Dial-a-librarian: Throwback service charms Saskatoon

Librarians in the city still take burning questions over the phone. The Internet exists, but isn't accessible for everyone.

How do I find a home? Where's the nearest grocery store? Libraries still a go-to for vital information

Amanda Lepage heads Welcoming Initiatives at Saskatoon Public Libraries. The libraries' initiatives include increasing accessibility, helping clients navigate other services via social workers, and, of course, answering queries over the phone. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

How many bridges are there in San Francisco?

Before Google, the library had all the answers.

People called up the Saskatoon Public Library to check whether the latest hot novel had arrived. But they also called the front desk to settle bets and check the circumference of the Earth.

Some people still do.

It's not a service per se, just a tradition that never went away.

"We have people coming in and talking to us, people sending us e-mails," said Stephanie Kurmey, the senior manager of Frances Morrison Library's central access.

Frances Morrison is the main branch for Saskatoon and fields most of the quirky calls.

Stephanie Kurmey has worked in libraries small and large, including a university library. Her move to Saskatoon libraries has brought her back to her rural beginnings and the little-known services left over from years ago. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

The story goes that libraries have always been the place to find information — any information — and that librarians could find an answer for even the most obscure query.

The phone rings a lot less these days and the questions are of a different nature.

Some callers don't have access to the Internet. Some have trouble with basic calculations.

"We have a patron who's been calling for quite a few years," said Kurmey. "There's no calculator at home and it's just sort of quick little things."

Sometimes patrons throw front-desk staff a softball, like "How do you become a librarian?"

Remember that recipe from 10 years go?

The Frances Morrison Library in Saskatoon is the main branch for the city. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

The advent of the Blackberry, and the smartphone revolution it heralded, changed everything. In 2019 it is unusual not to have a cellphone with access to the Internet and all the information it contains.

But what about that recipe you saw in the paper 10 years ago? All you can remember about it is that it had rhubarb and honey.

"We can actually go in and find that for them and we can read it over the phone," said Kurmey.

Cooking shows on television ask the viewer to go to their website after the show for more details. Some people don't have a computer to look up the instructions, or they can't navigate the site.

Librarians to the rescue.

Our place isn't really to release judgment, which is tricky. So we offer people facts.- Amanda Lepage, Saskatoon Public Libraries

The patrons in search of recipes are generally older than those who used to ask for the number of bridges in any given city.

Their questions have morphed into requests for essential information and accessibility.

A widower relied on his wife to select books and bring them home to him. After her death, he had difficulty both getting to the library and communicating with staff once he got there.

The patron was paired with an outreach social worker who helped him navigate the library to accommodate his limited speech.

Facts, not opinions

The Q&A service falls under welcoming initiatives at the library. Amanda Lepage is the senior manager and leads staff in an effort to reduce barriers to library services.

"Or just general barriers to life," she said.

When patrons are unable to access the library in person, librarians find a way to deliver information to them anyway. (Jim Lebans/CBC )

Newcomers to the city often reach for the telephone in search of a guide. They ask where the nearest grocery store is located or which neighbourhood is the safest.

"Our place isn't really to release judgment, which is tricky. So we offer people facts," said Lepage.

Patrons are often referred to social workers available at the library to help them access other services they need, but there are still many thing the welcome desk can help with.

Recently an outreach worker explained Kijiji to someone looking for housing. They set up viewings on the patron's cell phone.

I just can't get there

A staple of the Saskatoon Public Library — and libraries all around the world — is its commitment putting books in the hands of those who treasure them.

Small libraries have long stood in the retirement and care homes of Saskatoon.

Though it's labour intensive, a courier service left over from years ago still exists and still gets used. It's called the "home reader program" and delivers words that some patrons might never have had the chance to read.

"They're living on their own," said Lepage. "They do like to read and some people, in wintertime, they just can't navigate the sidewalks with the snow and ice."

Librarians ask callers a few questions to determine exactly what kind of service they need arrange for the books to be delivered. The next time they visit, couriers pick up the old books and bring them a fresh selection.

About the Author

Bridget Yard


Bridget Yard is a video journalist based in Saskatoon. She has also worked for CBC in Fredericton and Bathurst, N.B.


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