Provenance the Web Magazine
ISSN 1203-8954 - Vol.2 No.3 Winter 1997

History of Women's Information Centre - YWCA Vancouver, BC, Canada 1995 - 1997

By - Alison Halyk

The staff at the Women's Information Centre in Vancouver are making history.  It is through their unique efforts that they can justifiably claim that the history being made belongs to them.  Since the Centre opened its doors to the community in January 1995, it has undergone various changes and taken new directions, but the staff have remained true to the original vision.  Keeping a keen eye on the changing needs of the clients they serve, and maintaining a commitment to ongoing evaluation of their services, the Centre is becoming an increasingly popular place for YWCA employees and the local community.

The birth of an information centre at the YWCA began with a need.  The YWCA was receiving many phonecalls from women seeking information.  They had questions regarding issues on employment, counselling, housing, day care, support for single mothers - to name a few.  The receptionist was adept at providing numbers for these women to call, but often it was not as straightforward as that.  Many of these women needed someone to talk to, someone who had the time to listen to their needs and provide them with information or the appropriate referral.  The idea of a separate information centre began to take form.  With resource material gleaned from the individual collections of the various Directors, of housing, child care, health and fitness, etc., a useful collection was developed.  It made sense to provide a space where this collection could be placed and easily accessed by YWCA employees and the community as a whole.

A planning committee was set up to make decisions on what this resource centre would be:  its function and purpose, physical atmosphere, services, and staffing. Consultations were made with the Directors.  There were differing opinions.  Some saw the Centre more as a special library, with reference books, research materials, serials, informational letters and pamphlets. Others wanted it to be a place of refuge, where women could come and relax, have a cup of tea, read a book or magazine, and find answers to their questions.  One function, however, was pretty clear.  The Centre would provide an information and referral service to YWCA programs and services as well as to agencies and organizations outside of the YWCA.  And, in the tradition of the YWCA as an organization, the centre would be committed to meeting the existing and changing needs of the community.

The Women's Information Centre, or WIC, as it has come to be known, was to be located in the YWCA's new Program Centre at 535 Hornby Street.  Having a designated space, and a pooled collection of resource materials, the next step was to find someone to set up the new centre. The YWCA contracted June Love, in September 1994, to organize the setting up process.  Love took time out from her job as head librarian at the Ministry of Women's Equality in Victoria to spend several months on the WIC project.

Love's task was considerable.  After moving the resource collection from the old YWCA building to its new site, she weeded, sorted, and developed it.  Love was integral to planning the design of the physical space within the Centre.  Although contained in one large room, the space is divided into two areas. One area has softer lighting, couches, a coffee table, and magazines nearby.  The other side is more like a library with a work table and chairs, brighter lighting, and easier access to the books and research materials.  This design effectively incorporated several functions into one centre: an information and referral service, a reference library, and a welcoming and supportive place to read, work relax and ask questions.  When Love's contract ended in February 1995, she returned to her position at the Ministry.

Opening night with Neal Chan, June Love & Jean Lederer Love enlisted the help of one of the Centre's earliest volunteers, Neal Chan.  He donated much of his time to doing public relations and soliciting donations for the new Centre.  One of his major coups was getting several offers of corporate donations of Internet access accounts and Web Site sponsorships e.g. Cyberstore Systems Inc.. Chan, joined by another volunteer, Jean Lederer, MLS, formed the opening team with Love.

Lederer, a librarian who was doing freelance consulting work in the area of special libraries, donated her time to work on cataloguing and automation for the Centre.  After Love left in February, Lederer continued as a volunteer until the summer.  During the early months after the Centre's opening, the centre suffered from inadequate volunteer staffing.  At certain times, the Centre remained open but had no staff on duty.  A decision was eventually made to hire a librarian and Lederer was contracted to fill the position temporarily for the summer.

In September 1995, Arlene Higgs, MLS, was hired.  Higgs was previously working at the Gerontology Research Centre at Simon Fraser University.  Under the direction of Higgs, a functional and organized volunteer program was instigated.  Opportunities for library technician students to do their practicums at the centre were offered.  Library Science students from UBC were encouraged to do their "professional experience" projects at WIC.  One of the recurring problems the Centre experienced with volunteer staffing, was losing these volunteers to paying jobs.  It was difficult to maintain a consistent schedule when volunteers were coming and going.

