors ranged from "Airport Popular" (Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum) to Canadiana (Joy Kogawa, Jack Hodgins) to highfalutin literature (E.M. Forster, Henrik Ibsen). An entire English undergraduate curriculum was there for the taking.

Another man made a selection.

"Remind me of your first name," said the Bookmobile's Avi Silberstein.

"Travis," the man answered.

"Travis," repeated Mr. Silberstein, recording on a notepad the genre of the volume.

"That's all I have to do?" Travis asked.

"That's it," Mr. Silberstein replied. "When you're done, bring it back, leave it on the bookshelf inside, or give it to someone else to read."

At the Bookmobile, you do not need money, or identification, or an address. All you need is a desire to read. Even if you have nothing, you can always have that. The books are donated and there's no fine if you don't return them.

Business was steady.

Paul Stevens, 43, who lives in his van, is an aficionado of whodunits, police procedurals and murder mysteries. He credits reading as an aid to staying sober. He spoke like a poet.

"I pick up a book instead of a bottle," he said. "Reading instead of relapse."

His thoughts were echoed by another client.

Raymond Ramsay, 30, picked a copy of John Irving's A Widow for One Year on a recommendation. Until five months ago, he was living on the streets. He will crack open the novel whenever he finds his thoughts turning to destructive behaviour. "Keeps my mind occupied," he said, "so I don't think about drugs."

The Bookmobile is a three-cylinder, right-hand-drive Honda truck owned and driven by Madeline Bakker, a former social worker. Earlier in the morning, the Bookmobile puttered around town, paperbacks stored in five plastic tubs in the open-rear bed, making stops at a Salvation Army residence and a housing co-operative. A food bank and a woman's shelter are also on the route.

She is joined on her rounds by Mr. Silberstein, 28, of the Greater Victoria Public Library. The lanky librarian, who was born in Santiago, Chile, earned a master's degree in library science after a stint as an organic farmer. He is the son of a school librarian and grew up in a household in which television watching was permitted only on weekends.

His title is outreach librarian, so when he is not staffing the reference desk at the downtown library, he develops programs in which the library's holdings are made more available.

One innovation involves providing books for reading - but not lending - in the waiting rooms of such places as a public health clinic and a refugee centre. The stock on-offer includes non-fiction titles, which can be read in snatches, as well as books of photographs. The program is called Library While You Wait.

During the summer, Mr. Silberstein can be found on two wheels followed by a trailer - a "little library on wheels" - offering children's books and beach reads to the public. These are lent out to patrons with valid library cards. He can also issue cards.

On Saturday, he will pedal his bookmobile to the Moss Street Market before cycling eastbound on Oak Bay Avenue to Willows Beach. The ka-ching, ka-ching of his bell is the sound of books on the move.

If the people can't come to the library, take the library to the people.

Follow on Twitter: @tomhawthorn

 

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