The once and future Calgary Public Library

The Calgary Herald, in three separate articles this past week, has come up with a stunning revelation: The city’s new central library will be “more of a community centre than a book depository.” One of the paper’s bloggers, David Marsden, is even moved to suggest, “please, call it a community centre, not a library.”

Well, folks, I have news for you. The Calgary Public Library has always been a community centre. It has never been just a repository for books. The first librarian, Alexander Calhoun, called it “a real civic and social centre.” With an art gallery in one room, a natural history museum in another, and a suite of other rooms set aside for meetings and discussion groups, the Calgary library of 1912 was a buzzing hive of social, educational and intellectual activity.

Full disclosure here. I don’t work for the library, but I was hired to write the centennial history of the institution. That’s how I learned what a vast array of services and programs the library has always offered for the edification and entertainment of Calgarians.

Before the advent of television, Calgarians went to the library to watch movies, for free. Before the arrival of Saturday morning cartoons, children went to the library for storytelling sessions. Before record players became common in city households, Calgarians went to the library to listen to recitals of recorded music.

When people could afford record players but had limited funds to buy records, they went to the library to borrow albums. They now do the same with CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs. When immigrants wanted to practise their English, they went to the library to converse with other immigrants. They still do. When people had no access to personal computers, they went to the library to check their email. They still do. Just stand outside the central library on any weekday morning, half an hour before opening. You’ll see dozens of people waiting there to get in and use the computers.

Want to know how to give an effective toast to the bride? The library has a program for you. Want to know how to best prepare for retirement? How to do your own bicycle maintenance? How to get started on your family tree? How to achieve a better understanding of teen issues? The library has programs for all these and more.

You’re doing a research paper. Do you need access to databases you can’t connect to with your home computer? Do you want to find out what other databases are out there that might be of assistance? The library has a team of highly qualified reference librarians on hand to help you.  All you have to do is ask.

The Herald says there will be less emphasis on books than in the past. This needs explaining, because it is somewhat misleading. The library has always been a creature of time and circumstances. While remaining true to its beginnings – as a memory bank of human thought and action, and as a centre for the pursuit of truth and ideas – it has grown and evolved to adapt to a changing environment. If “digital first” becomes the mantra for tomorrow’s book publishing industry, as it already has for the newspaper and magazine industries, then the library will be there to ensure its customers have online access. It doesn’t exist as a hidebound literary alternative, hermetically sealed within a changing society. Having said that, there will still be plenty of books. This public library will continue to be one of the great knowledge institutions of North America.

The Herald is currently conducting a poll on the merits or otherwise of having a new central library. I don’t have to tell you which way I voted. Aritha van Herk put it well when she described the library as a “bright light centering this city.” It was, is, and always will be “home to Calgary’s book lovers and word purveyors, endless community services, and a tent full of information.”

2 Responses to The once and future Calgary Public Library

  1. Great blog, Brian. Yes, libraries have always been community hubs. But there’s a noteworthy shift in the new plan towards devoting more of the Library’s floor space to public functions, in recognizing that the Central Library is downtown’s grand community centre.

    • I’m sure Calhoun would have approved, Jason. He was eventually forced, reluctantly, to kick out the community groups to make more room for books. That likely won’t be a problem in the future.

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