SMALL TOWN, BIG IDEAS: In Petawawa, libraries check out snowshoes, trails tell stories, and trees have their own book branch!

About the Author

Kelly Thompson, CEO of Petawawa Library, and Colin Coyle, Program Coordinator of Petawawa Parks and Recreation, in Petawawa, Ontario, have worked together for over three years in a partnership between the Public Library and Parks and Recreation Department. The partnership has created numerous opportunities for children, adults and families to get outdoors together.

Here in Petawawa, Ontario (pop. 16,000) we are a small town that tends to think BIG and get outside the box!

petewa library
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Even though we are surrounded by rivers, lakes, trees and nature we face the same setbacks that big cities experience…getting kids and adults away from screens and instead outdoors and interacting with what is in their own backyard.

To help remedy this issue, we have created a unique partnership between the Parks and Recreation Department and the Public Library.

We meet with the library once or twice a week to discuss coordinating current programs and events, as well as brainstorm for future ideas; this prevents competing for clients or replicating programs offered and has resulted in the creation of some unique and innovative opportunities. Among them:

  • Active Library:  We have enhanced library services by through loan program that “checks out” everything from snowshoes for adults and children in the winter months, to bikes in the summer.

Opportunity, doesn’t end there, you can borrow a GPS and find Geocache treasures that staff members have hidden in various locations across town; or borrow binoculars to see the wildlife up close and personal.

The snowshoeing program has been so successful that waiting lists were created so people could reserve them ahead of time and plans to purchase more are in the future. We can say that you will not find any of our Librarians with a finger pressed to their lips saying sssssshhhhhhh!

Soon the projects began to find us!

  • Storytime Trail: Children start walking at the beginning of one of our trails, read the first page of a book with their parents, continue another 100 feet to find the second page and continue along the trail until they had read a good portion of the book.

The Library side of the project promotes literacy while the Recreation side of walking to each page gets them active outdoors. We couldn’t dream of a better match.

  • Book Tree: In our local playground, a cluster of 5 trees have been used in the design of a free outdoor library (the trees used were downed in a microburst). The concept is to “take a book, leave a book, and share a book.”

The project has received use and attention beyond the committee’s wildest dreams, from towns across Canada, the United States and even overseas. Many communities have been asking how they can get their own Book Tree. Our residents are continuing to explore new ways to get outdoors and the momentum is building.

  • Free Rentals and Lessons: Canoe, kayak and stand up paddleboard rentals and lessons are offered by The Parks and Recreation Department.

Lessons are offered every two weeks throughout the summer to encourage families to come out and paddle together.

  • Volunteer Trails Committee: A group of volunteers has developed a Trails Committee to encourage residents to walk or snowshoe the wonderful trail system found throughout Petawawa.

These are social gatherings with an active, outdoors element attached. Schools have begun to approach the Library and Recreation department asking for programs for their classes. Interest is growing. So is demand.

Together our departments wanted to be more than just books and sports, that’s where it all started.

Petawawa’s successful collaboration between the Public Library and the Parks and Recreation Department has been possible due to a lot of hard work and people thinking outside the walls of a library and recreation department — to seek ways of connecting people to the natural landscape.

And the successes have proven there is no turning back!  We continue to work by our Town’s slogan: Petawawa…Dynamic by nature!

Other Reading

Naturebraries: How Libraries Can Connect Children and Adults to Nature and Build Support for Libraries

Where Nature Meets Story: Getting Reading Outside

Nurturing Our Family Relationships Through Stories of Nature

Indoor Learning for Outdoor Education: What’s Wrong With this Picture?

“Sitting is the New Smoking”


  1. this really inspires me to take this concept to Hawaii to bring community outside in a healthy way, encouraging community effort, learning, literacy and imagination. I would like to know how this all came forward. As an Early Childhood Educator I would love to take this up. A meaningful project and task indeed.

  2. This is so innovative and inspiring! We love our libraries, and we love getting outdoors – it’s fascinating how this city has managed to tie the two departments together.

  3. Awesome ideas! I would love to incorporate this into my community somehow.

  4. It has been a phenomenal community engagement project that recognized the value of our outdoor community spaces, our natural assets, collaboration, early literacy, active transportation and social places. Check out the Facebook page – and ask Karen (the project’s heart) about how you can start one in your community.

  5. Yes, we were thrilled that Karen Woods introduced the idea of the Book Tree to us. That was a wonderful element to add to our other projects. I am sure Karen and would love to discuss the Book Tree.

  6. Hello Kelly

    What a lovely blog post and the book tree is beautiful.

    Last November I was running one of my outdoor literacy courses and one of the participants was a librarian from an international school in Switzerland

    In her school, the K-G2 classes were outside daily and she was part of that outdoor programme providing literacy activities alongside other activities. I thought this was a really valuable idea – to have the school librarian working outdoors too.

    Best wishes

  7. What a wonderful initiative! So inspirational! I would love to connect with you to speak to you about how I can start a similar project in my community. I live in Vaughan, Ontario.

  8. What a wonderful idea!

  9. Daniela Benavides

    What an exciting, fun project! I can’t wait to get my students on a Storytime trail here in Peru! Thank you for sharing!

  10. I enjoyed reading about your Storytime trail. I read more about it on your library blog, and I like the way you put the first 6 pages on your trail. I have been contemplating how to accommodate varying book lengths. I am currently collaborating with a fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on installing a nature story trail on a native plant nature trail already created on the elementary school property.


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