In the 20-plus years I’ve been on the Collingwood Library board, I have watched the functions of the library and its role in the community evolve and change to keep pace with the needs and demands of its growing number of users. It’s been a remarkable, exciting journey.
Of all our civic institutions, I believe the library has best adapted to the new technologies and the changing community demographics. In sheer numbers, it is our most popular, most well-used community facility.
And the library continues to grow in popularity as visits, uses and borrowing expands in leaps and bounds. From the Collingwood Public Library annual report for 2013, presented to Council on Monday night here are a few statistics:
- 190,121 patron visits (up 6%);
- 283,467 items borrowed (up 3%);
- 7,580 e-books borrowed (up 44%);
- 5,095 program participants (up 26%);
- 10,663 uses of library computer workstations (up 13%);
- 13,746 uses of library Wifi network (up 34%);
- 159,150 visits to library website (up 52%).
Did you also know there are many free online courses available through the library’s website? All you need is your library card to take them. I signed up for Latin! Plus there are databases and online magazines you can read or use for research. And, of course, a large collection of movies on DVD, music on CD and even audiobooks you can check out.
All of this is good news for the community: it shows our library remains on the forefront of the technology wave; adapting and enhancing its services – thanks to terrific, dedicated staff and a supportive, active and engaged board. Plus the library has an excellent relationship with the town’s IT superb department to help make technical and technological decisions and upgrades easier and more efficient.*
The growing community use in all aspects and areas of the library show how prescient the 2003-06 council was in approving (albeit not unanimously**) a new, expanded, award-winning, LEEDS-gold-certified library – long overdue, too.*** According to Ministry standards, our library had outgrown its space around 1990. It took more than 15 years to get a new building with enough space to accommodate the town’s growing population and the library’s own collection.
A modern library is not simply a warehouse for books – themselves often but wrongly portrayed as an aging technology in the era of the e-reader. It is the beating heart of the community. As a page on the Southern Ontario Library Service (SOLS) says about the public library:
Today it is a cornerstone of the community that benefits everyone. Residents of all ages rely on their public library to provide what they need to face the future with the resilience that comes from new knowledge, information, skills, and abilities.
The literacy map for Collingwood is reasonably healthy. According to the Canadian Council on Learning, we’re doing better than much of the country, and the library is one of the main reasons scores have improved over the last several years. But we can’t relax our vigil and take it for granted.
In early 2009, a set of statements, called The Darien Statements on the Library and Librarians, were laid out to explain the role of the modern library and these apply to our own Collingwood Library:
The Purpose of the Library
The purpose of the Library is to preserve the integrity of civilization.
The Library has a moral obligation to adhere to its purpose despite social, economic, environmental, or political influences. The purpose of the Library will never change.
The Library is infinite in its capacity to contain, connect and disseminate knowledge; librarians are human and ephemeral, therefore we must work together to ensure the Library’s permanence.
Individual libraries serve the mission of their parent institution or governing body, but the purpose of the Library overrides that mission when the two come into conflict.
Why we do things will not change, but how we do them will.
A clear understanding of the Library’s purpose, its role, and the role of librarians is essential to the preservation of the Library.
The Role of the Library
- Provides the opportunity for personal enlightenment.
- Encourages the love of learning.
- Empowers people to fulfill their civic duty.
- Facilitates human connections.
- Preserves and provides materials.
- Expands capacity for creative expression.
- Inspires and perpetuates hope.
The document ends with this call to citizen action – one tinged with a little sadness to think that anyone would not support or even be opposed to their library:
We have faith that the citizens of our communities will continue to fulfill their civic responsibility by preserving the Library.
But of course, not everyone appreciates a library or feels that preserving it is their civic responsibility. Some see libraries as expendable, as “soft” services that can be safely reduced or even eliminated. The loss of a library can have a terrible impact on a community, as these stories tell us. Is a library closing any easier to bear than a book burning? Both represent the shuttering of ideas, dreams and imagination. The closing of a library can also mirror the death of the community, as it has in Detroit, pictured left.
Fortunately, most of our recent Collingwood councils have been supportive of our library and its growth. But not everyone shares their vision, not even everyone on council.
Back in 2009, the former treasurer for the special interest group, VOTE, realtor (now candidate for council), Rick Crouch wrote on his blog (criticizing the last council’s mounting debt which reached $45 million – $11 million of which has been paid down by this council, but that’s a topic for another post):
The new library at $6 million is the largest project mentioned up for debenture in 2010. Sure a new library would be nice but when you have the likes of “Google” currently in the process of digitizing every book ever written, it really makes you wonder if spending money on bricks and mortar to house books is the way to go. I know one thing is certain, if libraries in the past had been run as private enterprise profit centres, the threat of books no longer being required in traditional print for people to borrow would be causing the ACME Library Company (if one existed) to close their doors for good or at least to revise their business model to search out sources of revenue elsewhere.
Of course, as a fervent library supporter, and well aware of the overdue need for expansion, I had to respond on my own blog. I replied:
Privatizing libraries is like privatizing health care. A seriously bad idea. Think the private sector can do better than the public sector? Think of Enron. Think of any of the many, poorly-managed, inept and corrupt financial corps and banks that caused the financial meltdown of 2008 (and are still trying to suck the life out of the recovery through massive, egregious salaries and bonus packages). Think of the American auto companies that had to be bailed out with tax dollars to keep from bankruptcy. Think of the private American health care system versus the public health care system here in Canada, or in the UK, Sweden or Cuba. The private sector doesn’t offer many exemplary role models for anything I’d want in a library.
Libraries were created to expand literacy, learning and knowledge for the wider masses, for the public. Private libraries – they exist – offer the opposite: restricted access, limited use, fees for service, and are often tightly focused on particular topics, events, companies or individuals.
Libraries are about broader learning. They are about sharing. They are about common goals and the greater good. Libraries are public institutions because literacy and learning are too important to slough off on some private agency, and expect that – like banks or auto companies – they will serve the public good rather than their own interests.
But Rick wasn’t finished criticizing the library. In 2010, he wrote again:
This building came at a significant cost and there have been times when I questioned whether or not the municipality should be spending the money given the town’s increased debt. In this day and age of digital print media and devices such as Amazon’s “Kindle” and Apple’s new iPad, you really have to question the wisdom of spending millions on the bricks and mortar inventorying and delivery of reading materials.
Every effort should be made to leverage this facility to its fullest extent the potential for which goes far beyond the loaning out of books.
At the time, I wrote another rebuttal about why e-readers and the internet would never replace a real library. Imagine trying to hang the Magic of Children’s Art on a Kindle! Or holding a service club meeting or the kids’s chess club meeting on an iPad. They may be wonderful conveniences, but e-readers are not socially interactive community spaces like libraries are. Nor do they fulfill any group-related role.
Wise indeed the decision proved. The new library has shown itself one of the town’s best investments.
Libraries are not rendered useless by technology, but rather the technology creates new opportunities for libraries to fulfill and expand their mandate. As well as challenges, especially when trying to get funding. I wrote:
It’s akin to asking why we still build family cars when we can have the Space Shuttle. Or why build a multi-use facility with ice rinks, swimming pool and gym when we can buy a Wii.
Although he was obviously unaware of the changes in our library these past 25-30 years, Rick’s comment about using (“leveraging”) the facilities for uses other than loaning books has long been accomplished. The library is an artspace with multiple gallery areas, a technology learning space (with a separate computer room for teaching), a community meeting and event space used by dozens of community artists, musicians, agencies, groups and organizations, a free space to surf the internet and connect on social media, a programming space that offers classes, activities and events for all ages.
It’s a gathering place for parents and seniors, a research zone for local history and genealogy, and a space to play chess or use a computer. It’s a safe place for children and young parents. And it’s been all of these things ever since I first arrived here, just moreso today.
The SOLS paper lists several important community functions of the modern library, all of which apply to the Collingwood Public Library, including:
- Facilitates individual and community learning, building capacity to adapt to a changing world
- Enables participation by all in an increasingly digital economy
- Fosters creativity, widely endorsed as an essential life skill in the new economy
- Supports workforce readiness
- Engages the minds of an aging population, slowing cognitive decline
- Builds newcomers’ capacity to be active and involved members of the community
- Provides crucial public space that supports community engagement and reduces social isolation
- Showcases and generates enthusiasm for local culture and identity
- Contributes to a community’s appeal as a vibrant place to live.
Libraries in the 21st century fill many roles: cultural, social, sociological, psychological and intellectual. In an age where technology encourages illiteracy and the corrosion of language, grammar and style, encourages pseudoscience and wild conspiracy theories, libraries are bastions of literacy, learning and knowledge.
An article by the Manitoba School Library Association noted,
For centuries, the defining role of the library has been as a repository of books. Now, in the 21st century, the library faces perhaps its most momentous challenge: Americans are moving away increasingly from the printed page to digital screens for information and communication.
