In university, Pilar Martinez didn’t initially think about working in a library after her education — in fact, she didn’t even know librarianship could even be a career. But while doing research for her honours thesis, she came across a librarian who inspired her.
“If you asked him a question, everyone in the library knew about it because he’d say in his really big voice: ‘Oh come with me!'” says Martinez, now the CEO of Edmonton Public Library (EPL). “And there was something about that connection, that serivce, that really piqued my interest.”
Of course, Martinez says, she loves books. But even more, she loves finding ways to make people’s lives better through learning, growth and connection. And libraries have been the perfect medium through which she can achieve that goal.
On the day of our interview, she was awarded the prestigious Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Medal, recognizing outstanding service. EPL has also received many awards related to innovation and designations under Martinez’s leadership. Edmonton, for example, was named the first Canadian City to join UNESCO’s network of top learning cities in the world.
For the first part of Martinez’s career, she worked as the manager of public services for Yellowhead Regional Library, where she saw an incredible amount of collaboration and sharing. So, when she started as a district manager at EPL, a much larger organization, she saw that branches were doing their own things. She decided to not only connect the libraries themselves, but create connections within the community.
“The idea is really that we build relationships with individuals that we are serving and understand the needs they have and how we can provide library services that meet those needs and break down any barriers,” says Martinez.
The Stanley Milner library in particular often saw a demographic of people who were struggling. Issues of homelessness, and addiction were common and Martinez says her staff did not have the skill set, training or education to provide support. But that did not stop her from finding a way to help.
Currently there are three social workers who can assist in a variety of ways from securing identification to health-related supports, food and housing needs and supports for domestic violence. Stanley Milner has space for housing, support workers, occupational therapy students and outreach workers helping newcomers.
And the community-led programs just keep growing. By consulting and collaborating with Indigenous communities, EPL has many programs, events and classes that aim to build community and understanding between Indigenous and non-indigenous people. There’s an elder-in-residence program, free online Cree courses, and the Stanley A Milner branch has EPL’s first dedicated Indigenous space for ceremony and gatherings.
Martinez sees literacy to encompass a much broader scope than some might expect. For Martinez, literacy encompasses everything from knowledge of technology — EPL Makerspaces offer instruction and access to recording studios, 3D printers and more — to cooking at Stanley Milner’s community kitchen to teaching children pre-literacy skills or just learning about unique perspectives through EPLs Speakers Series where Monica Lewinsky recently spoke.
The design of the libraries themselves can reflect that dedication to learning as evidenced by the two-story simulation wall at the downtown library where people can learn about things like the great barrier reef or Indigenous astronomy through touch.
The idea that some people see libraries as archaic — since so much information is available online — makes her laugh. “There are so many different things that you can do at the library today and sometimes folks think of the library the way they used it as a kid or when they went to university. They don’t realize that we have evolved just like so many other things,” says Martinez.