A long-term volunteer on the Smithers library board is stepping down.
Wally Bergen has been part of the board for the last 17 years, with only one small break. Terms are only supposed to be for eight years but his first term was extended for a year, he took one off, and then jumped back on for another eight. Now, he said it is time for some fresh faces on the board.
“I think it’s time for new ideas, new people,” he said. “You don’t want to be involved in something too long, especially as a chair of something. Otherwise, it becomes stamped too much of one person’s image.”
Bergen first got involved when he moved to Smithers 18 years ago for work. He was involved with the Williams Lake library before moving.
“I’ve always felt that libraries are really valuable in that knowledge, recreational reading, and as a community gathering place. Those three things just make society life better,” he said.
He added the Smithers library looked a little different when he first got involved.
“It was more of a traditional library, where you walked in and you’re quiet,” he said. “And it didn’t recognize as much Indigenous values. And it wasn’t as diverse I would say, as far as the book collection. Like now, LGBTQ is covered, reconciliations is covered in there…. any topic you can think of, either we have in the library, or we can get through Interlibrary Loan.”
The outside also looked a lot different. One of Bergen’s favourite projects accomplished while he was on the board was the courtyard in the front of the building.
“There was basically nothing there,” he explained. “And then the town said that they’re going to put in drainage around the library. And the library board realized that this was an excellent time to renovate the front of the library and make it more appealing to people. And so we had volunteers and donations of material. And as they put the drainage in around the perimeter of the library, we built the courtyard that is there now.”
He said not only is it beautiful, but it is functional as people can sit there and use the library’s internet. The benches started to get used before it was even finished.
“When we were putting them in, we bolted one in place,” he recalled. “We went to do the second one, and I looked up and there was a woman and three kids sitting at the first bench as we were bolting the second one in place. I thought ‘Oh, awesome.’ So back to work we went and when we were putting the third one in place, I looked up and there was a fellow sitting there in the second one using the Wi-Fi.”
Bergen was also involved with the Friends of the Library, an organization that raises funds for the library. They hold a fundraising book sale every year. One year, volunteers found a donated book that had been hollowed out with $1,400 cash in it. They were able to trace that book back to the owners and offered to return that money. However, one member of the library board also made a suggestion to the book owner’s family about donating it.
“One of their parents had died not long previously, we suggested that we could put a bench in with a plaque honouring their parents,” Bergen said. “And they said, ‘Sure, go for the bench.’ So that’s how we got the fourth and final bench. Kind of bringing together many things, volunteers and donations and just community spirit.”
Over the last several years, the board has been working toward building a new library.
The Town of Smithers, Smithers Public Library and Smithers Art Gallery were working together for a long time trying to bring a new library/gallery building to the town.
There were different concepts over the years and a couple of failed grant applications, so the art gallery pulled out from the project earlier this year.
“If you’re building something, there has to be an appetite from the provincial and federal governments to contribute into that. So if you don’t have the right mix, it’s not very likely you’ll be successful in getting a grant,” he explained.
“It would have been excellent to have the gallery and the library together. But the gallery itself has really improved in the last three or four years, like the outside of the building. It’s a really strong complement to Smithers.
“And then the inside, the gallery itself has done a lot to improve their ability to market as well as display. And so their need for a new building, they thought wasn’t as high. And they suggested that they would drop out of the project. And then maybe that would give better possible success as far as federal and provincial funding.”
He said it was a smart and strategic move, adding the gallery has to be appreciated for recognizing the upsides to pulling out of the project.
“There’s nothing negative about this separation, I think it was positive for the gallery, and I think was positive for the library and for the community,” he said.
The library and the Town still intend to continue working toward a new library building to meet the current needs of the community. They will look into exploring alternative models that may increase the likelihood of receiving the necessary financial support from senior levels of government.
Bergen said it will be a matter of finding a new partner and suggested that maybe an addition of a daycare centre to a new building would entice other levels of government to contribute to the project.
He hopes the new library will be a warm and inviting place.
“People think of libraries as being like a shed full of books,” he said. “But to me, libraries are way more than that. They’re also social gathering places like the living room of the community. And to me to have a really warm inviting library, which invites people to come in, and to either read and contemplate by themselves or use their computers, or to interact with other people.”
Bergen said now that he isn’t on the library board, he has more time to volunteer for other organizations and spend more time with his family. He will continue to volunteer with the Friends of the Library.
Library director Wendy Wright said he will be missed and his contributions were endless. She called him one of the leading figures in the repeated attempts to obtain an updated public library facility. Along with his wife Wendy, he spent hundreds of hours doing odd jobs and building furniture for Smithers Public Library and they never charged their time.
She said he was also a never-ending advocate for Smithers Public Library in thee community, persistent, dedicated, committed, and has wonderful sense of humour.
“It has been truly inspiring to work with Wally over the years. He is one of the most dedicated volunteers and library advocates that I have ever met, constantly raising awareness of, and funds for, the library in the community,” she said.
The Smithers town council representative for the library board in the last term, John Buikema echoed the sentiment.
“Wally has been a lifelong advocate, champion and supporter of BC libraries,” he said. “In Smithers, he has been involved in numerous book sales, he has given leadership to several attempts at building a new library facility, he has led fundraising efforts for a new library, and he has worked at building a healthy relationship between the Library Board and the staff of the library.
“Wally genuinely loves people, has a wonderful sense of humour, and has set a wonderful example of what it means to be positively involved in one’s community. His gifts and volunteer spirit will truly be missed on both the Library Board and on the Friends of the Library.”
Former The Interior News columnist and former library board member Loraine Dorian said Bergen was an excellent teacher and provided incredible leadership on the board.
“Wally is a strong person. While on the Library Board he was able to guide the Board with his leadership and knowledge into becoming the great Board it now is,” she said.
“I learned a lot from him as he is patient, not afraid to speak up, presents ideas calmly, never forces these ideas, just waits for people to see their worth. And they were always good ideas that were beneficial for the library and the town. He was firm in his feelings that the library could and should be vital to the town and the people that live there. He will be missed but I have a feeling he will still be around, making sure that the library continues to be the greatest little library ever!”
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