Library leaders nationwide are adapting to this shift by reimagining the library as an engaged community center. The role of librarians is being re-branded to reflect their expertise as content curators and trusted navigators in an ever-expanding ocean of information — in whatever format it may exist.
Core issues — including technology integration, new services, institutional identity and right-sizing collections… are under active review.
In the USA, the Madison Public Library summarized the changes most libraries have wrestled with these past two decades:
In years past, libraries were mostly about books. But as demographics change and technology rapidly advances, the role of public libraries is evolving. Today’s modern libraries still feature books but also growing collections of digital media, such as eBooks, public computers, internet access and important online databases. The number of people who rely on the library for computers and internet access continues to grow.
Libraries today are also serving like busy community centers. With scores of personal enrichment programs – from learning to knit to desktop publishing – they foster face-to-face dialogue, group learning programs and meeting spaces and social settings that support civic engagement and personal interaction.
And similarly, in the UK, a publication called 21st Century Libraries noted:
The developing role of the library has created a set of new and complex challenges for those delivering library buildings and services. The libraries of the 21st century are no longer simply familiar repositories for books. They have changed and expanded, been rethought and redesigned. Libraries now provide an increasing range of different services, using a multitude of media, and reach a more diverse audience than ever before…
Not very long ago pundits were drafting the obituary of the public library. That act now seems premature. Today new libraries are springing up everywhere, in city centres, in ex-mining communities, in shopping malls and on large new residential estates… A familiar if ageing institution in both the rural and urban townscape appears to have bounced back with a vengeance.
Ironically it has been the rise of information and communications technology (ICT) – thought by some to be about to pull the plug on the public library service – which has arrived just in time to save it. All of the new library buildings of the past decade in the UK are packed with computer terminals, technology suites, seminar rooms, and hot-desking email stations.
The report goes on to add:
The reason for the belief that library services do indeed have a future is simple. Now, and in the foreseeable future, people will need to upgrade their skills or learn new ones many times in the course of their working – and even domestic and recreational – lives. Education will no longer be a once and for all operation at the outset of life, but a continuous process of adaptation, self-development and vocational re-skilling that will go on until people are well into their eighties, and even beyond. Although such developments appear to further consolidate the increased individualisation of society, it is a form of individualism tempered by having historical roots in self-improvement and the ideals of an educated democracy.
And what democracy would be considered educated without a library? A draft discussion paper about future libraries in British Columbia noted:
Libraries are essential to literacy, lifelong learning and for self-directed personalized learning in British Columbia, and they will continue to serve everyone, from cradle to grave. Libraries are highly flexible, responsive to the specific information needs of their unique and diverse communities.
Professional librarians and teacher librarians are skilled information navigators, evaluators and literacy specialists, well positioned to assist users in their quest for accessible, credible and vital knowledge. They understand their clientele well – be those communities, schools, neighbourhoods or universities – and guide and support their users through new forms of information; the need for a navigator increases as formats and technologies proliferate.
Libraries are community hubs, with creative spaces suitable for a number of individual and collaborative activities, only one of which is seeking and accessing information. Library spaces are more adaptable than ever before. Technology enables greater flexibility as physical collections shrink and more information is stored online. Libraries offer relevant, creative, useful and flexible spaces in which local populations can congregate, interact and create. Library services are less about what products are available in a physical building, and more about the user’s experience while visiting.
Fortunately for Collingwood’s residents, our library has been working through all of these challenges and finding people-friendly, technologically-savvy and relevant solutions. The statistics show that our residents appreciate and are making use of our library’s resources in increasing numbers.
We should be proud of our library, what it has accomplished and how well it has adapted to the changing, high-tech world.
* In a budget discussion in 2008, I predicted the library use would grow exponentially – and it did. We needed to provide space, staff and resources to manage the increased demand on services. Councillor Edwards introduced a motion to instead reduce library services at that time, but it was defeated.
** Astute readers will recall that Councillors Chris Carrier (later mayor and now mayoral candidate) and Mike Edwards voted against the library expansion when presented to council in 2006. Councillor Carrier, as I recall one early budget discussion, once queried the former library CEO whether her statistics showing 300 people a day using the library were not simply 30 people each using it ten times a day.
*** Officially opened in May, 2010. The original proposal for an expansion (not a new building; that came somewhat later in the discussion) was presented to Collingwood Council in May, 2005 with a request for $75,000 for necessary architectural drawings. Councillor Chris Carrier voted against it, and later against the new building.