CAMROSE — At the Camrose Public Library, kids are eating a snack and playing downstairs, seniors upstairs are being tutored on a subject of their choosing, and a group of young teenagers are studying in a quiet nook.
Every Wednesday afternoon, young people gather in what’s called the bunker, a safe space for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) teens and their friends to discuss life and its challenges.
“We call it the bunker, and a bunker is a space that you put things that are precious. And we thought, what is more precious than our teens who are in a community that is marginalized?” said Deb Cryderman, the library’s director.
“They didn’t have a space that was safe and theirs, and we also recognized we needed an LGBTQ safe space. It’s open to anyone who wants to use it.”
The Camrose library is a diverse place.
Every morning, about an hour before opening, staff unlock the doors so the city’s homeless can come in, grab food and get a coffee. They sit down, read a book, or go on the computer, enjoying the warmth inside especially when it’s frigid outside.
On that same day, a group of adults may be learning how to speak French or Spanish, or how to play the ukulele.
Cryderman thinks of the library as one of the last free spaces in the city for people to gather and meet one another. It costs money to go for coffee, she said, and taking programs elsewhere can also be expensive.
“I was just reading that one of the greatest predictors of having a long life is community, a sense of community,” she said. “We have people who come in here and say, ‘you’re the only person that I’ve talked to in the last three days.’ So, we want to have a space and create a space where people feel free to come.”
Cryderman has always felt the need to include others. Even when she was a little girl, she didn’t like it when someone was left out of a game on the playground.
“It’s always been important to me that people have a sense of belonging,” she said. “Social isolation has always been something that worries me. It doesn’t sit well, especially knowing that social isolation will cause an earlier death. So, why not be that space where people can just come in?”
Her staff say they feel the same way about bringing the community together. They’re the ones reading stories to children, offering book suggestions, organizing language classes and teaching people how to play instruments, among many other things.
“It’s not just, ‘come to the library, come get books and make sure you’re quiet,’ ” said Carly Angel-stad, the library’s community development co-ordinator. “It’s a different way of accessing it and it helps them start to feel comfortable in the library and feel safe. It’s an excellent place for community development to happen.”
One after-school program, called Snacks in the Stacks, has proven itself, said Nicole Bannick, who works with young children at the library.
Kids come to eat and play. When they’re nourished, she said, they do much better.
“They can focus better,” Bannick said.
But there’s still more programming Cryderman would like to bring in to respond to what the community wants.
“People are the heart of everything. Otherwise, we’re just a book storage facility.”