By Jeremy Klaszus, Swerve
May 1, 2015
In the children’s section of the Judith Umbach Library, Bill Ptacek, 64, settles into a little red chair designed for five-year-olds. Ptacek, the Calgary Public Library’s (CPL) new CEO, is pleased by his environs: unobstructed windows, lots of tables and chairs, fewer books than there used to be. This room is an example of how the library is making itself more relevant, he says. “If you’d been here like six months ago, this whole room was filled with book stacks. If a class came into this library, they had to turn them away.” Now the branch (formerly the Thorn-Hill Library) has space aplenty, and the layout reflects what’s coming when the New Central Library opens downtown, along with three new suburban branches, by the end of 2018.
Forget the shushing librarians of yesteryear. Under Ptacek, widely heralded as a visionary in the American library world, your local library will be louder, brighter and roomier—or emptier, depending on your perspective. After 25 years as director of the Seattle-area King County Library System, where nine in 10 residents were library members, Ptacek arrived in a city of 1.2 million people but only 400,000 library members—too few, according to CPL board chair Janet Hutchinson. “We have a highly educated city,” she says. “We should have 90 per cent or more of Calgarians with library cards.” The CPL wants to double its membership by year’s end. Ptacek started in February 2014 with a mandate to shake things up. He’s moved quickly, just as he did in Washington—at times to the consternation of King County library staff and members who didn’t appreciate his reforms. In Calgary, Ptacek has led similarly dramatic changes. Most noticeably, the CPL has trimmed its physical collection by about 13 per cent. “We don’t need to have every novel that John Grisham wrote on every shelf in every library,” Ptacek says.
The library has also eliminated the annual $12 membership fee (and quietly cut the $2 fine for not picking up an item on hold). It has rolled out a rebrand. It has introduced full-on play areas for kids. It has opened its meeting rooms to community groups, gratis. “He was a cheerleader for getting a lot of these things done,” says Sharon Wirzba, a 35-year CPL veteran who manages the Fish Creek and Glenmore Square libraries. “He’s really tried to reduce barriers.”
In just over a year, the Ptacek-era library already looks and feels different. In May, the Central Library will host a Friday evening all-ages rock show with local bands to launch a new teen space on its main floor. “Big noise? You bet!” reads the event description. “High energy? You got it!”
The recent changes have lured people through the doors. Memberships have already jumped by more than 100,000 since Ptacek arrived. But others see the new emptiness where shelves once stood and wonder, what have you done to my library, and where did all the books go?!
Robert Lemermeyer / Swerve
Calgary Public Library CEO Bill Ptacek has supporters and detractors of his methods.
The opportunity to share his library know-how with young CPL leaders was part of the draw to Calgary, he says.
As a kid growing up on the south side of Chicago, Ptacek was not an avid library-goer. He mostly enjoyed picture books that depicted the history of ancient Rome and Greece (“they were so cool, the battle scenes!”). After he discovered Sherlock Holmes, he really got hooked on reading. Nowadays, he reads paper books, but also has one or two titles on the go on his iPad. “We don’t care whether you get your information in a book or digitally or an audiobook or wherever else,” he says. “We’re in the information business, not the book business.”
Calgary is not alone in this view. As reading on digital devices increases (CPL members checked out more than one million ebooks last year), the broader library world is moving in this direction—treating library buildings less as places to browse books and more as community hubs. This shift will be evident at the New Central Library, described by the CPL as a “multi-faceted family destination and gathering place.” Designed by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta with local partners Dialog, the $245-million building will have 66 per cent more usable space than the existing main library, but will not be stuffed to the rafters with books (although its 600,000 items will exceed the 390,000 currently at the Central Library).
Robert Lemermeyer / SwerveAbout 30,000 of the culled books are stored at a warehouse in the city’s northeast.
At his first librarian job in Chicago, Ptacek saw what a dead library looks like. His branch, located across the street from a penitentiary, was usually bereft of patrons (though things got livelier when inmates occasionally shot at the library, by his telling). “You could count the number of people that would come in on one hand,” he recalls. “There was nobody there, nothing happening.” The situation improved somewhat when the branch created a chess club, a draw for Spanish-speaking kids in the neighbourhood. “Even at that library, we were able to do some things that got the community excited.”
At the Chicago Public Library, Ptacek met his wife of four decades, Margaret (she is a children’s librarian), and became head of the city’s northeast district. In 1979, he left for two five-year stints as library director in Idaho Falls, Idaho and Louisville, Ky. Getting proper funding was a struggle in Louisville, but in Idaho Falls, Ptacek saw the community impact a library could make with strong backing from a mayor and city council. The CPL gets most of its $55-million in annual revenue from the City of Calgary, along with some additional funds from the province, a library foundation and fines. Calgary appealed to Ptacek in part because of Mayor Naheed Nenshi, a charismatic booster of libraries.
