Peace, quiet and the occasional flashmob: how libraries and patrons are evolving

By , on December 10, 2015


Halifax Central Library (Photo from Wikipedia)
Halifax Central Library
(Photo from Wikipedia)

HALIFAX—Libraries can conjure up images of dim, musty spaces and stern librarians with index fingers pressed to their lips, ready to shush.

But the Halifax Central Library, with its cafes, auditorium space and video-gaming section, challenges every traditional notion of what these public spaces should be. Here, patrons are encouraged to hang out, snack and yes, even talk.

Library CEO Asa Kachan says the sleek downtown structure, which celebrates its first anniversary Dec. 13, has set the tone for a new generation of progressive libraries and other cities are taking notice.

“I think it’s the most exciting time to be in public libraries,” says Kachan, Halifax Central’s chief librarian.

“We have the traditional role, which is to bring information and inspiration to people through literature. But more and more, libraries are also saying, ‘How do we spur creativity in different ways?’”

In Halifax, that means space to record a podcast, play a board game or stumble upon a group of breakdancers—for free.

The public library board in Ottawa is taking a cue from Halifax and working with citizens to design an exciting replacement for the aging central library on Metcalfe Street.

Board chairman Tim Tierney says the current facility is so dim and dingy, it’s earned the unfortunate nickname “the bunker.” There’s no cell service on the second floor and weight restrictions on the third level means there are fewer books than the library would like.

During public consultations, it became clear that people expect libraries to do more than just lend books. Among the more interesting suggestions put forth? A library with a laundromat, says Tierney.

“If you would’ve asked maybe 15 years ago, even 10 years ago, about the city of Ottawa getting a new central library, the appetite wasn’t there,” says Tierney, a city councillor since 2010. “But we’ve seen the huge success in Vancouver and Halifax. That has set the new standard for libraries.”

This past summer, the Vancouver Central Library unveiled its $600,000, custom-designed digital media space. At 7,500 square feet, the so-called Inspiration Lab boasts computers with the latest video, audio and publishing software as well as four sound booths equipped with webcams, microphones and audio mixers.

The Toronto Reference Library recently underwent upgrades to create a “digital innovation hub” with 3D printers. Visitors can also access a photo archive from the Toronto Star or seek solace in transparent study pods.

Calgary is in middle of issuing tenders for a $245-million central library for the city’s revitalized East Village. When it opens in 2018, the 240,000-square-foot branch will be more than double the size of the current downtown location with a four-storey atrium, a theatre, meeting spaces and enough room for 600,000 books.

“We have to be relevant to the people in our community,” says Rosemary Bonanno, president-elect of the Canadian Library Association. “We have to embrace the change, and those that don’t will be left behind.”

The challenge for libraries, says Bonanno, is evolving without alienating traditional patrons who just want a quiet place to study, read or think without being interrupted by a flashmob.

“We want to be all inclusive. There is room for both. In the buildings that we design, we have areas for collaborative learning, but we also have areas for study or research.”

Not only are libraries adapting to the changing expectations of patrons, they’re also embracing cutting-edge architecture and becoming destinations for locals and visitors alike.

The $57.6-million, 129,000-square-foot Halifax Central Library is bright, airy and open with a five-storey atrium. Its design is meant to suggest a stack of books with a cantilevered glass rectangle on the top floor that offers views of both Citadel Hill and the harbour.

CNN named the library one of its “10 eye-popping new buildings of 2014,” and Canadian architecture magazine Azure recognized it as a project to watch in 2014. The building was also shortlisted for an award at the World Architecture Festival in November, but failed to win in the civics and community category.

George Cotaras, the library’s lead local architect, says the public consultation process was among the most successful in the city’s history. His company, Fowler, Bauld and Mitchell, worked alongside Danish firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen on the building’s design.

“When we presented the final design a year and a half later, they stood up and cheered,” says Cotaras. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

By all accounts, the excitement hasn’t worn off in the past 12 months. The old Spring Garden Road Memorial Public Library averaged 400,000 visits a year. Kachan says the latest count for the new library is around 1.9 million.

As for the future of libraries, Tierney says the institutions are at risk of going the way of video rental shops if they don’t continue to embrace new ideas: “If we don’t adapt, you’re going to turn into a Blockbuster where the service you’re offering doesn’t work anymore.”