What's the worth of your public library?
The new Albion branch is more than a great update for Toronto's Rexdale neighbourhood. Bathed in natural light, the bustling space – with barely a spare seat to be found – illustrates the evolving function of libraries
An outsider would drive right by.
But people inside are taking advantage of the sanctuary-like space. Bathed in natural light, some are reading, some are engrossed in computer screens, some are likely using the Wi-Fi to work on their small businesses. Young children are shouting with delight watching a kids' presentation behind a glass partition. Teens are even working away in the teen area. (This delights the librarians!)
The newly redesigned and rebuilt Albion library branch in Toronto's Rexdale isn't just an improvement to the neighbourhood. It is the neighbourhood.
Across the wide street is the nondescript Albion Centre mall, less a space for community, but for faceless commerce. And the surrounding area is designed for cars. But many working-class local residents and new Canadians don't have one, lending a sense of isolation. It makes the redesigned library even more of a focal point, especially for those making the effort to walk there. Many will stay longer because of that.
The $12-million branch opened in early June to considerable media attention for its spacious and colourful design, its natural light and courtyards. (Instead of renovating the old building, the new library was built in what used to be the parking lot. Then the old building was torn down.)
The atmosphere inside is bustling. On a recent weekday summer afternoon, nearly every seat was occupied by the central collection of books and desktop computers, and in the more relaxed seating area by the magazines and power bars for laptops.
You're allowed to eat in the library now, although few people were. And conversation is even encouraged. The library floorplan is sectioned off into different areas, including a literacy-learning play space for children, which helps to dissipate the sound level. It isn't noisy at all.
I even realized midway through a tour that I was talking at normal volume and that was fine. "That's old too, the idea of being shushed in the library," said Susan Martin, Toronto Public Library's manager of branch capital planning and implementation.
She was there to discuss how library branches shouldn't be seen as just an added attraction on real-estate listings.
"Libraries are really about being a community space in the neighbourhood. They are a home away from home, maybe an office away from the office. It's not just a transactional place [for borrowing books]," Ms. Martin said. "I think that's probably universally true across the city."
Vartan Gregorian, who in the 1980s resuscitated the then ailing New York Public Library system, described libraries as "acts of civic renewal." He emphasized the connection between libraries and development: Libraries, he said, "have to renew themselves because information is constantly changing and knowledge is constantly being renewed. And the same could be said about cities: They are not created once and for all time, but must recreate themselves to survive and thrive."
The same can be said of working-class Rexdale.
Developers might see the rebuilt and improved library branch as a nice neighbourhood feature. Yet, it's not just a building, but the basic act, repeated thousands of times: of local residents meeting in this communal space, neighbourhood children coming to play in learning areas, teens and adults participating in workshops and looking up information on employment, health and social services.
"When we talk about libraries now, we think of them as access to education, learning, technology. But social connections are [also] really critical," said Paul Takala, chair of the Canadian Urban Libraries Council. He is also chief librarian and chief executive officer of the Hamilton Public Library.
The difficulty is putting a number on how much this social function is worth. What is the value of these amenities to the neighbourhood and to other local real estate?
Inevitably, attendance figures are the numbers mostly cited. Attendance was up nearly 45 per cent in the newly rebuilt Albion library, from the time the doors opened on June 5 at the new branch to the end of June, compared to the same period last June when the old version of the branch was still open.
On a larger scale, across Ontario, 72.5 million people, on average, visit libraries every year. That is 12 million more than the North American attendance for the NHL, NBA and NFL combined, Mr. Takala said.
But, he added, it's still difficult to communicate the worth of libraries to their communities. For instance, Toronto Public Library has a program in which librarians are embedded in community organizations, spending part of the week learning what social services they can assist with and what the library system can provide. Librarians also regularly meet with local business associations, with library branches also being used as meeting spaces. Still, self promotion can be difficult, Mr. Takala said.
What's at stake is the disparity of support services between neighbourhoods. While the digital economy can exacerbate divisions in wealth, libraries can help provide access to technology and skills, noted a 2014 report on the new evolving function of libraries by the Aspen Institute, a think tank in Washington. This access can help address, at least to some degree, the wealth divide between one neighbourhood and another.
"It is a time of particular opportunity for public libraries, with their unique stature as trusted community hubs and repositories of knowledge and information," the report argued.
Andrew Frontini, design principal at Perkins + Will, which designed the Albion library, describes this not so much as a reinvention of libraries but, at its heart, as a continuation of the ethos of tycoon philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie who put their money to building 19th-century public library systems in North America in the first place.
"I think in a way, this is continuing that spirit of making the tools to succeed in society available," Mr. Frontini said. Literacy is only a part of this. Libraries assume the role of providing orientation for people arriving to Canada, help with job searches, computer literacy and language learning.
"I think the library becomes this portal for helping this community generally get to a better place," he said.