Vancouver Black Library creates community beyond books

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      Nestled in unit #072 of the Sun Wah Centre at 268 Keefer Street, close to the historic displaced Black neighbourhood of Hogan’s Alley, is the community hub of Vancouver Black Library (VBL).

      First dreamed up in early 2022 by executive director Maya Preshyon and officially opened that September, the library is a completely volunteer-run venture—with many of the people on the board balancing grassroots work with full-time education.

      “2023 was great. We really saw a lot of community banding together for the library, and that’s what we wanted it to be from its inception,” says Etaremi Brisibe, director of communications, who’s been involved with the library since the beginning. Library regulars used “the space as a venue, coming together to create their own book clubs; we had a Christmas market at the end of the year—it was wonderful.”

      With a mandate to spread liberation through access to education, the VBL has become a beloved part of the local community in a pretty short timespan.

      Beyond simply acquiring and lending out books by Black and racialized authors, the VBL has quickly proven a hub for the community—from regular Couch Jams showcasing musical talent to providing resources related to all manner of historical, equity, and anti-colonial topics.

      For Black History Month, there are plans for a matchmaker-style platonic Valentine’s party to encourage people to rub elbows, write letters, or do crafts; as well as the possibility of a zine night, poetry readings, and a Lunar New Year celebration. Looking further ahead, there are hopes to gather the resources to facilitate teaching DJing and music production.

      In general, the VBL generally attracts people between 18 to 35, who stay up to date with the organization’s Instagram page. Brisibe hopes 2024 is the year that the age range expands as the library hosts some more family-focused events.

      “We want to reach an older generation that maybe we haven’t seen in the library yet, and also younger generations,” she says. “We’re picking up more children’s book acquisitions, and we’re going to have some schools around for field trips.”

      Metro Vancouver notoriously has a small Black population, but census data suggests it’s rising: between 2016 and 2021, total number of Black residents climbed by 38 per cent, from 29,830 to 41,180—ticking up from 1.2 per cent of the population to 1.6 per cent.

      Brisibe, who moved to the city from Calgary in 2019 to attend the University of British Columbia, says there’s been an increase of community grassroots initiatives in recent years, which the VBL is just one small part of.

      “I’ve seen so many more Black people in the last few years than I did before that,” Brisibe says. “The library, for example, is people finding community, but even little Black connection groups and running groups—people are really making the effort to band together and support each other… Sometimes, you have to be intentional about creating the spaces you want to be in.”

      The library aspect remains important, too. Building the locale from the ground up meant being able to challenge some of the “unknowingly racist” systems that are built into library science, says Brisibe. The VBL has weeding sessions, where volunteers read suggested material to make sure it’s a good fit; titles are separated out by distinct diasporas instead of shoving everything under a too-broad umbrella; and the non-punitive lending system ensures books are free for members to take out for two weeks at a time, with no fines for late returns.

      “There’s often not enough separation for SWANA—Southwest Asian and North African—peoples; that was a category we had to consider,” Brisibe explains. “And then someone in one of our first weeding sessions said, ‘Hey, you guys have grouped this kind of Caribbean population into this; I feel like this is not thinking about this historical aspect.’ So, we’re really trying to dismantle our known systems, and create something that works for our community, and can actually help you find something based on what you’re looking for.”

      Despite the VBL’s successes, fundraising remains the biggest issue it faces.

      “We started using grassroots and mutual efforts for funding, and we started a Ko-fi to create rolling subscriptions for people who wanted to support us,” Brisibe notes, adding that finding grant funding and even grant writers has proven difficult. “There’s not enough funding for non-profits, for community efforts, that are doing the work we’re doing—we’re always trying to partner with other organizations who are also trying to support the people we’re supporting.”

      Community-supported (and community-supporting) work might not be easy, but it’s important—-and it makes everyone stronger.