In 1989, Ptacek became director of the King County Library System (KCLS), serving the Seattle suburbs. The area was a booming tech hub, thanks to ascendant companies such as Microsoft, which is headquartered in the county. As the population swelled from 1.5 million in 1990 to over 2 million today, the KCLS expanded rapidly. Ptacek’s tenure was largely characterized by sleek new branches, along with renovations to existing buildings. The KCLS had 36 branches when he started and 48 when he left.
Ptacek sees strong parallels between early-’90s King County and Calgary today. “That’s one of the reasons why I came,” he says. “It’s such a dynamic community. There’s so much growth.” If all goes as planned, by 2018 Calgary will have new libraries in Rocky Ridge, Symons Valley and Seton. In addition, three existing libraries will move into new buildings in Westbrook, Quarry Park and East Village (the New Central Library).
Robert Lemermeyer / SwerveYour move: New public areas at the Fish Creek Library engage adults and kids
outside the margins of books.
The conflict intensified in 2005, when Ptacek introduced a controversial “clustering” system for librarians. Instead of staff being assigned to work at single branches, as had been done previously, they were assigned to clusters that rotated to multiple branches. The union fought it, warning that clustering would worsen service and erode the sense of community at branches. Friends-of-library groups also objected, and patrons complained that they no longer recognized the people working at their libraries. “It is no longer a ‘third place’ to be enjoyed and cherished,” wrote one to the Issaquah Press. Richardson says staff are resigned to the change, but there’s still resentment over it.
Ptacek contends that the move was a difficult but necessary culture shift that helped the KCLS properly staff new branches and offer expanded hours. “Sometimes you have to make tough decisions,” he says. “I’m not going to sit here and claim that we did it exactly right. You make mistakes along the way. But for the most part, it was the right direction. I think that’s been borne out by the fact that it’s standard operating procedure in many libraries.”
Some CPL staff worry he’ll introduce a similar system here. Ptacek says he doesn’t “see it being done wholesale” (some managers and staff already work in multiple locations). He notes that King County has more than double the number of Calgary branches. “The idea of being tethered to one of those 48 locations made a lot less sense than here, where we’ve got 18 libraries serving wider geographic areas,” he says.
In King County, Ptacek also faced controversy over a 2011 decision to remove all KCLS security cameras in the name of intellectual freedom. He expressed concern that footage could show what items patrons were checking out and returning. “We’re not in the business of surveillance,” he told the Seattle Times. Local police criticized the decision, saying it would make their work more challenging.
Nevertheless, by all accounts, the KCLS flourished. In 2010, it circulated more items than any other library system in the U.S. (22.4 million). In 2011, the KCLS won the Library Journal’s Library of the Year Award. The publication praised KCLS for issuing more than 100,000 library cards in a single year and taking library services to underserved populations via Library2Go! vans.
Given his history of outreach, Ptacek had no time for the CPL’s $12 membership fee. Introduced in the 1980s, Alberta’s library fees are an aberration in the library world. “It was such an impediment,” Ptacek says. “I don’t think people realized, it wasn’t just the $12. It was the fact that it was a hassle, you had to renew it every year. It was another layer of bureaucracy that just got in the way.” It also ate up staff time.
Now that the fee is eliminated, the CPL is reaching out to city daycares, aiming to run month-long programs in 500 daycares over the next year. Given that early literacy is a key stepping stone for later life success, Ptacek believes this is a far better use of librarians’ time and effort. “The growing role of the librarian is not to be behind a desk and waiting here for somebody to come in, but to actively be engaged with the community,” he says.
This, too, is a shift that riles. As libraries increasingly resemble bustling community centres, many librarians, in Calgary and elsewhere, worry that the depth of their work is disappearing. “You have people who have thousands of hours of training in reference work, and they’re un-jamming the paper copier,” laments one CPL staffer, who asked to remain anonymous.
The Calgary library wasn’t exactly a laggard before Ptacek’s arrival. Under Gerry Meek, who headed the CPL for 21 years and retired in 2012, the library became one of the busiest systems on the continent, ranking behind only Toronto in Canada in terms of circulated items. “It’s not that we weren’t good,” says Hutchinson, the board chair. “We wanted to be better. We wanted to rival Toronto.”
The board sought a new CEO who wasn’t besotted with the New Central Library at the expense of the branches. “The board didn’t feel you should build a system based on a new central library,” says Hutchinson. “Then you set the system up to have this beautiful building downtown—but we have 17 more branches around the city that also needed to be integrated into that new vision.”
Days after Ptacek started, he and the board started hammering out a new strategic plan. “All our libraries will look new, fresh and appealing,” the plan reads. “People will know they are in a public library that promotes reading.” The plan identifies three “priority populations” for services: preschoolers and their families, newcomers, and students.
