The New Literacy

Cool new public library buildings get attention, but it’s what’s inside that counts

By Harry Vandervlist

Calgary’s new public library garnered worldwide attention when it opened in November 2018. And rightly so: Its stunning, inventive design made Architectural Digest’s “most anticipated” list for 2018, as well as that magazine’s tally of the world’s most futuristic libraries. Edmonton’s new downtown Stanley A. Milner Library won’t be far behind—it’s undergoing an $84.5-million makeover by Teeple Architects, with the opening planned for 2020. These new buildings make emphatic statements about what their communities value. But renewed thinking at Alberta’s public libraries extends far beyond inspiring architecture.

Any recent library user knows it’s been ages since libraries simply offered what Bill Ptacek, CEO of the Calgary Public Library, calls “just buildings with a bunch of books.” He recognizes that “if that’s what we are, we’d have been extinct years ago.” Today’s library has become “a community centre on steroids,” in the words of Michael Brown, the president and CEO of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (which played a large role in making the new Calgary building possible). Local libraries have begun to redefine their mission as supporting the multiple literacies essential to any functional 21st century citizen: financial, health, cultural and media literacy.

To see what this looks like in practice, and what difference it might be making to Albertans, I took a little library road trip in fall 2018.

You enter Edmonton’s downtown public library—in the temporary space it’s using until 2020— through Enterprise Square on Jasper Avenue. Inside, the swirl of activity sums up the glories and challenges of a truly inclusive urban space, and the abstract concept of multiple literacies takes obvious, concrete form.

Through a small window you can see a patron in headphones recording electric bass in a studio available to the public. You press yourself against the wall to make way for tightly managed herds of schoolchildren who parade past banks of computers where slouching Edmontonians scroll through job ads, play games and check email. Some mutter to themselves, others sway intently to earbud music. One kid-herd enters a glass-walled play space for reading time; another follows a tour of the whole library. Bright lime-green robots scattered on the floor await programming from other kids in coding workshops. Oblivious to the 40 or so children a few metres away, another musician works with audio-editing software, headphones clamped over her ears. Library staff help a customer log in to video games at a dedicated terminal, while digital librarian Holly Arnason of the library’s MakerSpace shows me things people have made with the library’s 3D printer, vinyl cutter and one-stop book-printing-and-binding machine.

When did the library become a workshop or an art and music studio? As Ptacek put it: “The idea that you can create stuff in the library is a new thing. The idea of coming to a place where you don’t have to spend any money to learn how to use these state-of-the-art technologies—I think that’s what a library should be all about.” It’s certainly happening on Jasper Avenue. But what are libraries in smaller centres doing?

Just a short drive south, but far from the everything-at-once urban buzz of a downtown library, Lacombe’s Mary C. Moore public library fills up with mothers and kids on their way home in the late afternoon. In the central space, a long table holds platters of cookies—and we’re all invited to help ourselves! I’ve arrived in time for the annual Christmas baking contest, where adults and children judiciously nosh and comment. Some older patrons reading magazines nearby join in, and now it’s a three-generation cookie-fest. I ask some of the moms what—besides books and cookies—brings their families to the library. The answers include the armchair-travel speaker series (this winter includes Iraq, Afghanistan, India and the First and Second World War sites of the Lacombe Legion tour), the international film screenings, and all the online resources. Throughout my visit, behind a Do Not Disturb sign posted on the glass looking into the History Room, a highly concentrated young woman completes a university exam. If you take a distance education course you still need to write timed exams in a controlled space—public libraries provide that service too.

Compared to a big-city branch, Lacombe’s library seems very cozy and traditional. But it too works as a community centre serving multiple literacies. It plays a civic role of a physical town square in a time when so many “public” spaces have been privatized.

You see this contribution across the province: the Lethbridge main library branch’s recent renovation created a spacious community meeting room. As in so many European public libraries, Lethbridge also hosts social workers for part of each week, who can connect residents with mental health and addiction services, seniors services and so on.

In the downtown library’s main space, a wall covered with cotton shopping bags on hooks offers a financial literacy kit, a digital literacy kit or a book club kit (to help you start one up). To develop your physical literacy you can sign out basketballs, baseball kits, soccer balls, skipping ropes, horseshoes and lawn darts. But why, I ask the staff, do I see… a rubber chicken? Silly question: It’s a “motivational throwing tool.” Anything to get patrons moving.

And there are snowshoes. I chat with local library user Nicola Wood, who explains her mixed feelings about borrowing snowshoes. Tramping around in the snow and cold was never her idea of fun. Still, she got out there to support her daughter’s curiosity about the sport. The experiment bore unexpected fruit when her daughter joined a group that’s now, aboard their very own snowshoes, helping conduct annual winter bird counts in the Crowsnest Pass. It’s an example of one form of literacy development leading to others—ecological and scientific, in this case. What’s more, it led one Lethbridge family to broaden their community connections.

