Published in the Spring 2007 issue • Arts
Lisa Heggum is a bookworm with big ideas
“It’s kind of a funny idea, so much noise in such a quiet place,” says 13-year-old Sula Sidnell-Greene, as she scans the crowd of teens and twentysomethings packing the main floor of the Toronto Reference Library on a Saturday night in November.
Sidnell-Greene is a volunteer for tonight’s event. She’s frantically checking coats as people rush to claim space on the carpeted floor. Rows of desks have been cleared away to make room for a stage and sound system. Looking out over the sea of chatty girls in leg warmers and hipster guys in skinny jeans, it’s hard to picture the hushed research that goes on here during the day.
Now, if you’re thinking that nothing on earth could drag you into a library after-hours, consider these two little words: free concert. We’re not talking string quartet, either. Tonight’s bill features such Toronto indie bands as Great Lake Swimmers, and hip-hop acts that include Shad and Lal. This is the second of two concerts put on by the Toronto Public Library (TPL), to launch its new local music collection.
In the middle of the hubbub, a woman in thick-rimmed glasses is being interviewed under the blinding light of a TV camera. “That’s Lisa,” says one of the volunteers handing out free bottles of water. Lisa Heggum is the TPL’s youth collections librarian, and the reason the library is the destination of choice this Saturday night.
Heggum, 37, recently launched the new music collection as one of her many youth-focused initiatives. Now, CDs from some of Toronto’s hottest new bands can be checked out with a trusty library card. “The Toronto music scene is exploding, and it’s getting international attention,” she says. “So the library should be collecting those materials and documenting this moment in history. It makes perfect sense that we would develop this collection.”
Launching the collection with a concert made perfect sense to Heggum, too, though she admits there’s something crazy about the whole idea. “Sure, libraries are typically quiet, and concerts are loud. But it gets people’s attention and it gets them realizing that books are fantastic — and that’s a huge part of what the library’s about, but we have so much more.”
Beyond the rows of stacks and catalogues, the library is one of the few public spaces left in modern Canadian cities where teens can hang out away from the watchful eyes of teachers, parents or mall security guards. Generally, though, libraries have a bad rap for being uncool. “We have an image problem,” Heggum admits. “But the library’s completely changed. It’s a lot louder, for one thing.”
As the first youth collections librarian serving patrons ages 13 to 24 across the TPL system, Heggum is dedicated to giving the library a youth-friendly image make-over.
A quick look around the concert reveals that most of the volunteers are teenagers. They hand out programs, work the merch table and announce each band. Teens were an integral part of planning the concert, from designing the flyer to spreading the word on blogs and at school. They’re all part of the TPL’s youth advisory groups, teen volunteers who make suggestions to librarians about programming, materials and use of library space. Heggum started forming these groups at the beginning of her career at the TPL, and now they’re in branches across the city.
Heggum was one of the first people in Canada to represent youth interests in the library system, at a time when teen patrons were being neglected. After beginning her career as a young adult librarian in New York City, she returned to Canada to find that library programs for young children far outnumbered services for young adults.
While working as a business services librarian in Pickering, Ontario, Heggum convinced the library to create a job for her in teen services. The first thing she did was set up a youth advisory group. At the time, very few libraries in Canada were working directly with teens. There weren’t even classes on teen services available in library science programs at universities. “I was feeling very alone,” Heggum recalls. “There weren’t very many places to turn to.”