One of the Centre's long-term volunteers, Moira Fulton, came on board in November 1995.  Fulton comes from a strong "information counselling" background, having previously worked at Information Services Vancouver.  As a volunteer at ISV, Fulton was able to use her skills in information and referral, a process of talking and listening to women and suggesting options for them.  Information and referral is a vital service provided by the staff WIC.  Another key volunteer providing information and referral is Elysia Donald.  Donald started by volunteering one day a week at WIC in October 1995, having just started her first semester at Langara College in the Library Technician Program.  She continued as a volunteer throughout her college semesters.  In May 1997, upon completion of the program, she was hired on staff as Resources Coordinator.

Donald's position requires her to be very flexible. She has a multitude of tasks to carry out.  In providing information and referral services, she spends a lot of time with clients, finding out what their needs are.  In many cases, the clients have direct questions about housing, employment, services for single moms, and the other resources available at WIC.  But there are also those calls from clients in crisis, women who do not know where to turn for help.  It can be very challenging to provide these women with referrals for them to get the help that they need.

Another of Donald's tasks is to process book orders once they have been researched and selected by Higgs.  In the early days of WIC, many of the books in the centre's collection were donated by YWCA staff.  The Centre now has a budget for acquiring books.  Using Inmagic® software program (which provides a database with a library component), Donald orders, receives, and does some cataloguing of the books selected.  Management of the wide range of free pamphlets, the video collection, university calendars, and periodicals, is also part of Donald's job.  The Internet is accessed and used as a research tool.  Searches are conducted for clients, and information is put together that is useful and pertinent to the client's needs. The scope of information that WIC provides opens the door to many different and wide ranging inquiries.

Statistics collected by the WIC staff show that about one-third of their clients are interested in employment information.  The centre provides information on jobs, education & training, and preparation for employment.  Information about housing for women, primarily single moms, is another popular request. 

Two areas WIC has added to their resource base have been Legal Resources for women, and a section for Older Women.  WIC staff are dedicated to expanding to meet the changing needs of the community they serve.  It is apparent in talking with them that they are forward thinking and always open to new ideas.

Some program ideas in the past have fallen through owing to lack of support or funding. One such idea was to set up a program to train women to use the Internet, similar to what the Vancouver Public Library offers to the general public.  Unfortunately, it did not go through due to lack of funds (for more terminals, Internet time).  New ideas for the future might include lunch-time talks with guest speakers, and more emphasis on self-promotion, which has already begun.

A three-pronged internal and external marketing plan for the future has been developed by Higgs.  One focus of the plan is to promote Higgs' abilities:  primarily her expertise in research.  Pamphlet distribution throughout the community is one of the promotional activities undertaken; getting the word out about what WIC has to offer.  Putting the word out internally at staff breakfasts and other YWCA staff gatherings has resulted in more employees using the services of WIC.  Purchasing books that are relevant to the various departments within the Y, has also been helpful in increasing interest.  Higgs has also been doing some public speaking.  Engagements at the University of B.C.'s Library and Information Science Department have made students and faculty more aware of the resources available to them at WIC.  With the increasing interest, both internally and externally, WIC staff have been keeping careful statistics on who their clients are, and their numbers.  This is essential, not only to demonstrate the scope and level of their service, but more importantly, to track the needs of the community and plan future directions

WIC's third year anniversary is coming up in January 1998.  The staff have remained true to their vision of changing with the needs of the community, and providing services which are current and relevant to those needs.  A positive factor in WIC's development has been the commitment and continuity of the staff.  Each member has brought their own set of special skills and abilities to the project.  The result, so far, has been successful.

Early scenes from WIC:

Old YW board room and reading room YW's former combination Board Room and Reading Collection.
June uncrating boxes of books June Love and her grand-daughter unpacking during the move to the YWCA's new Program Centre in December 1994 and January 1995

Elysia Donald, Resources Coordinator, Women's Information Centre.
Arlene Higgs, Librarian/Manager, Women's Information Centre.
Neal Chan, Publisher, Provenance the Web Magazine.
Jean Lederer, Librarian, Part-time instructor at Langara College.
YWCA Annual Report, 1994.
Wong, Brenda, "Non-book materials essential to Women's Information Centre." Provenance the Web Magazine, Vol. 1, no.2, March 1996.

Alison Halyk © October 1997

See also
· YWCA Vancouver Women's Information Center website 2001

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