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Sorry, not all your library dreams are going to come true

This week in Market Squared, a call to those with library ambitions to remind them that this is a community project, and that some in the community must still be convinced
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opulent library stock
The new Guelph Public Library main branch is going to be big, but it's not going to have everything

The library's new main branch is so close, people who have wanted it for the last 20 years or more can taste it. If anything, like a fine wine, the taste has gotten better with age.

The business case for the construction of a new main branch of the Guelph Public Library is coming to City Council on February 13. The library’s board of directors has already given their approval.

The plan, which was developed with the assistance of consultants from KPMG, will see the main branch grow a Grinch-like three sizes from 23,000 square feet to 88,000 square feet. The cost will be $50 million to build it, but to staff and operate the new building, there would need to be an additional $2.2 million annual cost to the City.

I’ll assume you just spit out your coffee.

Yes, this is no easy decision to make. Despite the enthusiasm for the project, some of the soft support on council will be casting a weary eye at both price tags knowing that there are some people in town who are not stoked about the idea of pouring such money into a specifically downtown project.

The persuasion campaign should be easy though. Guelph’s library system is amongst the oldest and busiest in the province, and no matter what branch you use – from the West End Rec Centre, to the East End Branch on Starwood, to the Westminster Branch in the south end – all material passes through the main branch downtown at some point.

Consider this as well: how do you reach the books on the top shelf of the stacks if you’re in a wheelchair?

That’s one of many ways that the current main branch does not meet current compliance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). Also, the book stacks are too narrow, the foyer is not big enough, and there are no accessible washrooms on the first floor. On top of those practical concerns, the library doesn’t have any more room for its two growing areas of need: archives and public meeting space.

The case for the new library reminds me of the case for the new Civic Museum. There was a lot of resistance there too, but many of the same reasons the Civic Museum needed to find a new home, are the same reasons the Main Library Branch must now move too, like the fact it was in too old a building by modern standards, and not enough space to meet programming and archival demands.

And let’s not forget that the Main Branch on Norfolk is now 52 years old. When that building opened its doors, Guelph had a population of 51,377. By the time we get to the midpoint of the century, Guelph will have a population of 185,000. A population three times the size requires a main library three times the size, yes?

But of course, the reasons are secondary to the price tag in the eyes of many people. So, considering that, the people that eagerly endorse the construction of a new main branch need to chill out a little.

I was at a town hall where Library CEO Steve Kraft, and KMPG Director of Public Sector Advisory Bruce Peever presented the business case for public feedback and discussion about how it was developed. Although the point of the exercise was to sketch out the rough dimensions of how big a new main branch would be, and how much it would cost, some people in the audience wanted to know why there was no auditorium in the plan?!

The answer was simple, the development of the library’s plan just hadn’t got there yet. What the business case was meant to do was build an empty box, and tell council how much it will cost. Filling that box? That will become the responsibility of the library board, an architect, and whatever public consultation that needs to be done later. To use a book metaphor, they want to skip over the first few chapters to get to the good stuff.

It’s understandable, that’s where the fun is. That’s where we get to decide what kind of meeting space the new library will need, and whether or not the new library will have the facilities for a new café, or a VR room. Keep in mind, this isn’t just about designing the library of today, but the library of tomorrow, and there are an awful lot of interesting places that the future can go in.

But first, the library board, and the supporters of a new main library, must convince the skeptics that this is an effort worth investing in. Naturally, for many of us, knowledge itself is invaluable, but we have practical-minded people among us that hear “invaluable” and think it means “blank cheque.”

We must also be aware that people in town here have long memories. The last time the city got over eager about the library and Baker Street redevelopment, the fever pitch hit right at the outset of the Great Recession. Portions of Upper Wyndham, and their landlords, found themselves between a rock and a hard place wondering what the immediate future was going to hold.

As a result, the Family Thrift Store closed, Wyndham Arts moved across the street, and the west side of Wyndham North has largely sat empty for nearly a decade.

At that same time, construction on the new City Hall building was sluggishly moving along, and we all know how that turned out, which is why every major construction project undertaken by the City is now practically done now under penalty of catapult for the project manager if the work goes $1 over budget.

While appreciating the need, and the glacial pace of getting our chips in order, the X-factor for library supporters is not to look like they’re eager to build a shrine to cultural indulgence. There’s no doubt there’s a need, there’s no doubt there’s a desire, but we must be of a mind at the start of the process here that there will have to be compromise. In other words, not all your library dreams will come true.

Still, let me contribute by addressing the ones that noted in the comments of a GuelphToday.com story that there’s no point to a library because a whole world of information is accessible through a smart phone.

Consider this: the internet is a library the size of the GTA with no staff and only a single card catalogue that will tell you that the information you’re looking for, unless you know exactly what it is, can be found in Oakville, but it also might be found in Milton. That’s a lot of ground to cover for a single piece of information, and the journey still might not yield the answer you want.

However, that too is old thinking because the library is just not about naked knowledge you find on your own, presuming, or course, you have access to a smart phone and wifi in the first place.

Libraries are also about community knowledge, and community collaboration, and it is in that spirit the community will need to come together to support and develop a unified vision of a new library main branch.

There may be an ‘I’ in ‘community’, but that’s just a matter of spelling.




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