Libraries aren’t simply city buildings; they’re community building blocks

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This city needs another library branch. It’s way overdue actually, to borrow a phrase.

There’s a recent movement afoot to summon 6,500 signatures on a petition to nix the process. They say it’s going to cost too much.

I’m not going to dissuade them; democracies are built on such criticism. I wish them luck but their efforts are short-sighted. They’re simply not looking at the big picture.

I agree that it’s a lot to pay for a building. I submit that it’s an excellent price for something that builds a community.

Think about it: a library isn’t just a place where thousands of books are housed on plain shelves with a dusty card catalogue squeaking every time someone opens a wooden drawer.

Libraries are public community centres: gathering places for all. In fact, a library is one of the most accessed free public services around anywhere … period. I’m hard-pressed to think of anything else that comes close.

Every year, the St. Albert Public Library clocks in with 300,000-plus individual visits. Last year that number was 363,295 visits. That’s a lot of kids, seniors and families.

Why? A library serves learning, literacy, life skills, programming, coffee, and more. Yes, there’s movies and music to borrow too.

STAR Literacy offers its Conversation Circle for people to learn to speak English in a supportive group at the library. Families, school groups and daycares can bring the kids in for storytimes or other reading and learning programs. For the adults, there are computers upstairs to work on rĂ©sumĂ©s or other important assignments, plus there’s WiFi if you need to roam around with your laptop doing research for your breakout novel. The writer in residence can help you out with that too. There are also private rooms where people can actually sit and concentrate on a serious project.

As a side note, I worked on this piece at the library. They have some great quiet study kiosks and tables, places where a lot of high school students come to prepare for tests and work on assignments.

The library offers many, many programs including computer education, public talks, and author visits, among others. Janice MacDonald is coming to talk about her new book next weekend and author Robert Bhatia was just here for his book. There’s a presenter scheduled to talk about seniors co-housing, and there’s a program happening today to help you put on a great block party. My very first volunteer experience was at the St. Albert Public Library’s summer reading program. Sounds like community building to me.

Now, you could say that Servus Place is a community centre too, except that most of its programs are on a paying basis only. Sure, it’s important to have access to sports facilities and exercise and training programs but they’re not so important that everybody gets in for free.

Way back when the St. Albert Public Library first opened in 1984, the city had a population two-thirds of what it is now and didn’t even include several huge neighbourhoods such as Oakmont, Kingswood, and Deer Ridge. Originally, the library was built for a collection of 100,000 items and serve up to 50,000 people.

Now, it has 188,000 items and the city is at 65,000 people. Considering our new neighbourhoods, housing projects and all the boundary bursting that we’ve seen with the city limits lately, I’d bet we’re looking at a major growth spurt. At some point, we’ll be 80,000 people and then 100,000 people. That’s a lot of taxpayers who will live all too far away from St. Albert Place. They’ll be paying taxes for a service that is exponentially tougher for them to access.

Consider also that there are only about 700 parking spots within 500 metres of St. Albert Place at the best of times, and how many dozens of struggling businesses in the downtown core rely on them for their customers’ convenience too. Now you’ve got a better scope of why a new library is necessary.

In Just Getting Started, Todd Babiak’s book about the first 100 years of the Edmonton Public Library, he writes, “a city is not a city without a library. Once it was a cornerstone of the public square. Today … the city library may be the public square.”

I agree with him. Call me old-fashioned but all of the new neighbourhoods in the world won’t mean people will look each other in the eye or wave as they drive past. Now, I love my books just as much as the next fella. Libraries are great for many reasons but I’m more keen to see civic projects that actually touch people, that improve their lives, and that bring us all closer.

Babiak’s book starts with this quote: “The contribution made by the Edmonton libraries to the sanity and support of the citizens cannot be estimated. No Annual Report can gauge things of this sort.” It came from the library’s annual report from way back in 1931. It’s wonderful to know that someone even 86 years ago could recognize the invaluable and profound contributions that libraries offer the masses. Indeed, they’re integral to nurturing a populace.

Last week, those petition proponents agreed to meet at a local coffee shop. I imagine that the baristas on duty asked them to purchase tea and muffins in order to sit at the tables. After all, it’s a private business.

Funny. They could have met at the library, for free.

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About Author

Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.