Libraries Fit for the Digital Age

To paraphrase Charles Darwin, rather than join the chorus misquoting him, on his concept of the survival of the fittest:

It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best adapt to change,

Darwin misquote

Public libraries across Canada and much of the world are heeding that advice and reinventing the institution with showcase central branches that are monuments to the public library mission and services that meet the needs and often exceed the expectations of the public they exist to serve.

October is Library Month in Canada. I love libraries! So this seems a fitting occasion to highlight the abundance of services provided by public libraries across the country and to underline the important role public libraries play in our communities to make learning and information available to everyone through welcoming, accessible public places and digital services.

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Far from going the way of the dodo, libraries are proving that their mission to encourage lifelong learning, support an informed citizenry, facilitate public engagement, stimulate imagination and productivity is more crucial than ever before given the information and technology revolution that is in full swing.

A recent study by the esteemed Pew Research Centre, conducted south of the border but surely applicable to Canada, shows that Americans remain steady in their beliefs that libraries are important to their community, their family and themselves. Large majorities of Americans see libraries as part of the educational ecosystem and as resources for promoting digital and information literacy. In Canada, as in the USA, public libraries still occupy a prominent spot in people’s minds as a place to go. They also serve as inclusive community hubs that offer learning and literacy programs for immigrants, job seekers, seniors, children, parents, youth, minority or cultural groups and entrepreneurs.

Of darwin08course libraries are changing with the times and technology. According to Darwin, they have to.

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Not surprisingly, libraries have had to beef up their digital resources and systems and provide these increasingly in a mobile friendly fashion. The Pew Study linked to above reports that half of those who used a public library website last year accessed it using a mobile device.With regard to the holdings on their shelves, there is some suggestion from people surveyed that libraries should reduce the amount of physical space for books in favour of digital forms and multi-use spaces. Libraries are providing ever more books and audiovisual items electronically but interestingly there is no suggestion for reducing the physical footprint of libraries.

So libraries are important places, virtual and real, where people can not only find information and inspiration. They provide the expert help to find the best, most valid and credible information, by the selections that make up the library collection and, of course by the guidance of an information scientist, also known as a librarian. The comprehensive Pew study found that 65% of people surveyed say  libraries provide valuable help for people deciding what information they can trust. The public and aspect of the service provided by libraries is obvious in the finding that Americans note libraries are an important resource for finding health information. 73% of people surveyed aged 16 and over say libraries contribute to people finding the health information they need, no doubt a particularly acute need in the United States which does not have universal publicly funded healthcare.

Beyond traditional literacy training, libraries are taking on the task of teaching people to master the information technology, how to protect their privacy and security online, and help them manage and filter the masses of information available. Increasingly, libraries are enhancing all of their offerings to ensure their relevance in the digital age and upgrade their ability to fulfill their mission as public resources for lifelong learning, catalysts for community connection and incubators for innovation and creativity.

Many cities in Canada, as in others around the world, are investing in monumental central branches to showcase the best of the collections and services and to raise the bar higher for the library’s role as a community hub for creation, connection and education. New features at new major libraries include creative maker spaces, tech and media labs, innovation hubs for entrepreneurs, meeting, study and leisure spaces, free WiFi, exterior public grounds and gardens, in addition to a range of learning programs.


A recent example is Halifax, which opened a brand new central library in December 2014. which showcases a wonderful, whimsical, intriguing public art mural that evokes the abundance and diversity of the library’s offerings, within its modern, green design, award-winning architecture and multi-use spaces including study pods, a performance area, meeting rooms, a café, local history displays and more. The new Halifax Central Library branch has attracted nearly 2 million visitors in its first year, more than double what was forecast and has become a civic landmark and destination for the entire city.

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In 2012 Toronto completed a major renovation of the downtown Toronto Reference Library, successfully accomplishing the stated goal of recreating the library as “Toronto’s foremost public centre for lifelong learning, the exchange of ideas and community engagement.” The upgrade revitalized and improved the library with an expanded and newly designed façade, entrance, exhibition galleries, special collections rotunda, better research and study areas and of course technology innovations. The Toronto Reference Library includes access to full text databases, newcomer information services, delivery to homebound individuals, an art exhibit space, a piano practice room, impressive special collections as well as programs for children, youth and adults.

