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Multicultural Initiatives, Strategic Office
Library and Archives Canada
Many members of the Somali community who live in Ottawa arrived as refugees to Canada as a consequence of civil war in Somalia. The number of arrivals was said to be "stabilizing" after an original influx of newcomers in the early 1990s. Community members noted that today, Somali heritage is represented in entirely new Canadian-born generations. The community was self-described as one in transition between settlement and integration.
Guests expressed an intense pride in and commitment to the value of the Somali language, (described as "rich and poetic" and a "source of self-esteem"), an important tie to home, legacy and origins. An attachment to the Somali language was said to be hard to foster in new generations, especially given limited opportunities for exposure. One guest pointed to the finite options for learning Somali within the university system in Canada.
Participants noted that oral communication and traditions predominate in this community, one in which information, history, and folklore have traditionally been exchanged by word of mouth rather than text; it is only recently that Somali has come into focus as a written language.
In this sense, recorded (or 'documentary') history may not be established to the extent evidenced in other communities. It was noted that this reality must be a consideration in any outreach and program development activity.
Focus group members reported that libraries are "not a Somali thing." In many cases, older generations of Somalis have lacked access to formal schooling and exposure to the literacy values at the heart of Canadian library systems. As a result, they may have more difficulty integrating into the Canadian context than younger generations; isolation can be a concern in these cases. In Somalia, the elderly garner respect and reverence; the reverse was seen to be true in Canada where older generations are not included in community life in the same way. The ideological distance between Somalis born in Canada and those born in Somalia was viewed as a challenge. Participants wondered how to unite two very distinct generations with different experiences and unique relationships to Somalia.
Guests expressed concern for the next generations of Somalis, particularly those born in the Canadian context. The group struggled with some key questions: What is [youth] understanding of and connection to home? Can they possibly carry on traditions, language and legacy if they are in touch with their Somali origins in only a limited way?
How might older generations capture the attention of youth who are not always aware or interested in what has come before?
7.2.2 Libraries: Barriers to Access
At present, Somalis do not see themselves reflected in public library staff complements. One guest suggested the need to foster Somali youth employment opportunities in public library settings. Opportunities for youth volunteers were also desired. Where youth are engaged by libraries and library materials, the hope is that they in turn may introduce resources to their Somali parents, even where literacy is a challenge.
Partnerships between cultural community members and service providers were deemed necessary to foster mutual understanding and to address some of the challenges inherent in these relationships. Recently, behavioural issues relating to Somali youth visits to local public libraries led in places to conflict between library staff and some Somali families. Members of the Somali focus group reported that much harm had been done to the reputation of public libraries as a result of this kind of unpleasant interaction.
Library schedules (materials due dates) and fines were described by the community as difficult to understand and adhere to. One practical solution forwarded by a guest was for libraries to produce a dedicated 'library bag' (a memory aid for families) that allows users/students to store all borrowed library items in a single place.
Young Somali mothers who in many cases are responsible for rearing large families (at times single-handedly) face barriers to access; with many children and limited access to daycare options, these women encounter difficulty in accessing library services for themselves and their families. One guest posed the question: "How might we bring services to them?" Proposed solutions involved partnerships between library and service organizations such as the Somali Centre for Family Services, Ottawa.12
Both libraries and schools were seen to have a role to play in spreading the word about library services and collections. Children who learn about such services may convey the value of libraries to their parents. Information sessions with parents were recommended to raise awareness and to address inter-generational hurdles.
That the library serves as an educational tool is not always a message disseminated or understood between generations. Word of mouth is a key means for transmitting this information within the community.
While many Somalis maintain personal archives, formal archiving is not considered a common practice within Somali culture. The need to collect and preserve documentary heritage is a relatively new concept for Somali-Canadians. Until now, much energy has been focused on pressing settlement issues and the establishment of a Somali community in Canada. With much of this initial work accomplished, broader issues such as how best to engage with Canadian institutions and how to document the history of the community in Canada, have become a focus and new direction.
It is thought that little recorded information about the Somali-Canadian community exists but that work might be undertaken to explore the extent of these materials (given available resources). Members of the group believe that it is time to think about creating a legacy for the next generation. For this work to begin, research guidance and practical support (e.g. transportation and daycare support for researchers) are required.
Somali publishing is limited in Canada and Canadian-published Somali resources produced in the Somali language appear to be rare. A lack of access to mainstream publishers was cited as a significant barrier here. It was noted that dedicated resources are required to foster and sustain Somali publishing in Canada. Recent attempts to launch a Somali-Canadian magazine ended due to a lack of funding and support from mainstream publishers. However, community members identified the Somali Resource and Heritage Centre, Ottawa, as a key publishing resource within the community.13 The Centre is a source for published and self-published work, educational resources, and language dictionaries.
Even where Somali books and other resources are produced and/or made available in Canada, there is a perceived unevenness in the quality of these materials. Guests noted that not all members of their community would agree as to which resources were most appropriate.
Library and Archives Canada is not well recognized within the Somali community in Ottawa; fewer than one quarter of the guests assembled knew of LAC before they were contacted for this session. The focus group was described as an introductory exchange and a "good start"; similar opportunities for collaboration have been lacking to date. Prior to the session, little was known about LAC's provision of event and cultural space. Many community members expressed interest in such opportunities after learning of these.
The following were suggested as potential marketing channels to support contact with the Somali community in Ottawa: