What If Libraries Were Important?

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My mother worked in my local public library throughout most of my childhood so I should be considered biased in my views: I grew up in a library. As a practicing architect, I also have some opinions on the use, and quality, of public space.

In terms of the relationship between the two, I would argue that libraries are one of the last vestiges of real, public, space. Their protection, promotion, and facilitated evolution are critical, not only to the continuity of universally accessible local culture and knowledge, but to good city making as well.

If a museum is the vault of material culture, then a library should be a home for curated knowledge; our stories; our intangible cultural heritage. A place where culture lives, evolves, and is expressed. Libraries are central to both our sense of place and our sense of identity.

A library is not just about books. The uninspired call in the fall budget to save what amounts to Nalcor’s executive lunch budget by closing half of the province’s libraries was less an indication of a non-sustainable library system, and more an indication of how far behind we are in our thinking surrounding a library’s purpose.

If our understanding of what a library ‘is’ stops at books, then the case can be easily (if crudely) made: get your books somewhere else. But what if our idea of a library was bigger than that? What if libraries were important?

Notions of language, and truth itself, having seemed immutable, are now experiencing a reconsideration. No mistake. This is dangerous stuff. When ‘post-truth’ is 2016’s Merriam Webster word of the year, it becomes important to consider the place that curated knowledge has within our culture.

What place does a library occupy within a culture when truth itself is subjective? If commonly shared notions of fact can no longer be taken for granted; if all the data in the world is literally at our fingertips. Are libraries then a sort of nostalgic anachronism? Has their time passed?

It would be a stretch to imagine that Ernst and Young’s report, Organization and Service Review of the Newfoundland and Labrador Public Library System, addresses this problem. But it does raise some interesting problems and opportunities.

In addition to describing problems of geography and funding, EY’s report suggests that we may transition away from the provincial model of service delivery to a regional model. This can be an effective structure but it requires the development of a new funding strategies and hierarchies which address challenges of population decline in rural areas, and population growth in urban areas.

It must also address the evolving position of libraries in the context of these respective community types. Under a regional service delivery model, stewardship of libraries could fall to cities and municipalities. For St. John’s, this could either be viewed as a millstone or an opportunity.

Currently, libraries in both urban and rural areas are underfunded and under-serviced. That much is agreed upon. I think it would be short sighted and unnecessarily oppositional to pit this as a rural vs. urban issue. I think it is similarly short sighted to say that that libraries are too expensive. The real issue here is not that we can’t, as a province or a city, afford the luxury of free public space, but that we do not fundamentally understand the value of the institution itself.

Halifax conducted its first study into the feasibility of expanding its central library in 1987 with Duffus Romans KundzinsRounsfell Ltd’s: A Site Analysis Study. Following this, Beckman and Associates completed The Halifax City Regional Library Space and Services: Needs Assessment Study (1994).

Following amalgamation, and the formation of the Halifax Regional Municipality, the Halifax Public Library staff prepared its own report: Towards a New Central Library. More reports followed: A.J Diamond and Schmidt (1996); EDM with Urban Strategies Inc (2006); HOK (2008).

It is worth noting that the time between first glance (1987) and finished construction was 27 years, although it wasn’t really until 2006, when Halifax’s 25-year regional growth strategy was adopted by council, that the idea gained serious traction.

So, what happened in 2006? The city engaged in a series of intense public consultations and urban design studies known as Halifax by Design. Led by a volunteer Urban Design Task Force, Halifax by Design was an effort to first describe, and then implement, a qualitative approach to urban design. Simply put, they started to look at how they wanted development to look and feel given a specific context.

The fruit of their labour was the Downtown Halifax Municipal Planning Strategy which introduced streamlined approval processes for smaller projects; clear expectations of public engagement for larger projects; and a professional design review panel tasked with ensuring that substantial new developments were being done in a manner appropriate and consistent with stated goals.

Over time, the idea of a central public library came to be viewed as both a showcase for Halifax’s new urban design strategy as well as a demonstration of the city’s commitment to a new way of realizing such projects.

The success of the Halifax Central Library is well documented. It has received many awards for design and engineering and took in an estimated 1.9 million visitors in its first year; 272,000 in its first 7 weeks. Canadian Architect referred to it as “the most significant public building completed in the Nova Scotia capital region in over a generation, and a new cultural hub for the region.”

As an example of the city’s revamped approach to major civic projects, it was equally well received. Well attended and dynamic public engagement events characterized the programming and design stages and it was generally seen as a template project for future major building projects and a feather in the cap of the new approval process.

Here in St. John’s we are at a similar turning point with respect to both municipal planning and our commitment to libraries. Our current Draft Municipal Plan hasn’t seen the light of day since 2014 and is, frankly, vague to the point of irrelevance.

Additional work is needed; real, implementable, urban design strategies are required. By starting to examine the feasibility of a new central library, the city could bring focus and public interest to the process of redefining our own approach to public engagement and context specific urban design.

ARTICLE BY CHRIS BOWES

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