By Surbhi Gogia
Surrey’s libraries go beyond the traditional role of serving as a place for books. They are important part of community building says Surrey’s new chief librarian Surinder Bhogal
“To build up a library is to create a life. It’s never just a random collection of books,” says a famous journalist Carlos María Domínguez. Surinder Bhogal, Surrey’s new chief librarian’s journey to this position is a live example of this quote. Her passion to help people acquire life-long learning attracted her towards libraries. She started working in an inner-city college library in London, England in early 90’s where she saw the importance of library beyond books.
“I saw how vital the library was to the students – having the space, resources, and skilled librarians to be able to assist them with assignments; or for some who were new to the country – helping improve their reading skills. I love being able to help people to make a difference in their lives, whether it’s learning a new skill like how to use a computer, or sharing with a parent the importance of reading to their babies.”
Bhogal was born in Tanzania and grew up in Kenya until age eight, when her family moved to the UK. After completing her bachelor of Science in Management from the University of Manchester and later a masters degree in Library and Information Studies from University College London, she moved to Canada in 1996, one of her first jobs was at a Chapters store. She started her journey to the world of city libraries from there. After 20 years, she is heading all the nine libraries of Surrey.
During these 20 years she has made enormous contribution in every position. She was instrumental in the planning and opening of both Strawberry Hill and City Centre Libraries. She says all 9 branches of Surrey libraries are “as varied and unique as the neighbourhoods they are located in” ranging from a 77,000 square foot library at City Centre to a 1,200 square foot branch in Port Kells.
Pointing at some of the other unique aspects of Surrey libraries she says, “The Cloverdale Library has the best genealogical collection in Western Canada. Strawberry Hill and Newton have strong collections focused on South Asian heritage and books in Punjabi, Hindi & Urdu. We also offer computer classes in Punjabi at Strawberry Hill and a Punjabi discussion book club at Fleetwood. Most of our branches have affordable meeting rooms for the public and local businesses to rent. There’s something for everyone at their local Surrey Library.”
According to Bhogal public libraries are the last democratic place. They are neutral, non-commercial and they welcome all members of the community regardless of social or economic standing. She says libraries are vital community resources and the City of Surrey is a strong supporter. “Ninety five percent of library funding comes from the municipal government and we work together to promote the value of literacy, lifelong learning and connections that the public library offers.”
Bhogal is quiet opposed to the view that libraries are losing their relevance in this rapidly changing world of technology. A world where everything is available at the touch of a finger, how difficult is it be to convince young generation for a visit to library?
She feels just the opposite. She says the internet and e-books have not replaced libraries – quite the opposite. Surrey Libraries welcomed 2.5 million people in 2015 and we are one of the most used community services in the city, according to her. “Our libraries touch the lives of a wide range and large number of people – whether pre-schoolers, seniors, people with disabilities, business people, job seekers, new Canadians or someone who loves fiction by South Asian authors – the library provides service to them. We help people navigate and make sense of the information on the internet. We still teach many people basic computer literacy skills – the library is an equalizer when it comes to digital literacy as many people cannot afford computers, broadband or expensive data plans. Libraries will continue to play a role in connecting people to lifelong learning, information and ideas.”
Convinced that public library is one of the most important aspects of developing and involving a community, Bhogal became a great force behind the city centre library project that was launched in 2009. It opened in September 2009. She says, “The City Centre Library served as a catalyst to economic development in the Surrey downtown core. The previous small library in that area did not meet the needs to the growing community. The city wanted to build a downtown core in North Surrey, and the library was a vital part of creating that civic hub.”
The design was awarded to Bing Thom Architects. A $36 million project and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certified, the four storey library is spread across 78,000 sq ft of usable space.
The central library has 100,000-item collection of print materials which is modest for a large urban library, it is focused on community services such as language programs for Surrey’s large immigrant population, youth and adult programs, and computer access. It features non-traditional facilities like a cafe, an iPad station for children, a meditation room (which also serves as a prayer room), and bookable study room spaces.
Before taking the position of chief librarian, Bhogal was deputy chief librarian of the central library. She brings with her long experience and understanding in community outreach and partnership building. Her next project is — Clayton Library. This project includes a recreation and arts centre along with the library – and to be built in one of the fastest growing communities in Canada. “Opening is projected to be in 2019, so the next 2 years our staff will be busy working on designing and planning on this project.”
While sharing her vision for the Surrey libraries, she says, ” I am excited I would also like to see Surrey Libraries keep up with the growth in the City, to ensure that all neighbourhoods are served by a library – or at least people do not have to drive far to reach a library. I would like to increase awareness of our services – many Surrey residents are newcomers, some from where public libraries do not exist. My mission is to ensure as many people as possible understand that a public library has something for them – to expand their horizons, learn a new skill, meet a friend, access resources to help their families and themselves succeed.”