Bryant Park

New York inspires Sidney's Open-Air Library

June 2, 2015
Geoff Johnson, Times Colonist

People come back from New York with a variety of impressions and stories to tell. For shoppers, it is the mega department stores; for music lovers, it is that night at the Blue Note, home of A-list jazz musicians, or even a concert at Carnegie Hall.

For Marlene Dergousoff, retired educator and lifelong literacy advocate, it was the Bryant Park Library Reading Room.

Nestled behind the New York Public Library main branch, Bryant Park is an outdoor oasis of public literacy, a refuge of peace and calm from the frenetic activity of the metropolis.

It is a visible reassurance that even in the heart of one of the world’s busiest cities, people like to read.

The Bryant Park Reading Room is a warm-weather, “open-air library” featuring free books and magazines to read on the premises with no library card required.

The large, park-like space also hosts authors for readings and book signings. City workers, moms with kids and people just looking for somewhere outside that is a safe and comfortable place spend their days enjoying the latest periodicals free without having to go inside to the library.

A reading room co-ordinator oversees the area, cleans the chairs and tables and maintains a rack of books, both old and new, available to readers.

One reader was pleasantly surprised to find a series of Harvard Law Review books.

Inspired by what she saw in New York and with the support of a committee of like-minded retired educators, Dergousoff, who is the co-ordinator for Saanich Peninsula Community Literacy, decided that there was no reason that Beacon Park in Sidney would not be the ideal location for a similar open-air free library.

So beginning July 7 and every Tuesday through the summer into fall, Beacon Park in Sidney will become an Open Air Free Library from 10 a.m. until noon.

Sidney Mayor Steve Price and his staff responded so positively to the idea that they have waived any fee for the once-a-week use of the park, along with the damage deposit — certainly a model for other communities wanting to do more than talk about the importance of literacy.

Books will be provided from several sources.

The 1000X5 children’s’ book recycling project will provide age-appropriate books.

For books for older readers, the Saanich chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women, which holds a book drive every year, has stepped up, along with members of Saanich Peninsula Community Literacy.

The books will be sorted and kept in age-grouped roller suitcases attended by volunteers. The suitcases have been decorated by a local Girl Guide group.

Access to the books will be free on a take-home basis. As Dergousoff says: “If a reader loves a book, they can keep it and we’ll find more books.”

If that sounds unrealistically optimistic, it brings to mind that this writer, like hundreds or thousands of other people, has basement shelves full of books, all in “read once” condition, which neither I nor my family will ever read again.

The Beacon Park Open Air Library needs these books.

Also provided for reader comfort will be some blankets to sit on. Sidney already provides benches where people can simply sit, read and enjoy their day.

Literacy: It’s a word that gets tossed around a lot, a little like Mark Twain’s tongue-in-cheek observation about the weather: “Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.”

As doers, not talkers, the folks behind Sidney’s Beacon Park Open Air Library hope to raise the importance of reading and demonstrate that literacy can be anywhere and everywhere.

This, they believe, will strengthen the conversation about literacy in their community by providing the opportunity for readers of all ages to enjoy reading in a relaxed and familiar environment — free, no strings attached.

“Come and join us and read,” Dergousoff says.