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Toronto man sending boxes of books to small town libraries

Stacking libraries with queer books

Sana Kavanagh, the new coordinator for the Sydney, Nova Scotia chapter of PFLAG, has a goal — to build a community library with the queer-related books received from Rainbow Link.

“Compared to our public library we are now looking pretty good,” says Kavanagh. “With one box from Peter, we probably have doubled the amount of [queer] books that are available from the local library.”

Kavanagh is referring to Peter Bernier — the founder of Rainbow Link, a one-man operation based in Toronto that sends boxes of queer books, both fiction and non-fiction, to various organizations in Nova Scotia.

Nova Scotia is close to Bernier’s heart — he was born in Sydney, brought up in Sydney River and attended university in Cape Breton. Books have been and still are a passion of his. It was books that helped him to explore his own desires.

“I wanted to find things that helped me understand my desires and reflect them. I wanted to read gay love stories. It was a long time before I found anything that reflected my desires or made any sense of them,” says Bernier.

Bernier settled in Toronto and Rainbow Link was formed in 2005 from Bernier’s desire to promote gay culture in small communities. Rainbow Link’s first project was with the Cape Breton University library.

“I thought that I could make a bigger contribution by donating books, particularly [lesbian, gay, bi and trans] books to increase the number of books in the library,” says Bernier. “This would not only provide books of interest or support to the [queer] students there but also provide the same books to the straight students.”

Rainbow Link’s project with Cape Breton University library is a success. After four years, the school has received more than 1,200 queer-related books. Mary Dobson, the technical services librarian at the school, has been working closely with Bernier on the effort.

“Peter, who is an alumnus of CBU [Cape Breton University], was aware of CBU Library’s sparse holdings on the topic and wanted to enrich our collection because of his own experience of not finding many resources in that area,” Dobson writes in an email to Capital Xtra.  

As the library built up its collection, Bernier began to have leftover books on-hand. He expanded to other queer-friendly organizations in the Maritimes region — the Sexual Diversity Centre at Cape Breton University, various youth projects in Halifax, PFLAG chapters and gay-straight alliances (GSAs).

 Most recently, Bernier has started to collaborate with the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives — he will get books from them if they don’t want them anymore and in exchange, the archive will get to pick from his holdings before he offers them to other organizations. 

“They get first crack at my list,” says Bernier. “I think that’s good because I want the books to be available to researchers and for posterity.”

For each organization, the procedure is the same — a list of available books is distributed each month, which includes a short description of each book and its condition.  After receiving book requests from interested organizations, Bernier packages and mails the books, and the recipient pays the postage.

“If they are paying for it, they are not getting it free; therefore, they pick and choose more judiciously,” says Bernier.

Bernier’s approach has paid off. The regular supply of books has helped a number of organizations to expand their libraries and extend their outreach to wider communities — a rich reward for a relatively small fee.

“We could never afford to purchase the books that Peter sends us — and they do circulate,” says Dobson, “which is proof of their value to the students, both for personal information and for research purposes.”

After four years in operation, Bernier has taken steps to make Rainbow Link a charitable organization. He is applying for grants, searching for a board of directors, with members from different provinces.

Like Bernier, Kavanagh agrees that books can be a positive influence on individuals. Books were something she turned to when she was 21 years old and coming out in Montreal.

“I pulled out this book of coming out stories. I took it home, and I read it from cover to cover, and it gave me that release to go forward” says Kavanagh. “I read it, and I was pretty much on my way, something changed — I felt empowered and ready to get out there. A few weeks later, I had made friends, and a couple of months later I was dating my first girlfriend. The book was huge to me.”

To find out more about Rainbow Link and how to help, contact: Peter Bernier, Rainbow Link, P.O. Box 111, Station F, Toronto, M4Y2L4