Librarian closes the book on Westlock

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The head of Westlock Libraries is onto a new chapter of his life.

After nearly eight years as director of libraries, Doug Whistance-Smith is moving on to the Devon Public Library staring May 8.

“I know there’s a lot of people (where) this move has blind-sided them,” he said. “I think a lot of people are afraid of change and people shouldn’t be afraid of change.

“Change is good. Change keeps things fresh and new. The only time that change is bad is that last change, that death knell, and the only one that it’s bad for is the people left behind.”

Because of the sudden loss of his brother several years ago and aging parents on his mind, Whistance-Smith decided the time was ripe for a move closer to his family.

Although change is on the way, the new position won’t be entirely unfamiliar territory. Devon and Westlock are both part of Yellowhead Regional Library system and he will stay on as its chair of the Public Libraries’ Council.

“I hope that whatever work I’ve done here has made this a better place then when I arrived,” he mused.

“This position here in Westlock was borrowed. It was an honour to be given the opportunity to serve this community and I’m hoping I’m leaving it in better condition than when I received it.

Westlock Libraries is composed of the facilities in town and the hamlets of Fawcett and Jarvie.

During his time, all three received major enhancement grants and he was able to get the Village of Clyde to join the Yellowhead Regional Library.

“As a public trust, the library depends on municipalities’ support for a huge chunk of our operational money and it took us two years almost, but we got Clyde into the municipalities agreement with Yellowhead,” he recalled.

Over the years, the library has received numerous accolades from the province which include the 2010 finalist for the Alberta Business Awards of Distinction and four-time finalist and 2015 winner of the Minister’s Awards for Excellence in Public Library Service.

So with plaques lining the shelves of the library boardroom, he pointed out that much of the work boiled down to his team, the library staff and the library board.

“You know that saying,

‘There is no

‘I’ in team?’ Well, there is,” he said. “There is an

‘I’ in team. There’s also a

‘U’ in team. I will do everything that I can for the team, so that you can succeed. Who is the

‘U?’ The

‘U’ is the people we provide the service to the public.”

Although he is leaving behind many positive changes, those haven’t come without their own set of struggles.

When he arrived in 2009, he saw there was community repair work to be done.

Around that time, he had redrafted the legal agreement with the school division to house the Fawcett library in W.R. Frose School. When the school shut down three years later, the library was on its own, and Whistance-Smith had to navigate what he called a bureaucratic maze to establish a new location.

“My first career, I was a paramedic,” he said. “Service is service and it actually lucks out that I did have a background in something where my primary function was to bring control to chaos because when I stepped in here, it was somewhat chaotic.”

Once the library moved to its current location, the only building that could fit the collection was inaccessible to people with mobility issues. After 18 months trying to secure the funding, the facility will finally receive a chairlift.

Despite the stress, negotiations, and legal hoops to jump through, he said he was proud to have established a welcoming library.

“That’s not just the physical environment, that’s the social and service environment,” he said.

In his time, Whistance-Smith was also met with opposition about the changing role of libraries, from places where librarians would “shh” noisy patrons to one of service provision.

In his role, he has championed hard to change that perception so that libraries would be seen as an essential service, a vision that has at times clashed with local governments.

“That gets glossed over far too often by councils who are looking at policing budgets, who are looking at fire budgets, who are looking at ambulance budgets,” he said.

“The library is the jewel in your crown. We are very often the first place that people come when they come to the community, when they move to the community or when they’re visiting the community. This is the place where they connect with their families wherever they may be from. We are the smiling face that represents your community. Now that is your jewel in the crown.”

For example, he implemented the Food For Fines program, which allowed library users to donate items to the food bank in exchange for their late fees.

“The key to serving people is public libraries,” he said. “What’s the first word in public library? The public, so it has to be people-centric.”

With the regional library serving more than 10,000 people in the area, he hoped the future director would grow the number of cardholders from 20 per cent of the population to a quarter or more.

“Somebody new is going to come in with new ideas and new energy and a new vision for what the future of libraries could be for this community,” he said. “I’ve brought this as far as I can take it, but somebody new is going to take it even further.

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