The CPL has said it wants every Calgary library to be of the same calibre as the New Central Library. To this end, the CPL is bringing the look and feel—the magic, Ptacek says—of the new library, with its openness and gathering spaces, into the branches. They are testing various things at different locations, such as shelving types and play materials for kids, to see what works well and what doesn’t. Each branch is being tapped for something different.
This experimentation, along with standardization of programming across branches, will help Calgarians transition to the new library, says Rh’ena Oake, president of CUPE 1169, the union representing most Calgary library workers. In a nutshell, Calgarians will know what to expect because they will have already experienced it. “There’s not going to be some big paradigm shift in thought or some big cultural rewrite when the doors open.”
Oake says Ptacek’s aversion to bureaucracy is a plus. “When he has an idea, he wants it done. It’s ‘let’s do this’ and we’ll look at the outcomes after we’ve done it.” Ptacek and the CPL union are off to a positive start, according to both parties. “Certainly feedback that I’ve received from some of our members is they’re very content with his approach of ‘let’s try it,'” says Oake.
Not everyone is so optimistic. Calgarians have wide-ranging and strong opinions on what’s happening in their libraries.
Some branches look radically different than they did a year ago, with more tables and chairs and fewer bookshelves. For some members, it means they can study or work at the library instead of trying to score a table near a power outlet at the local coffee shop. But for others, it’s a loss. “Every time you come in, more stuff is gone,” one woman lamented to me at the Louise Riley branch. Others have expressed similar frustrations. “It’s sad,” one wrote on Reddit. “I understand wanting a bit more space for people to sit, but soon they’ll have morphed them into coffee shops with a handful of books in one corner at the rate they’re going.”
About 30,000 of the culled books have been hauled to a warehouse in the northeast, where they are still accessible (you can put a hold on them and pick them up at your local library). Still, Ptacek acknowledges that the changes are challenging for those who have a more traditional view of libraries. “If we weed the paperback collection which nobody was using—’Oh my gosh, you’re getting rid of the books!’ Like every book is sacred. Well, we’re very fond of books obviously, but we want to make sure that our collections are really vibrant, that they really are attractive and useful.” He also says Calgary has not downsized its book collection to the extent of other libraries. “The collection that people have access to has not diminished one bit.”
As the library increases its membership, Ptacek says it’s critical to create more space for the new members. The extra room creates other opportunities, too. Fish Creek, for example, is experimenting with serving coffee. Phil & Sebastian has collaborated with the library on a pay-what-you-can coffee service, staffed by volunteers. Meanwhile, artists from groups such as the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, Alberta Ballet and the aforementioned rock bands now have room to do performances in library branches—something that’s occurring more regularly.
And then there are the children’s areas. Play is a key component of early literacy, and it’s becoming more common for parents to haul their young kids to the library, as most branches have new toys and mats for infants to crawl on. Wirzba, the Fish Creek manager, says new kids programming—along with a large play space—is turning that branch into an important point of connection for nearby parents. “A lot of people meet each other and become friends,” she says.
But more rowdy toddlers in libraries can make it tough for other people to read and concentrate. “They were not built to deal with the kind of sound levels we’re putting in them now,” says the CPL staffer who requested anonymity. Smaller branches in particular are challenging in this respect, and some feel an important quiet space in our society is being sacrificed.
Some simply steer clear of the library. Others, like Rachel Oggy, just go inside to quickly check out their holds. Oggy finds the library too loud and distracting, with all the kids and ESL classes and whatnot. Even so, she loves the CPL’s online services, and supports the recent changes even though they affect her negatively. “The way the library has changed has kept it relevant and useful to the community, and I think that’s great—even if that means for me, I just go pick up my book and read somewhere else,” says Oggy.
When the board interviewed Ptacek for the CEO role, he said the library’s public image needed a reboot. Everyone, from the board to the union, seemed to agree. “I think in the past, the library has been successful in preaching to the converted—promoting itself in library circles,” says Oake. “This particular CEO is focusing on really communicating to members of the public just what exactly libraries offer in the age of technology.”
As part of this reboot, the library unveiled a new brand in January. The library’s old book-shaped logo had begun to feel dated and stale. Ptacek says the CPL had some more conventional logo options to choose from, safe and relatable, but they went with something bolder and more open to interpretation: a crisp, circle-shaped web. Some say it resembles a snowflake, or the 1988 Winter Olympics logo. I see monochrome stained glass. Ptacek says it can also symbolize networks or neurons. In many ways, he says, the new logo is like the library itself: everybody who looks at it finds a different story.
The one Ptacek sees has a happy ending, even if others read it differently. “The concept of a library really makes sense,” he says. “(But) it doesn’t make sense if your view of libraries is it’s just a building with books in it and we’re supposed to be kind of a museum for books. If that’s your view, then we will die.”
From: Calgary Herald