Wednesday, August 3, 2011

It's time to rewrite the book on new libraries

by: Jen Gerson

My ideas and actions rarely follow in the vein of Toronto Coun. Doug Ford.

On the matter of libraries, however, I would like to point out that His Rotundness may have a point. As Calgary has announced a new central library to be constructed on the site of a desolate parking lot in the East Village, Toronto's councillor brayed he'd cut library branches in that city "in a heartbeat," eliciting the outrage of Margaret Atwood. One can almost hear the sound of champagne bottles breaking as Toronto's elites prepare the defence.

"No, not our libraries," they wail. "What of the poor? We must save these inviolable, sacrosanct temples of knowledge!"

Never mind those same defenders have likely not stepped foot in a library since Chapters and Starbucks merged.

I hate to be contrarian about this (tiny lie), but between Amazon, Kobo and the ubiquity of the Internet, the place of libraries in our society is changing.

Public libraries are still vital: I would not sacrifice them to purely profitdriven bookstores.

In a democracy, everyone should have access to books and the ability to better educate himself, regardless of how much money he can drop on magazine subscriptions and high-speed Internet access.

But that doesn't mean libraries need to be housed in sprawling concrete blocks stuffed with books and periodicals.

For the sake of argument, let's consider this: If major cities did start closing smaller, underused branches, would there be ways to improve services and access while saving money?

While I do love my local branch, even I admit it's a staid building lit with fluorescents and home to some less-than-comfortable seating arrangements. Calgary's 17 branches are the most widely used system in Canada after Toronto. But what if we cut some of those branches and replaced them with a dozen more mini-libraries scattered throughout the city?

Such a mini-library could consist of a bank of computers, a book slot and a desk to pick up items ordered through the reserve system.

Maybe cities could save money on overhead by partnering these locations with small businesses, like local cafes.

I don't mean to dismiss the need for some fullfeatured physical locations: Every large city should have a reference library akin to Toronto's, staffed with knowledgeable librarians and store to the arcane knowledge collected in those barbarous pre-Internet days.

Yet, considering these kinds of libraries tend to be destinations unto themselves, they don't need to be located downtown, where they eat up prime real estate as does Toronto's library at Yonge and Bloor streets. That location would not be any less used if it were located a few stops north on the subway.

Mind you, I would probably not make the same argument for the new Calgary downtown library, which, it is hoped, will gentrify the East Village. Sometimes physical buildings make sense. Calgary needs more public spaces, not fewer.

It's just fair to point out that the money saved on rent, heat and light might be better directed toward improving access to online databases and e-book collections.

I don't know how cost effective these solutions might be, but as the Internet is changing everything else, there's no reason to grant virgin pastures to these sacred cows.

Jen Gerson is a Calgary Herald reporter.

from: Calgary Herald

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