Libraries enjoying surge in popularity

As our on-screen life expands, people increasingly value the human contact and the “memory” capacity of libraries.

Ottawa Citizen, December 27, 2016

Berthiaume and McAvity: In a digital age, more people than ever are visiting libraries, archives and museums. We can learn from that

Dr. Guy Berthiaume is the Librarian and Archivist of Canada. Photographed at Library and Archives Canada Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2015.  (Julie Oliver / Ottawa Citizen)
Dr. Guy Berthiaume is the Librarian and Archivist of Canada. Exciting times lie ahead for ‘memory institutions,’ he says. Julie Oliver / Ottawa Citizen

These are exciting times for the library community in Canada’s capital and many other cities across the country.

And yet, the digital era often gives us the impression that memory itself is becoming obsolete. What is the use of memory institutions such as galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAMs)? Aren’t Google, Amazon, Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter and the mind-blowing speed of their algorithms good enough for “remembering”?

From time to time, seemingly logical questions come up in the media. Is it still appropriate to build new libraries, given the increased popularity of ebooks? Aren’t virtual museums the best response to the need to make culture accessible to people across the country and around the world? Aren’t the archives’ holdings all digitized and accessible on either their own platforms or those of Ancestry or Findmypast?

Yet, in fact, the patronage of GLAMs is increasing. The number of visits to public libraries in the United States increased by four per cent in the past year. The new Halifax Public Library received double the expected number of visitors in its first year (1.9 million compared with the 900,000 expected), and it is anticipated that the new Ottawa Central Library will welcome at least 1.6 million visitors each year. As for Canadian museums, they attract 62 million visitors per year, up 10 per cent from 2013.

This counter-intuitive data led the British Library to conclude:

“The more screen-based our lives, it seems, the greater the perceived value of real human encounters and physical artefacts: activity in each realm feeds interest in the other.”

With this paradox in mind, the Canadian Museums Association, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO and Library and Archives Canada hosted the Summit on the Value of Libraries, Archives and Museums earlier this month.

The summit brought together nearly 300 people and some 30 speakers, one-quarter of whom were international. Key points about memory institutions in the early 21st century were highlighted:

• Technology is a source of both challenges and opportunities. In terms of challenges, there is the need for financial resources necessary to acquire these technologies and to secure the human resources capable of getting the most out of them. In terms of opportunities, there is the democratization of culture that is the result of reaching citizens in their homes thanks to digital technology. There is also the increased use of GLAM spaces, following these virtual visits. Increased consultation of resources on the Web is increasing the appetite of the public to visit reading rooms and exhibition spaces.

• Memory institutions are playing new roles – welcoming newcomers, providing access to high-speed internet for the less fortunate, et cetera.

• Finally, the position of memory institutions in the creative ecosystem cannot be reduced to the functions of collecting and preserving works. They are also present at the beginning of the creative chain, providing inspiration and material to artists of all disciplines – not just authors and poets, but also digital artists, musicians, painters, directors.

Beyond sharing knowledge, the Ottawa Summit also revealed a unity among memory institutions, which had previously tended to focus on what makes them unique rather than looking for common denominators. In practice, the distinctions have been fading for years: for example, all major museums host archives, and even libraries.

The participants of the summit adopted the Ottawa Declaration as an expression of their commitment to increase collaboration, develop opportunities to engage citizens and expand access to their collections. A new day has risen for Canadian memory institutions!

Dr. Guy Berthiaume is Librarian and Archivist of Canada and John G. McAvity is Executive Director, Canadian Museums Association.


Library of the future: light, activity, warmth

Open bleachers are a social gathering spot at the New York Public Library's Hamilton Grange Teen Center.

Teen Center in the New York Public Library–photo, Rice & Lipka Architects

Today’s Ottawa Citizen has a feature on what other libraries have done in terms of design. This is very timely when comments are welcome on Ottawa’s Central Library concept from now until April 6th (see past post).

Lyn Rice of  Rice+Lipka Architects in New York City has been busy giving libraries around the Big Apple a facelift over the past three years.

Among the firm’s notable projects was the Hamilton Grange Library Teen Center in Harlem, described as the New York Public Library’s “first full-floor dedicated teen space.” Unlike the dark, formal buildings of the past, the modern spaces Rice and his colleagues create are designed to draw not only light, but also people from all walks of life.

As Ottawa moves closer to the renewal of its central library — the topic of a public discussion Tuesday night at city hall — the Citizen spoke with Rice about the evolution of libraries.

Q How do you see libraries in the future?

A  The library is so much in demand as a new civic space, a place that has kind of gone by the wayside in previous decades. And we don’t have public meeting spaces so much anymore. We rely on Starbucks or Barnes and Noble to provide what used to be provided by civic functions and parks. So the library really has a place. Like in New York I know there is in demand for after school care, extra-curricular programs, not just reading programs but all kinds of youth programs, programs for the elderly, and it also becomes a venue for community meetings.

Q Other than books, what do new libraries include these days?

A The library is getting to a place where it’s more about participating than just book learning, but also providing access to individual exploration through internet technology, through gaming. I know at our teen centre we have a glass cylinder (room) where kids can go in and play Guitar Hero and Wii and they get physical and they get loud. They have bleachers for poetry readings and film screenings, niches for studying and lounges for more casual book readings and group spaces for socializing. Food and drink are allowed in a portion of it.

Q How are the building designed differently today?

A (The goal) of pretty much every project we are working on is to add daylight, and have that relationship to the outside … because it’s such a critical component of mental health. There’s really no reason not to have a lot of  daylight. In the ’70s we saw a lot of additional egress stairs, people were blocking up windows, and sometimes without explanation.

Q How should the design make people feel?

A It was a rougher times in the ’70s in New York, everything got very defensive and bars got put on windows, and now we are stripping all of that away. And it’s kind of a metaphor for what I think is happening in general. The formality that might be a little intimidating for not just youth but older people is being stripped away and I think the emphasis is on welcome and warmth and almost having this kind of home for learning and exploring new relationships and information.

Q What helps to keep a library space current?

A There has to be more flexibility in terms of what libraries can provide. Like advanced technology zones that are designed in a way that they can be reconfigured easily (for new technology).

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.