Joe Zelwietro shows the collection in the Northwest History Room, full of pieces documenting Prince Rupert’s past. (Keili Bartlett / The Northern View)

Heart of Our City — Joe Zelwietro sees the library for more than its books

Joe Zelwietro has been a librarian in Prince Rupert for almost two decades

Most days you can find Joe Zelwietro behind the circulation desk or a stack of books at the Prince Rupert Public Library, where the librarian has worked since before the turn of the century.

The year was 1999 and Zelwietro was looking for steady work. He, his wife Rose and their two kids had moved west to the Lower Mainland, but most of his opportunities were on contract or casual. When Zelwietro heard of the deputy library position among the natural backdrop of Prince Rupert where they could raise their family, he thought, “Rupert fits that well.”

“Library work is good work. Libraries are meant to give everybody a second chance if you need it, or a first chance,” he said. “Every day we see people who are trying to improve their lives by applying for a job, learning how to do a resume, doing grants.”

For Zelwietro, the job has always been about more than just books. When he was studying in the early 90s it was an exuberant time when it came to technology, the chief librarian said.

“I did see it being a big change, and I wanted to be part of that,” Zelwietro said. “We’re still trying to figure it out.”

One of the initiatives of the library he’s passionate about is using the internet critically for information. Too many kids and even adults still believe everything they read, he said.

“Our reading habits changed. The depth of what we take in has changed, has become shallower. We scan headlines, we don’t read in depth and analyze and compare to other sources. I’m worried about that.

“We’ve had ups and downs with technology,” he said. “I swear at it as much as I praise it.”

Computer literacy is just one of the services offered at the public library, where people can use traditional media like books as well as technology ranging from the basic desktop to a 3D printer. With so many free resources, Zelwietro calls libraries the “great equalizer.”

READ MORE: Heart of Our City — Andrea Wilmot is an open book

“Everybody is welcome regardless of your income, your age, your race, religion, whatever. You can come in here, know you’re safe and have an opportunity to learn,” he said.

“We are fortunate that we are able to help people meet those goals, and I enjoy that. I myself have always had a belief in lifelong learning. Even in my time here, I’ve taken courses outside library work,” Zelwietro said, naming electrical courses and financial services among what he’s learned since arriving in Rupert.

Before he picked up his first book, Zelwietro was born in Stratford, Ontario. He’d always felt welcome in libraries as a kid, he said, and decided to get his masters degree at the University of Western Ontario in library and information science. He was able to do so, he points out, because Rose supported the family while he went back to school. She now works at the hospital in health information management, a similar vein of work.

Off the page, life in Prince Rupert is just as fulfilling. Aside from spending time with his family, there are two main activities that take up much of Zelwietro’s time: boating and fishing. He loves kayaking and when he’s not fishing, he volunteers at the Oldfield Hatchery. Although he said he’s still not on the water as much as he would like to be.

Another of his favourite activities combines community and words in a different format: live theatre on stage at the Tom Rooney Playhouse.

“I love the community shows,” Zelwietro said. “I prefer more observing and being in the audience than participating and acting.”

He was among the audience in the library’s multi-purpose room when Aaron Williams read from his debut book to packed the room. Seeing every seat filled, people lining the walls to hear the author read to his hometown “was a very good moment,” Zelwietro said.

“[The crowd] was old, young, First Nations and non. They just wanted to hear what the young man said about fighting fires and writing.”

He gets pleasure in his job, often, from subtle daily events. From reading a good book, to people commenting on the newly stocked selection, to those telling the staff about being hired at the job they applied for from one of the library’s computers.

“The library touches people’s lives in different ways. From children’s programs to computer correspondence to constant face-to-face interaction at the front desk. We’re very integrated,” he said.

None of it could be done without the support of the community, he said. While much of the library’s funding comes from the city and province, Zelwietro said it’s also the donations from patrons that help the library maintain their collections and provide their services and programs. In an editorial he wrote for the Northern View in 2014, Zelwietro went so far as to call the people of Prince Rupert his real boss.

READ MORE: The importance of volunteers at Prince Rupert’s library

“This is a place where we don’t forget the history of the area and we try to use books we have, the knowledge we have to build a bit of a better community.

“I get to spend my whole life watching people learn.”

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