Meet The Montreal Children's Library — our CBC charity of 2019

The library moonlights as a free, safe, after-school activity centre for local children. CBC Montreal is collecting donations for it this holiday season.

The 90-year-old library was created by 7 women who wanted to boost literacy

Paula Lebrasseur, 30, is the head librarian at the library, located in Villeray—Saint-Michel—Parc-Extension. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

In recognition of the work The Montreal Children's Library does, CBC Montreal has chosen it as the beneficiary of its 2019 charity drive. Donations can be made online and at the CBC Sing-In.

Most of the kids and teens just nod to librarian Paula Lebrasseur on their way to the computers behind her, but some stop for a hug and she stands to welcome them — like a family member.

"Some kids have called me 'mom' by accident," Lebrasseur says.

In the grey area between guardian and librarian, she sometimes finds herself worrying about the regulars if they don't show up after school.

In those cases, sometimes she'll call the parents or they'll call her.

The Montreal's Children's Library, located in Villeray—Saint-Michel—Parc-Extension, moonlights as a free, safe, after-school activity centre for kids in the area.

It has been that way since 1929, when reading was combined with activities like puppet shows and ballet at different branches of the library.

That list of activities has since been updated to offer workshops in coding and filmmaking.

The library has spent 90 years serving children in less privileged areas of Montreal. (Submitted by The Montreal Children's Library)

But the organization's precarious financial situation has been ongoing and it shuttered two of its last three branches — in Little Burgundy and Shaughnessy Village — in 2016. 

Fighting for literacy

In September 1929, seven women wanted to bring children's libraries to less privileged areas of the city, since only Westmount Library had offerings for children at the time.

So they founded the library, running primarily on donations.

According to the library's archives, its first head librarian, Violet Mary McEwan, said the stock market crash — only a month after they opened — took a toll on what they were hoping to accomplish.

"Nevertheless, we have managed to carry on," McEwan said.

Despite struggling during the Depression, over the years 11 branches opened around the city.

The first branch of The Montreal Children's Library opened in 1929. (Submitted by The Montreal's Children's Library)

Organizers prioritized opening branches in communities where there were many low-income families, immigrant families and children with poor reading skills who would benefit from having access to a librarian.

Decades ago, a membership fee of five cents helped offset costs, but that was dropped in 1968 because it created a barrier for the most underprivileged children to access the library.

It has been completely free ever since.

Its one remaining branch operates out of a large room in the Villeray—Saint-Michel—Parc-Extension cultural centre.

The library is open six days per week and Lebrasseur, 30, is one of only a handful of employees.

While it looks like fundraising drives, donations and a grant from the borough will keep this last branch open — the distance between surviving and thriving is noticeable to those involved.

Stuff is good, staff is better

The library's space seems secure, but it needs more staff to help children with their reading and homework.

Lebrasseur concedes that it's not the kind of request that gets donors excited.

"Needing more library staff isn't 'sexy' but it's necessary," she said.

Lebrasseur herself took a pay cut to work there.

With a master's degree in library science, she would earn twice as much in the public system.

But if the long commute from Verdun to Saint-Michel doesn't deter her, that won't either.

The chess club is still a fixture at the library. (Submitted by The Montreal Children's Library)

Along with the funds needed to hire more staff, the library is looking to get more tablets so that kids can have access to reading apps and e-books.

It also hopes to revamp its small theatre space, and needs filmmaking and editing equipment. Workshops at the library currently rely on Lebrasseur's personal cell phone to film content.