The corner of Main and Hastings may intimidate some, but Natalie Porter knew this was the area she wanted to work in.
Last month, Porter became the head of the Vancouver Public Library’s branch at the Carnegie Community Centre, located on the southwest corner of the well-known Downtown Eastside intersection.
“This was my one and only long-term career goal — to be here,” said Porter. “I think librarians naturally love to serve and share and find resources and be a part of a community, and this is the ultimate place if you’re passionate about community. The centre itself, connecting in with all the different services, learning all the different opportunities that are here — there’s so much going on.”
Carnegie Community Centre is often referred to as the living room of the Downtown Eastside. The library inside is no different and works closely with the centre for events and initiatives.
“The space itself is a quiet refuge where people can come,” said Porter. “They don’t have to justify why they’re here.”
Tall shelves and long wooden tables welcome everyone to grab a book and wind down. There are three computers for public use, limited to half-an-hour sessions as there are often lineups. Patrons love puzzles, and generous stacks of photocopied sudoku puzzles and crossword pages from newspapers are made available by branch staff near the library’s entrance.
Porter said some popular choices are DVDs, westerns, sci-fi and Chinese kung fu novels.
It can be difficult for residents without permanent addresses to acquire a VPL card, so a special Carnegie Reading Room card bypasses this and allows individuals to borrow materials from the branch. Staff also try to be flexible with overdue books.
“We try to accommodate people where they’re at,” said Porter.
Porter started off as a library assistant with the VPL in 2006 and later pursued studies at the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies at UBC. She worked as a community librarian at the VPL for three years before switching to her new position as Carnegie’s branch head.
Originally from Ontario, Porter was initially intimidated by the area when she moved to Vancouver in 1996, but that soon changed after experiencing the area as a community librarian.
“At first glance it might seem quite harsh and raw,” she said. “At the same time, after hanging out here, it’s a place of deep empathy and love and really vibrant in the sense that people know each other, and perhaps they’ve been here for quite some time.”
Porter stressed the importance of listening. “Instead of coming in with great ideals to change, just be really open to people’s stories.”
Popular events include health fairs in the alley, book giveaways on Friday afternoons due to the huge amount of donations received by the VPL as well as visits by many local authors. The branch is always interested in new innovations to serve the interests of the community.
“I actually feel really humbled to be here,” said Porter. “I think it’s a privilege to be here to be a part of people’s stories and experiences. I’m excited to see how everything evolves.”