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Thriving public libraries shelve their fusty image

Toronto's central reference library: A good place to go during a recession

Kevin Van Paassen

It's not the only reason Toronto's public library system just had its busiest year ever, but it helped: A bar opened in the downtown reference library last fall.

The canteen in the branch's new 16,000-square-foot "salon" serves wine and spirits while opera stars, celebrity chefs and baseball executives deliver talks that compete with the best of the city's cultural event circuit.

Toronto's salon is just one example of the innovations attracting new patrons to the modern library, a place that has gone from silent biblio-temple to wired town square.

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"There is a library renaissance going on right across North America," said Wendy Newman, a senior fellow at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information.

While the recession has increased circulation - libraries are free, after all - the permanent innovations are expected to keep libraries thriving long after the economy recovers.

Edmonton's public library now lends video games. Toronto's three newly redesigned branches include outdoor reading gardens. Seattle's Rem Koolhaas-designed library is so beautiful it's considered a tourist attraction.

Libraries are recession sanctuaries

The Internet and e-books, once feared as slayers of the printed word, are actually helping to revive the library as people flock to branches for free wireless, free access to desktop computers and free downloadable audiobooks and e-books.

"For an institution whose fundamental goal is to give people literacy and access to knowledge, you can't ignore the new world," said Jane Pyper, the top librarian in Toronto, where all 99 branches offer free wireless and patrons "borrowed" 88 per cent more electronic titles in 2009 than they did in 2008.

In Toronto, in 2009, the number of items borrowed increased by 5 per cent over 2008. Patrons made 17.5 million visits, up 8.5 per cent from the year before. In-branch computer use increased by 11.5 per cent.

Nationwide library figures for 2009 weren't immediately available, but other Canadian public library systems are also seeing increases.

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In Ottawa, materials borrowed were up 2 per cent in 2009 and visits increased by 4 per cent. In Edmonton, circulation is up 23 per cent and visits 19 per cent.

Edmonton's libraries are bleeding-edge places, and not just because they lend copies of Grand Theft Auto. The city's main branch, Stanley A. Milner, features a colourful new children's centre with a built-in aquarium, a Second Cup, and a dedicated CD and DVD room that looks like an HMV outlet.

"We're not just about books any more," said Linda Cook, chief executive officer of the Edmonton Public Library. "Technology is not something that has scared public libraries. They've embraced it."

Many libraries have managed this without isolating patrons in their own wired worlds. In Toronto's case, for example, libraries function as community hubs, especially in poorer parts of the city, where they are often the most visible public asset in the neighbourhood. They offer settlement services for new immigrants and information on finding jobs - a service that got plenty of use during the recession.

"Libraries are recession sanctuaries," Ms. Pyper said.

Toronto's library system, like many others, has also made its branches more welcoming by allowing food and drinks, a move that would shock old-school librarians but has persuaded some visitors to stay for hours at a time.

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Ryerson University students April Buordolone, 19, and Karizza Sanchez, 18, practically camped out in the Toronto Reference Library, studying for an English exam last September.

"That's not how it normally goes," said Ms. Sanchez, sitting at a library table with an open bottle of water, a bag of cookies and Ms. Buordolone's laptop computer. "Before, I would go to the library and fall asleep."

Food and drink haven't hurt the collections or the computers, as fusty, traditional library-lovers might fear, said Barbara Clubb, chief executive officer of Ottawa's public library.

"We haven't lost a computer to a coffee cup yet."

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