This is not an isolated example. Another Lethbridge patron, Deanne Broderick, tells me how the library contributed to her life even before a library building existed in her part of town. As a new mother in West Lethbridge, she discovered that the public library housed children’s storytime programs in nearby senior citizens facilities, to the delight of the residents, the kids, and the mothers who needed to travel only a few minutes. Literacy-building turns into community connections once again. Deanne’s very earliest library experiences didn’t involve a building either. When she was 11 years old the highlight of her summers was the “old, stinky” school-bus bookmobile with its trove of Nancy Drews.

That bus full of books reflects the way libraries, for centuries, pursued their work of connecting, informing, teaching and supporting, mainly through print and cultivating print literacy. Today’s emphasis on fostering multiple literacies rests on another important motivation: removing barriers. Lethbridge library CEO Terra Plato can recite her mission statement to me from memory: “Lethbridge Public Library provides, preserves and promotes valuable resources, in a comfortable, welcoming place, where people of all ages can express their creativity, stimulate their imagination and satisfy their learning.” As she explains, “It’s all about making people more successful.” But which people? All people—as she points out, you need not be a cardholder to use library space and resources. (You should still get a card, she insists, if only so you can revel in all the online material it provides access to, from music and film to instructional video and research databases.) “We’re one of the last truly open, available public spaces. We’re here to equalize the playing field for everybody,” she says.

Openness and inclusivity come with challenges. Plato notes that “as this very open public space, we were one of the first places to feel the impact of the opioid crisis. Lots of at-risk people spend time in the library.” For her this diversity of users is desirable: “We are here for everybody. We have standards of behaviour, but until they are breached, everybody’s welcome here.” (This policy has its critics: An online comment in the Calgary Herald called that city’s new library “the world’s most architecturally stunning homeless shelter.”)

This social-barrier-busting inclusiveness has never discouraged Nicola Wood from bringing her young children to the Lethbridge library. For them “it’s a safe public space where you can just hang out. I want my children to go out of the house. Get off their phones. Socialize. And this is an accessible space they can go to and do something good, cool, fun, interesting.” The family uses the library as a base from which to learn more about and get more involved in their own city. For instance, the Lethbridge Presents program provides library patrons with free tickets to concerts, basketball games and museums. As a result, says Nicola, “My kids can be more active and engaged in their community.”

By making community resources available for playful, barrier-free experiment—why not try the symphony if it’s free?—the library offers up the city’s cultural life for the kind of cost-free sampling and experimentation that happens when you randomly choose books from the shelf and discover a new favourite author. Facilitating these community connections benefits everyone, in part by creating a more resilient population: “People with connections to the community, who have something to do, are better able to cope with hard times,” argues Plato.

With these conversations in mind, I head back to Calgary for a good look at the new building—for now, the most celebrated and visible demonstration of the ongoing renewal of local public libraries’ mission. This includes embracing reconciliation as a fundamental part of libraries’ community role. One of the first things I notice in the new building’s soaring entrance is an enormous three-part mural by Keegan Starlight, Kalum Teke Dan and Roland Rollinmud. Raising my eyes past the mural, I find another of the library’s Indigenous placemaking elements, in the form of Lionel Peyachew’s buffalo sculpture composed of words from Indigenous languages. In the top-floor Elders’ Guidance Circle the furniture is by Glenna Cardinal, and on the wall a photo-text piece by Brittney Bear Hat addresses storytelling. Also on the top floor, Calgary’s inaugural Indigenous Languages Resource Centre builds on existing courses in Blackfoot, Michif and Cree, which local branches had already begun to offer in partnership with the city’s Aboriginal Friendship Centre.

“Being able to come into the library and share our stories—from Stoney, Tsuut’ina, Blackfoot… it’s an amazing step for Calgary.”
—Keegan Starlight

When I toured the library just before it opened in 2018, painter Starlight was making final touches to his section of the mural. He shared his own reaction to the new facility: “The inclusion we have now, being able to come into the library and share our stories—from Stoney, Tsuut’ina, Blackfoot… it’s an amazing step for Calgary. To have things like the Elders’ Guidance Circle; that’s where you see hope coming right back into the community.” Starlight, who is from Tsuut’ina, says his grandmother needed five languages to navigate her world, to make connections and learn what she needed. That learning took place face to face; it was spoken and heard. A “building with a bunch of books” could never have worked as a way of transferring and sharing that lived knowledge and wisdom.

In their own fashion, Alberta’s public libraries grasp that print literacy and solitary book-consultation now take their place within a constellation of multiple literacies and essential human exchange. Citizens need places to meet, to experiment freely with new ways of learning and creating, to gather and discuss and plan and decide. And while the visible architecture of our new “community centres on steroids” matters enormously, the less-visible human architecture of connections and increased capacities will form a more lasting gift from public libraries to their communities.


Harry Vandervlist, professor at the University of Calgary, has served on the editorial boards of U of C Press and NeWest Press.


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