The Hamilton Spectator

Leo Johnson’s Liberian library dream on threshold of reality

As a government-sponsored refugee, Johnson was inspired by how Hamilton’s libraries served the community with supports beyond books. It led him to build one in his native Liberia

- SEBASTIAN BRON REPORTER

Growing up on the coast of Liberia, Leo Nupolu Johnson’s idea of a library was limited to a 12-metre shipping container managed by men who sold a wacky collection of paperbacks at undergroun­d market rates.

Then he came to Hamilton. Here, in 2006, he found a library that was actually housed in a building, contained a neat, organized assortment of literature and allowed visitors to pluck whatever book they wanted to take home — and at no cost.

That in itself was enough to impress a young, bright-eyed Johnson, who’d arrived in the city after fleeing his civil war-torn homeland. But what stayed with him was how the library served a purpose far beyond books.

“Some people were there to just use the internet. Some people were there getting help filling out government forms. Some people were there because they had certain skills and were running a workshop, benefiting and educating the community with their gift,” recalled Johnson, who arrived in Canada as a government-sponsored refugee.

“It didn’t matter your social status or economic class, the space meant something to everybody. And that shocked me.”

The experience was the catalyst behind Johnson’s decision to build a sleek, environmen­tally friendly library and learning centre in his hometown of Paynesvill­e, Liberia, where years of civil war depleted infrastruc­ture and rendered educationa­l materials inaccessib­le for many.

Johnson will be back in the city Feb. 23 for a dedication ceremony celebratin­g the decade-long project’s first phase, which is set to

open later this year as a sprawling public library with a wing for cultural archives, an incubation centre for small businesses and several coworking spaces.

“Looking back to where we started, it’s hard to believe we’re finally here,” said Johnson, founder and director of Empowermen­t Squared, a Hamilton-based charity.

Indeed, Johnson and his team spent years fundraisin­g for the developmen­t — its first of three stages cost around $1 million to build — as well as consulted with various Liberian government officials and residents to get a sense of what they wanted in an all-purpose centre.

Initially slated to open in 2015, the project was halted amid the emergence of the Ebola outbreak, which killed thousands of people in West Africa. Ground was broken in 2019 before more delays ensued when COVID-19 hit.

Now, with the library nearly complete, Johnson said he’s still seeking $1.3 million to finish the remaining two phases of the project: a recreation centre with a gym and event rooms as well as a complete overhaul of Paynesvill­e’s crumbling city hall.

Together, they will culminate in a sustainabl­e space that offers “something to everybody,” Johnson said.

But that wasn’t his original vision.

“The idea was a library, of course, but just because I was thinking about it didn’t mean other people wanted it in the first place. Does it make sense? And if it does, why?” he said. “The idea grew to a learning centre because, as we conducted research and consulted with the community, people informed us the space had to do more than just store books.”

From there rose another goal: to make the facility as sustainabl­e — and culturally relevant to Liberia — as possible.

Hamilton-based architectu­ral firm mcCallumSa­ther designed the developmen­t and trained Liberian workers how to build and maintain the centre, Johnson said. Among its standout environmen­tal features are earth-compressed bricks, made from homegrown materials like soil, sand and clay; thick masonry walls to improve shading and reduce heat; natural ventilatio­n to reduce electricit­y from fans and air conditioni­ng; solar panels; and a rainwater collection system that provides clean, purified water.

“These are cultural responses to the needs of the community,” Johnson said. He pointed to the water collection system. Liberia is one of the world’s rainiest countries — yet many still die from the lack of clean drinking water.

“Something as simple as this, where we take the abundance of rainwater and turn it into clean drinking water, brings a very important type of technology to the local community.”

Another example of a cultural response is the building was designed to prioritize shade and offer outdoor spaces. “People can use Wi-Fi or social gather out there,” Johnson said. “We want them to use this centre for more reasons than just books.”

The Hamilton Public Library and librarians from McMaster University are part of an advisory committee for the Liberian library, helping them source books as well as curate digital and archive collection­s.

“They’re planning to bring some staff from Liberia to Hamilton this summer and the idea is to provide them with a learning and mentorship experience,” said HPL CEO Paul Takala, who called Johnson’s exciting, long-planned project “an inspiratio­n.”

“It’s not every day someone walks into your library, sees what it does and then translates that vision into something tangible.”

 ?? CATHIE COWARD THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR ?? Leo Nupolu Johnson and his team spent years fundraisin­g for the developmen­t of a sleek, environmen­tally friendly library and learning centre in his hometown of Paynesvill­e, Liberia.
CATHIE COWARD THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR Leo Nupolu Johnson and his team spent years fundraisin­g for the developmen­t of a sleek, environmen­tally friendly library and learning centre in his hometown of Paynesvill­e, Liberia.
 ?? LEO NUPOLU JOHNSON PHOTO ?? The centre, seen here during constructi­on, will be rich in sustainabl­e, environmen­tally friendly features.
LEO NUPOLU JOHNSON PHOTO The centre, seen here during constructi­on, will be rich in sustainabl­e, environmen­tally friendly features.

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