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More library lessons learned 

Halifax isn’t the first city to build a new library, so we asked around North America for some expert advice.

Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library

Why ask a librarian from rural Nova Scotia for advice? Well, city slicker, because Eric Stackhouse, chief librarian of the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library, is a few steps ahead of us. His library system, along with a local architect and multiple community partners, are in the homestretch of building a new 16,000-square-foot library in Antigonish.

“We took a page right out of the Partnership for Public Spaces playbook,” Stackhouse says, referring to an American foundation that helps create active public spaces across North America. PPS members visited the area at the beginning of the project and Dale Archibald, the library architect, undertook training with them to better work with the public on the building’s design. After 30 consultation sessions, Stackhouse calls the library, “not just a building, it’s a public space.”

The results sound inspiring: the library partnered with local community groups to provide them with meeting spaces and a community kitchen. The surrounding 1.5 acres of land is integrated by a reading porch with flexible library walls, which open onto a patio that in turn flows down to a trail system. They also realigned sidewalks, street lights, altered street traffic and integrated the building with local businesses.

This month they will send out tenders for local artists to contribute to the space, a plan Stackhouse calls a deliberate “stimulus package for artists.”

It’s an inspiring example of public design by a town that led the way in people-power with the 1920s Antigonish cooperative movement.

Salt Lake City Central Library, Utah

“You want people to come down, you want to create a space,” Ed Sweeney says enthusiastically. Sweeney is CEO of National Public Radio affiliate, KCPW, which lives in Salt Lake City’s $65 million central library, designed by Vancouver’s central library architect Moshe Safdie and Associates.

The city’s head librarian approached the station in 2003 because they thought local public radio would make a great addition to the retail space they had planned for the building. KCPW takes up one storefront, beside a coffee shop, a comic-book store, an art gallery and a florist. Kids, homeless people and families who use the library can watch live radio because the broadcast booth is glassed in. As soon as you walk in the door to the library, you have to pass by KCPW and gawk. The station also has a lounge where the public can come in and watch the broadcast.

Inhabiting the second-most visited building in the city centre (after the Mormon church’s main temple) gives just over a million people easy access to KCPW. Plus, there are fringe benefits for both the station and the library, says Sweeney. “They are our landlords. We are hardwired to them. There is a 300-seat auditorium right next to us we use regularly for broadcasts.” Sweeney also simulcasts library events in the auditorium, and either way, he says, “We promote the library significantly as an underwriter of the station every day.”

ImaginOn, Charlotte, North Carolina

When the director of the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte children’s theatre read a news article about how his local library system planned to open up a new kids library, he saw an opportunity.

“The more they talked the more they realized the two organizations had complementary missions,” says Melanie Baron, exhibitions coordinator for ImaginOn. “A shared building could be more than real estate deal, but also a programmatic partnership.”

ImaginOn opened in 2005. There’s a full children’s theatre, classes, exhibitions, a touring company and, of course, books. The site needed activities available all the time, so the evolved hybrid behaves more like a children’s museum. Groups come and go, events go on every hour. You can join in or just drop into a chair and read.

It took time to work out the kinks. The library has its goals and so does the theatre. Most issues were operational: Librarians work 9-5, while artists are night owls. To help integrate the bicameral site, the concept of shared staff was established early in the design. They focus on the shared mission (“bringing stories to life”), creating a new kind of public space.

ImaginOn offers a valuable lesson, not only in partnership, but in attracting people to a central spot: around 320,000 people visit every year.

Leaving Las Vegas

Back at the turn of the last century when people had money, there was an idea “that pubic buildings were an opportunity to do something grand,” says Witold Rybczynski, professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s talking 1890s, when New York built its imposing central library, not the 1990s when so many cities across North America built new central libraries.

Problem is, that idea doesn’t quite fit in 2010. “Central libraries were important originally because they were functionally important,” Rybczynski explains. “If you wanted to get a somewhat obscure book, that was the only place you would get it. A lot of central libraries were research libraries.”

Remove that purpose, thanks to Google and penny books from Amazon, and what do you have? Unless you’re in a city with history, money and density like New York, not much. “These big central libraries have to reinvent themselves, because,” he says, “most people don’t need them.” Attempts to remake central libraries often say more about a city’s need to rejuvenate urban cores, Rybczynski says. “It’s more like rebuilding the concert hall or a convention centre or even a downtown sports stadium. It’s one of those buildings that’s seen as a vehicle for reviving downtown.”

If we’re using the library as a vehicle for urban development and not for a usable purpose, then we have a problem. The purpose of the new library must not be a field of dreams. What if no one comes?

If you want a interesting take on this predicament, go to Vegas, Rybczynski says. Yes, Las Vegas. “What Las Vegas did is they didn’t build a central library. It’s only branch libraries.” To Rybczynski, this choice “seemed like that was a really interesting and intelligent solution because they aren’t saddled with this huge whale at the centre of the system which, in American cities at least, tend not to be used very much. Las Vegas just faced that and put lots of money into their branches. Their branch libraries look like most central libraries. They’re very grand, big and well-equipped.”

And let’s face it: unless there were slots in their central library, who would leave Caesar’s anyhow? Thing is, Halifax is committed to building a new library, so what do we do? Answer: the central library must find its purpose. New central libraries in cities like Vancouver “are really public places. It’s about having a public experience,” Rybczynski says. For instance, many replaced their reading rooms with atriums or piazzas. “Which is valid and not to be sneered at. It’s mixing with people and being in a public place.”

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