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Once upon a time, there was a vast land at the edge of a mountain range stretching out toward the sunrise. It was filled with people who had many burning questions. What’s the longest river in the world? How can I build a rocket? What is my cat thinking? Who won last night’s hockey game?
For answers, they went to special, silent buildings with magical people behind big desks who knew exactly where to look among their stacks and stacks of books, magazines and newspapers.
One day, an enchanting stranger appeared, promising more answers faster than anyone could ever imagine.
But the stranger grew into a giant and it seemed those magical people inside those special buildings might no longer be needed …
In a world where almost any information you could possibly want is only a click away, the increasing importance of public libraries might seem like a fairy tale.
But across Alberta, the number of library cardholders is skyrocketing and the Calgary Public Library alone has nearly 670,000 active library members. The province’s two largest cities are reimagining their central branches (Architectural Digest listed Calgary’s $245-million new Central Library among 2018’s 12 most anticipated buildings). And you’re just as likely to find librarians riding book bikes, hosting parties or leading language classes for newcomers as you are to see them behind a reference desk.
The future of libraries seems bright. Why? The answer appears to be far more about humanizing than it is about digitizing.
“The library isn’t a place, it’s a concept,” says Calgary Public Library CEO Bill Ptacek. That concept, he explains, is about providing people with open access to ideas and information in ways that transform lives and build community.
Fouzia Abu-Shiraz (LIT ’11) embraces Ptacek’s words wholeheartedly, quoting them at the end of every single program she delivers as a library experience guide.
Before she can share Ptacek’s message with the masses today, Abu-Shiraz must first climb into the driver’s seat of a 22-footlong Mercedes panel van. It’s Monday afternoon, so she’s carefully backing the bright red story truck out of the Louise Riley Library parking lot and making her way to the Brenda Strafford Centre for a weekly visit. The truck is lined with books for every age and interest, and Abu-Shiraz is ready to share storytime with women and children fleeing domestic violence.
“The first time I went, there weren’t many families that came to my little display, and nobody looked in my face,” she says. “Come see us now, and we are like a family — everyone is waiting for us when we arrive and the children are giggling. It makes me breathless — this is my passion.”
On another day, you might find Abu-Shiraz’s story truck — one of several in the Calgary Public Library fleet — parked at a farmers’ market, a daycare, a day home or a school. Going where people already are is one way Alberta libraries are reaching out to meet the needs of their communities. Libraries are also removing barriers by providing free library cards, meeting spaces and printing. They are embracing diversity, focusing on early literacy and connecting with newcomers.
Connection will be at the heart of Calgary’s new 280,000-square-foot central library branch when it opens in November 2018. “An experience with the new library will begin before people even walk through the doors,” Ptacek says. “Our staff will be on the street giving out library cards and talking about programs, and we’ll have activities going on outside.
“It’s about creating a gathering place — one that is linked to the East Village — and that gives us the chance to make this library much more a part of a larger community than typical urban downtown libraries.”
Photos from the Calgary Public Library’s Instrument Petting Zoo. The library’s lending collection consists of instruments ranging from ukuleles to bongos.
That’s important because downtown libraries in large Canadian cities are often on the frontlines of complex social issues.
“Libraries are sanctuaries for many people, including people struggling with mental illness or homelessness,” says Michelle Toombs, CEO of the Marigold Library System and a member of SAIT’s Library Information Technology Program Advisory Committee. “Because libraries are for everyone and open to all, they can offer refuge, companionship, hope and creativity to people who need it.”
Libraries serving smaller communities are also addressing social challenges such as the growing opioid crisis. Deb Cryderman (LIT ’96) is director of the Camrose Public Library and, earlier this year, her library became the first in Alberta to train staff in administering Naloxone, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.
“Our philosophy has always been harm reduction,” says Cryderman. “We know we’re not going to cure a person of a drug addiction, but if something happens in our library we can make sure that person stays on this planet long enough to get some help. We can do that little bit.”
Anticipating and responding to the needs of her community before those needs become a crisis is Cryderman’s personal mission. Sometimes that means meeting people in neutral spaces. Bringing the library to a playground can help a mom struggling with poverty who lives far enough away that walking downtown with small children is impossible. Allowing volunteers to sign out a special bike equipped with a front passenger seat battles loneliness among seniors by taking them out for a ride to feel the wind in their hair. Sometimes it means popping up pretty much anywhere in the community the library is invited: high schools, festivals, pride celebrations and seniors’ homes.
Other times it means inviting new people into the library — and Cryderman’s epic several-times-a-year parties are designed to do just that. The latest, a Harry Potterthemed event to launch the summer reading program, brought 785 people into the small city’s 13,000-square-foot library where staff recreated Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
“That book speaks to generations, and it was a beautiful thing,” says Cryderman. “I work with 31 staff members who are constantly in search of ideas and inspiration from around the world. We say yes to everything — to people, to organizations, to partnerships, to all kinds of ideas that other people might run and hide from — and we figure out the details later.”
Libraries are clearly not one-size-fits-all. “Libraries are attentive and responsive to their communities’ needs and priorities, and develop services and programs to fit those needs. Some public libraries emphasize programming that brings people together, while others focus on reaching isolated and under-served communities,” says Toombs. But regardless of how individual libraries are adapting to serve their patrons in new and relevant ways, today every library requires staff who are flexible, able to plan events, embrace diversity, engage community and work with society’s most vulnerable populations.
And SAIT’s Library Information Technology program is responding to these demands.
“Industry is telling us that our alumni — their potential employees — need soft skills like self-confidence, critical thinking, project management and change management,” says Dr. Donna Campbell, an instructor and practicum coordinator in the diploma program. “We have been rethinking our material and moving from theory-based to hands-on, or practice-based, approaches. We’re making changes to content and assessments that encourage students to think in different ways and make evidence-based decisions.”
The goal, says Campbell, is to see graduates walk away not only with a diploma and a strong skillset, but an entrepreneurial spirit and a questioning mind.
Those are attributes that shine in Abu-Shiraz every day as she shares her passion for libraries with anyone who will listen: visitors to her branch, guests on her book bus, and even the person on the treadmill next to her at the gym.
“I’m always telling people, if you haven’t been to the library lately, you are missing out,” she says. “You need to come and see what’s happening — there are places for children to play and be loud, there are quiet places for students to study, we have a summer reading program, teens are learning to code, newcomers are learning about what it means to be Canadian, you can use the internet, you can print for free —”
There’s a pause as the long list and her own enthusiasm cause Abu-Shiraz to run out of breath.
“Have you been lately? If not, you should go. Now! You really should.”
… But the magical people didn’t wait to be rescued. They became good friends with the giant, and they showed the people how to be friends with it, too. They shifted and molded themselves over and over again, finding new ways to reshape their magic.
They invited more people into their special buildings. They found ways to make people feel less alone, and they took their new magic out beyond their walls, embarking on a never-ending story of building community.
TEXT BY MICHELLE WOODARD | PHOTOS BY GEORGE WEBBER