By Yvonne van Lith, with files from the Glebe Report
Editor’s note: Hélène Merritt has been a regular contributor of book reviews and bibliographic essays to the Glebe Report since 1994.
On Friday, January 10, the community celebrated the life of Sunnyside Branch’s children’s librarian, Hélène Merritt, who died in December. Over 140 people attended the event at Southminster Church, sharing songs, stories and memories. Members of the Big Soul Project choir gave a moving rendition of “I Was Here.” In honour of Helene’s firm belief in reading without fear of judgment, “The Rights of the Reader” were spoken aloud in English and French by members of the audience.
Reader’s Bill of Rights
1. The right to not read.
2. The right to skip pages.
3. The right to not finish.
4. The right to reread.
5. The right to read anything.
6. The right to escapism.
7. The right to read anywhere.
8. The right to browse.
9. The right to read out loud.
10. The right to not defend your tastes.
Author/poet JC Sulzenko read beautiful poetry. Stories from some of Hélène’s favourite picture books, like Rhyming Dust Bunnies, entertained the younger crowd and several people shared their memories of Hélène.
Yvonne van Lith, coordinator of the Sunnyside Branch, spoke of Hélène as a children’s librarian extraordinaire. It’s an amazing job that requires enormous wells of patience and flexibility. Hélène had those in spades. She helped families and children through some of their most important moments, stressing early literacy and school-readiness skills. She helped kids find the books that would get them excited about reading and keep them reading. She made the library a place where kids wanted to be, and introduced them to the big world outside of their community.
She loved her job. She loved witnessing the excitement of a child who got his or her first library card and the child on a class trip to the library who exclaimed “wow” on entering the library for the first time. In her more than 20 years with the Ottawa Public Library, most at the Sunnyside Branch, Hélène built relationships with parents, youth, teachers, caregivers and the community at large.
She believed in the “golden rule” and the principle of compassion in daily life. She became a part of the community. She saw her “story time children” grow into adults and have children of their own and bring their children to the library. She touched many lives and made a difference.
Hélène also worked in adult services and helped the branch reach the French-speaking community, maintaining and developing the French book collection and bringing a Cercle de lecture to Sunnyside. Because she was so well read and an excellent writer in two languages, she wrote many book reviews and blogs keeping everyone alerted to great books she had discovered.
It has been said that “libraries are the mind and soul of their communities, and librarians are the mind and soul of the library.” In gathering to celebrate Hélène Merritt, who touched many lives, the community remembers with love her kindness, her laugh, smile, sparkling eyes, her librarian-ness and her gentle spirit.
Yvonne van Lith is coordinator of the Sunnyside Branch of the Ottawa Public Library. She was a close colleague of Hélène Merritt.