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Library overdue 

Modern, ambitious cities build modern, ambitious libraries

Bigfoot is at the Spring Garden Road library (in the Don Hunter book Sasquatch, for example). Ditto the Loch Ness monster, the fountain of youth, Oak Island's treasure and the Bermuda Triangle (this last is available on DVD in an episode of Scooby-Doo, where are you!). The library's holdings on the mythical and mysterious are so complete, there's even information about the history of an elusive paradise that came up in local news again this week: A new central library for Halifax.

Halifax Public Libraries CEO Judith Hare reportedly drew cheers at a public meeting Monday night, June 2, when she unveiled the latest ideas for a central library. Her 82-slide presentation explained where the thinking process is---HPL and consultants trying to accurately reflect citizen wishes collected over recent months---and where it goes. Namely, to city council on June 24. If councillors like what they see, they'll vote to give HPL up to $400,000 to keep going and get plans for the building designed.

Hare's report calls for an environmentally friendly new building at the corner of Queen and Spring Garden, with a 250-chair auditorium, cafe and room for over 700 people to sit down. At 108,740 square feet, it's almost three times as large as the Spring Garden Memorial branch it'll replace, which seats just 124. HPL says people are hoping for "a library that blends the best of traditional library service with new and innovative spaces," but what that actually looks like is a question for the designers after council gets on board.

If this sounds too good to be true, that's because it might be. The central library is a Holy Grail inside the HPL system, where longtime staffers have been hearing such talk for at least 25 years. The last time it came out in public was around Halifax's 250th birthday in 1999, when the library's board tried to stir council into giving the city a grand gift. Popular as that would have been and desperately needed---by 1993 Spring Garden was operating at three times its intended capacity---it died under typical bickering between urban and rural councillors. In this way the central library is a microcosm of Metro Halifax, where a downtown core that supports the far-flung reaches is allowed to wither by councillors who can't see beyond the borders of their own districts.

Ambitious, modern libraries are fast becoming the marker for ambitious, modern cities. Seattle's central library---a jewel of angles, glass and colour designed by international starchitect Rem Koolhaus---caused a sensation when it opened in 2004. "If an American city can erect a civic project as brave as this one, the sun hasn't set in the West. In more than 30 years of writing about architecture, this is the most exciting new building it has been my honor to review," said Herbert Muschamp in the New York Times. Inside the library are bright-red stairwells, soaring open spaces, computers, a shop, gawking tourists and locals from studious to asleep. Of course there are books, loads of books, but plenty more besides. It is a palace of information, not a museum to the printed word.

There's no reason Halifax couldn't have a sensational central library. Or rather, the library will only be hindered by the standard Halifax problems---money and vision. And on both of these, the elected officials risk trailing way behind their constituents.

Money? Citizen will is surely there for such a wise spending of tax dollars. A library is the most important public building, one the public uses, unlike the one we merely pay for (City Hall) or try to avoid (the courthouse). Vision? Since the 1999 central library attempt, we've seen the excitement of an adventurous branch library opening in town (Clayton Park's Keshen Goodman) and watched the new wave of central libraries in Seattle and Vancouver. We are ready to be amazed. Go on, council, surprise us.

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