Seniors and  Victoria, Burnaby, Vancouver libraries and city archives

Seniors:  What they want and what they get in Canada's public libraries

By Guy Robertson, Vancouver, BC

Harry never saw the Messerschmitt that peppered his bomber with machine-gun fire over France in 1944. He was the only crew member to survive the subsequent crash landing, during which he suffered two broken legs and burns on his arms and chest.

"The doctors patched me up as well as they could, but I still have trouble walking any distance," he says. "That's why I'm glad that I have Herman. He helps me around the library, and makes sure that I find a chair when I need one."

Herman was an officer in the German parachute corps that invaded Crete in 1941. Owing to what he calls "vile luck", he landed badly and fractured his left shoulder, arm, wrist, and several ribs. Arthritis has set in, leaving him in constant pain. To make his old age even more difficult, diabetes has left him almost blind.

"Harry and I are quite a pair," he says. "We help each other out. He leans on me and navigates, while I serve as a rudder. He selects my book tapes, and I carry his Westerns. He can't stop reading Westerns, poor man."

While Harry and Herman enjoy their visits to the Vancouver Public Library, they speak in embarrassed whispers about their frequent need for a clean, well-lighted washroom with lots of space in readily available toilet cubicles.

"I've lost my dignity twice in library washrooms, and I won't say any more," says Harry.

"I rescued him both times," says Herman. "He got stuck. There was no handrail beside the toilet, and he couldn't pull himself up. If you laugh at that, one day you might find yourself in one of those tiny cubicles, unable to stand up again, and you will not be amused. It's a frequent problem for seniors, one that keeps many of us at home."

Herman adds that Harry reads Zane Grey in the washroom, and that cubicle entrapment is fair punishment for such lowbrow taste. Harry threatens to whack him with his cane, and bursts out laughing.

"At least I had the sense to stay in my aircraft," he says. "Only a damn fool would jump out of a plane. Or listen to taped thrillers."

While seniors differ in myriad ways, the majority encounter similar difficulties in public libraries.

"I don't like to complain about libraries," says octogenarian Helen in Burnaby, B.C. "Even a small branch can give an old soul like me a great deal of pleasure. But the physical world can be a dangerous place when you're no longer agile. A stairway becomes a mountain range for anyone with a walker or wheelchair, and the doors that opened so easily when you were in your thirties suddenly weigh a ton. And the person who invented turnstiles was probably under forty; try to get through one when your balance is poor."

Seniors across Canada complain of slippery floors in library lobbies and entrance areas. In Toronto, Bert ("I don't look a day over ninety") suggests that janitorial staff be more diligent in mopping up the puddles of water that collect near front doors.

"Either they mop up the water, or put down mats that reduce the risk of slip-and-fall," says Bert, who practiced law for over fifty years. "Falls occur frequently in public buildings, and while it's not only the senior who keels over, he or she will be more likely to break a hip. You get weaker as you age."

Bert wants more chairs in reading areas. He wants better lighting and clearer signage.

"Library architects should put somebody like me on their payroll," he says. "I could tell them about the physical challenges that seniors face in libraries. It's as if the generic patron is a robust thirty-something. But the population is aging, and the definition of 'old' is changing. After [World War Two], seventy-five was a grand old age. These days it's not unusual to meet spry oldsters in their nineties. Fact is, however, they need to sit down more often than youngsters do. Since their eyes are weak, they need bigger and clearer signage, especially that which directs them to exits, washrooms, and various areas of the collection."

Anecdotal evidence from seniors and the librarians who serve them indicates that magazines, newspapers and books are still the media of choice for most patrons aged sixty-five and older. Electronic resources have yet to appeal to the majority of seniors, whose attitudes towards the Internet, CDs and databases vary from the curious to the downright hostile.

"I'd like to learn more about the Internet," says Joan, a retired accountant in Vancouver.

" I'm worried, however, about the amount of training time that local librarians are able to give me. I'm not as quick as I used to be, especially with anything technical. And using a library computer can be challenging, since I can't stand up for extended periods, and computers with chairs are usually occupied--by younger patrons, I notice. As well, most library branches don't offer terminals with larger type that I need because of my eyesight, which is poor. I don't want to be a nuisance, so I'll be content with large-type novels and magazines with pictures of the Royals."

Arnold, however, has no interest in "anything more complicated than a light bulb or a toaster". Having retired from his job as a structural engineer in Calgary several years ago, he prefers an unautomated life and is discouraged by the growth of electronic resources in libraries.

"Of course there's a use for computers, but I refuse to make a fetish out of them," he says. "Most oldies realize that they don't have a long time to live, so why should they waste what little they have left learning computer skills that they don't really need? When I retired, I was thankful that I didn't have to keep up to date any more. What a relief! Now I read Medieval literature and history, which I love. And the librarians who know me support my interests completely. They probably don't like the Internet any more than I do, but it's not politically correct for them to say so, is it?"

Arnold wants a more "senior-friendly" public library, with more books and less noise. He complains that noise levels in libraries have increased over the past decade, and blames parents who refuse to keep their children quiet.

"The result," he says, "is chaos, especially in those libraries that offer extensive children's programs in space that projects sound. Carpeting cuts only a fraction of the noise in some libraries. I'm sure that many patrons would like librarians to enforce a stricter noise-level code. I'm half-deaf, but I can still hear children shouting at each other. That behavior is inappropriate."

To encourage the improvement of services to seniors, CLA [Canadian Library Association] has approved the "Canadian Guidelines on Library and Information Services for Older Adults", which acknowledges seniors' problems, and recommends solutions. Seniors who have examined these guidelines view them favorably, but question the practicability of different measures.

" These days you can't do anything in a public institution without taking resources from somewhere else," says Joan. " The guidelines call for the development of a library website for seniors. This website will take money and time to maintain. Where will the money come from? An existing program? I don't like the idea, especially if it involves cutting budgets [for book and periodical acquisitions]. Librarians must establish priorities for their respective systems. Perhaps some can afford a website without cutting back on new fiction. Most, however, will be limited to the bare essentials of the guidelines."

While librarians struggle to maintain outreach services to seniors who are unable to travel to a library, they must recognize the determination of those who refuse to stop their regular visits.

"I will keep coming for as long as I can," says Herman. "And so will Harry. For us, the most important part [of the guidelines] deals with the safety and comfort of library facilities for older persons. This covers the essentials, and librarians should familiarize themselves with the major points. After all, when you follow the guidelines, you're making the library safer and more comfortable for all patrons, not just seniors. When you decrease the risk of falling on a slippery floor or pulling a heavy book from a high shelf down on your head, you're protecting everybody, including library staff. So looking after seniors is simply good librarianship."

Harry snorts derisively. "Pretty logical for a guy who jumps out of planes," he says. "Of course that was a long time ago. He's probably forgotten how to do it. Mind you, we've forgotten a lot over the years, haven't we, Herr Leutnant?"

"That's probably all for the best," says Herman. "But we won't forget to return your frightful cowboy stories to the library, will we? The sooner the better."
- END -

copyright © 2002 Guy Robertson, Vancouver, B.C. Canada

Guy Robertson can be reached by email at
Guy is a well known in Canada as a consultant in the emergency and safety planning field for libraries, archives, corporate records centers (for credit unions, life insurance companies, etc.) see Safety Smart Services for more information.  Guy is also a regular instructor in the Library Technician Program at Langara College in Vancouver, B.C.

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