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We Built This City (Library)

Civic pride has been riding a bit of a high in Calgary recently, and it has naught to do with any professional sports franchise, annual rodeo or the swell of nostalgia roused when considering a possible Olympic bid. The cause for such a recent surge was actually the opening of the new Central Library on November 1. Winning further accolades from some was the fact that the project ultimately came in $10M under budget. While one must admit that the new central library is not perfect in all ways, it is fair to say that in a word, the new facility is stunning. 

The new central library is stunning in many ways, not only in its architecture: boasting some 240,000 square feet of space, offering 30+ bookable meeting rooms, trebling the amount of public seating to nearly 2000, providing more than 200 public computer terminals, a “teen tech lab,” a performance hall, AVR studios (and more!), and all in a brand new facility that has become an instant landmark in Calgary’s downtown. What is most significant about this new library is that it offers a brand new arena for people to gather and for community to grow.

The library obviously offers vast and varied physical space, but it is the conversations that it helps to inspire that will prove its greatest value. This new space is set to generate noise, not silence, among the people of Calgary. This type of “noise” is not the type one might associate with debates over such things as the aforementioned Olympic bid, or questionable public art installations. Instead, the noise originating from and developing in this community hub will be that of shared ideas and shared experiences. Unlike many of the other buildings we enter in our urban centres, the new library is not a space and place focused on enticing you to spend your money, instead it is a space created to inspire activity, interaction, thought and growth among all people. 

The design of the building, though stunning, should not overshadow the established qualities of a public library. Libraries continue to welcome all people, regardless of background or income level. Libraries continue to level the intellectual playing field by making resources and services available to all. Libraries continue to promote learning and the pursuit of knowledge with their resources and programming. I would propose that in a sense, libraries continue to be radicals in what they do. It is hard to imagine that if the concept of a public library did not already exist today, that politicians and hardworking taxpayers could be convinced to build such a public facility from the ground up. To be honest, it can still be hard to convince some today that libraries have a role and purpose that extends beyond basic book borrowing, and that they offer more than what an Internet connection, a Google search on a smartphone or a Wikipedia entry can.1

What’s more, I find it refreshing to read news about a public library (any library) where the institution is being celebrated, rather than those other instances where the institution is being asked to justify or to defend their very existence. Libraries are not newer and smoother roads, nor more police officers or firefighters, but they are a vital part of our cities. Calgary should embrace feeling a sense of pride in having opened such a significant building, and I for one am happy to point to the new central library as a symbol of what civic spending and vision can achieve, rather than say having to point to a reinforced concrete bobsled track instead.

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[1] This perhaps, is a larger conversation for another time…

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