February 17, 2018

Marilyn Wallace | Movers & Shakers 2003

An Irresistible Force


Over the years Marilyn Wallace has managed several branches of the Calgary Public Library (CPL), and everywhere she’s gone, she has increased programming, expanded library use, and forged new partnerships with community groups and social agencies.

At the Crescent Heights and Memorial Park branches, she built a partnership with Calgary’s art gallery and reached out to local literary groups to create a writer-in-residence program; earlier she’d coordinated Calgary’s first All-Alberta Writers Workshop. (The grateful members of the Alberta Romance Writers Association have made her an honorary lifetime member for her efforts.)

After Wallace doubled circulation and user satisfaction at the Louise Riley branch, Kitty Pope, CPL’s customer service manager, chose her to head the underused Village Square Library, located in an area marked by low income, low literacy, and great ethnic and linguistic diversity. Pope was sure that Wallace, an irresistible force, would turn this branch, too, into a vital center that would improve the lives of the area’s new Canadians.

Wallace didn’t wait for her new neighbors to come to her; she sent the library van out into the community to deliver story hours and other services. She and her staff went out and introduced themselves to childcare providers, social workers, immigration agencies, healthcare providers, and politicians, nurturing a sense of partnership with them all.

On a Punjabi radio broadcast, Wallace told 14,000 members of the Sikh community about the library and set up a library display following the annual Vasaikhi Parade. She sent librarians to take part in the Vietnamese Lunar Day Festival, Latin American Independence Day celebrations, Expo Latino, and breakfasts at the Calgary Stampede (“the greatest outdoor show on Earth”). She has made the library van a regular feature in the Santa Claus parade.

Every month, Wallace has library staff accompany a police officer, with armloads of books and library cards, to visit third-grade classes as part of a program called “It’s a Crime Not To Read.” They read to children and set up individual reading plans for them.

Now, she says, instead of having to go knock on doors and introduce herself, she and her staff are known and warmly welcomed in the neighborhood. Community agencies come to her with ideas for new joint ventures.

Wallace also lures people into the library by discovering their needs and meeting them. To help area residents master new job skills, she’s created a Technology Discovery Centre in the library, where her staff teaches computer courses in Punjabi, Cantonese, and Spanish. She also offers people a chance to learn the technology through volunteer and work experiences. When people are unable to afford the library’s annual $10 fee, she waives it. Her rule for staff is: strip away red tape when it gets in the way.

What Wallace loves about the job is the chance to design new programs that will make real differences in people’s lives. For her, “no idea is too crazy to pursue.” When she speaks at conferences about innovative service models for libraries, she tells her audience, “Dream big. Say, ‘Why not?’ to new ideas. Say, ‘Yes!’ to innovation and making a difference.”

The proof of Wallace’s success is not just in the statistics, or even that those numbers convinced the city council to renovate another branch library in hopes of duplicating her branch’s community-building effect.

For Wallace, the proof of success is the children running up to her to show her their favorite book. It’s in the proud smile on the face of a man who sent his first e-mail to a friend halfway around the world. It’s these “Ah! moments,” as she calls them, that make her profession so much fun that she occasionally marvels, “I still can’t believe that I get paid to do this!”




Current Position: Customer Service Manager, Village Square Library, Calgary Public Library, Alberta

Degree: MLS, University of Western Ontario, 1977