Lachlan Labere/Salmon Arm Observer Ardie Burnham, youth services librarian at the Salmon Arm branch of the Okanagan Regional Library, connects with her young audience.

Bringing literacy to life

Youth services librarian knows how to engage young people.

While the public library is generally a hushed, sedate place, every now and then a beautiful singing voice breaks out.

A peek around the stacks reveals a tall, smiling woman encircled by rapt children, holding an open book in front of her so her young audience can see the pictures.

This is Ardie Burnham, doing what she loves to do.

Burnham is the youth services librarian at the Salmon Arm branch of the Okanagan Regional Library.

“This was my dream job. This was the whole reason I went to library school,” Burnham says of landing her current position in 2011 right out of grad school. After getting a degree in humanities with English literature, she completed her library degree.

As well as her work in Salmon Arm, she provides services to all the branches in the system. And she’s a reference for community libraries around the area.

Some of Burnham’s skills come by way of her upbringing.

Born and raised in Vernon, she happens to be one of 11 children. She describes herself as “number 8,” oldest of the youngest four.

Her mom earned a degree in theatre, her dad was a dentist who loved the sciences but also appreciated the arts.

She says her mom wanted to be a stage actress and travel the world, until she held her first baby.

“So she did her theatre with us,” explains Burnham. “Bedtime was pretty amazing. We were growing up with Shakespeare, Dickens, it was pretty awesome. Just the way she would read them, just the telling of them. The story would come to life.”

Her mom liked performances.

“She’d say, ‘let’s put on a little performance.’ She would get everyone to participate. Whenever we had a guest over, we’d have to put on a little show. Until we got old enough to say no,” Burnham smiles. “Although I must say, we still do humour her.”

Her dad, who was known as the singing dentist, would also encourage them.

“He would say, ‘we’ve put this much into your musical education, it’s our right to ask you to sing.’”

Burnham began voice lessons when she was 14 and attained an associate degree by her mid-twenties under the satellite program of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

Before the voice lessons, she took piano, through to Grade 9.

While Burnham has no children, she is a favourite aunt to many of her 33 nieces and nephews, and loves them fiercely. She also has two great-nephews with a third on the way.

At work, Burnham is animated and engaging.

“It’s really just making sure that when you’re with a child you’re actually connecting with them, listening to what they have to say and taking them seriously. I think everybody knows and can sense when somebody cares, or if they’re just there and it’s just a job. One of my worst nightmares is to let a child down. I think every child needs to have one person that sees that they’re there, that they matter.”

One of her favourite things is doing voices.

Three Hens and a Peacock by Lester Laminack was her favourite book to read aloud for a couple of years.

“I do three different chicken voices. One is smoker chicken, another is really ditzy – kind of a Marilyn Monroe, the other is bossy. It’s so much fun.”

Burnham’s programs are not limited to young children, however. She promotes literacy to children under 18 in the library and, with community partnerships, in the schools and wider community.

She loves children of all ages, including teenagers.

“That I can attribute to my mom,” she says, explaining her mom used to make lunch for her and her teenaged friends on school days. “She’d sit and chat with them. For several of my friends, coming home to have lunch with my mom saved them.”

Although Burnham struggled as a young reader, she soon began to devour books. As she got older, all things Jane Austen were her favourites.

A couple of years ago, the youth services librarian position was going to be cut, Burnham says.

Then people started emailing her and telling her why she and the position were important. She received notes from children, letters from adults. And the position was saved.

“To me that’s the most beautiful. That the community saw the importance of reading and the youth services librarian.”

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