Libraries and urban villages

Posted 04.02.13

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | Debates about public libraries are not limited to Quebec's Gastineau. We've seen them in Montreal, Seattle, Singapore, Berlin, Ottawa, and New York City. A major impetus is the digitization of printed material. It has been estimated that the entire collection of the federal Library of Parliament can now fit into a shoebox. Why, ask library critics, do we need massive, expensive buildings to house a shoebox?

Another cause of these debates is the sheer expense of building, maintaining, staffing, and up-dating libraries and their collections. A large public library can't be put into a warehouse or office building -- there are structural re-enforcements, temperature and moisture control, lighting, people comforts, public access, parking, and other requirements. Just maintaining a library is an expensive proposition; building a new one or a new library network compounds all those expenses.

And, of course, libraries have an emotional weight -- like churches, schools, parks, trails, etc. They are used by the public, and, despite the digital era, they are still used widely and the public is asking for more services in libraries, not less.

Libraries are expected to provide meeting rooms, lecture and public-reading halls, periodicals, a cafe, exhibition space, audio-visual facilities, copy facilities, computer and Internet rooms, and so forth. Add an archives or research library, and then add parking space and public transit, washrooms, storage, work areas, administration offices -- we are looking at an entirely different beast than the dusty brick building we may have grown up using in our youth.

Clearly, a new library or library network is a very complex decision.

We might start with the question of the day: Why libraries when we can Google almost anything on the Internet? Why even have books when we can use e-readers and download dozens of books at a time into a note-book tablet? Such questions are wrongly put: The digital revolution has not ended paper, it has added to it. Libraries are not being replaced by computers, they are expanding by having computers available.

This question may be better put by asking if we need, not libraries, but gigantic central libraries, the architectural landmarks that they have become in Montreal and Berlin. They do create a showpiece for the city -- but in a cost-effective way? Libraries are rarely tourist attractions. But good libraries are an attraction for new residents and homebuyers and, through them, new businesses and investment; these people are looking for the content and the services of libraries - not dramatic buildings. So shouldn't the question be how to create a network of smaller, neighbourhood libraries? Wouldn't they better fit Gatineau's concept of urban villages and eco-quartiers? What does Gatineau's commitment to urban villages mean?

Finally, what makes a good, useful library is not the bricks and mortar but the content and collections, the staff and their attitudes towards the public, and services to the community. Put our tax money here, rather than in a casino-like palace.


Copyright © 2013 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/04.13