Vancouver was a pioneer, in 1995, when it opened a spectacular central branch further to huge public enthusiasm for the project which includes in the imposing yet welcoming city block complex an office tower,  retail and restaurants, underground parking and a rooftop garden designed by the famous Vancouver-based landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander.

hydrotech_Vancouver_Publi Inside VPL Central Branch

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Coming up is a new central library for Calgary, due to open in 2018; promising to be “a multi-faceted family destination and gathering place with a physical collection of approximately 600,000 books and specially designed space for programs and technology.”

Here in the capital, Ottawa, is working on a new central library to replace the main downtown branch with expertly designed spaces and services to meet the growing information, connection and learning needs of Ottawans. Envisioned as a “downtown community-based creative learning library with roles both as a downtown branch and a city-wide service,” the project is in its early stages but it is hoped that construction can begin in 2018.

So take advantage of Library Month and check out one or more of the 34 branches of the Ottawa Public Library. Chances are good you will find a service that you didn’t know existed. For example, did you know you can stream music, movies and TV shows for free? Or that you can drop off your old batteries to get recycled at most branches? Maybe you weren’t aware that you can access free business services, where a specialist will meet with you one-on-one? And of course there is WiFi in all branches and easy efficient online access to library services.  I recommend a visit in person if you haven’t been lately. I believe that an accessible, open, welcoming place where people can live life in public and be pulled in my the stacks, displays and spaces. In my view, the virtual can never entirely replace the physical presence of people gathering in real time and space.

Enjoy Library Month!

  • By Rachael Duplisea

3 thoughts on “Libraries Fit for the Digital Age

  1. I believe it’s wonderful how libraries are reinventing and modernizing. I truly hope their role in our social structure and evolution as a society is never diminished. As a boy the library meant everything from movies to audio books to just that wonderful place that held so many secrets and stories to me. The librarians were the guardians of this treasure trove. What concerruns me now is what is being guarded and how long it will last. As we fly forward in our pursuit of the digital world we lose more and more of our past. The rapid changes in digital format may one day have us looking back and saying ” where did that go ?” Remember the beta format for video anyone? Please support your libraries and the people who work there. Please protect our older modes of communication and information. I still love a good book. Paper that is.
    Great information Rachael. Thank you for this piece. Real time and space for me as well!

  2. Great to hear from a fellow library fan. They really are treasure troves. Like you, when I am in a library I feel that new discoveries, insights, deeper understanding, transformational ideas are at my fingertips. Libraries exhibit abundance, freedom to learn and accumulated human wisdom that is the birthright of every person on earth. Your comment about losing bits and information or pieces of the past concerns me too. If we can continue to value and support museums and libraries we will not lose much of our objects and knowledge. As for a book as a physical, paper object, there is nothing like it. I love having it on my bedside where I am wary to bring an ipad or laptop. Even my first experience with an e-reader (a Kobo) was fine, but not the same. And though it’s nuts to keep too many books on your shelves, I do love to keep the ones I loved, or like to go back to (poems for example) in my personal library. They are like friends, tatoos, souvenirs. I guess it is a question of selecting and keeping what we value now and trust that we will keep that ability going forward. Libraries and librarians will help us organize, filter, separate the wheat from the chaff and preserve enough of even the chaffy stuff of the past so those in the future can find it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Leo.

  3. Libraries do seem to be adapting well to the coming of digital information, and many have kept their original intent as keepers of knowledge. It was interesting to read about the new library building that have been created recently in Canada. I am eagerly watching the plans for a new main branch develop. Although it will be a major expenditure for the city, I think it will be worth it – we need open, accessible public spaces for all citizens to share in the knowledge economy and knowledge explosion. I am often impressed by the range of services that the Ottawa Public Library offers. Our neighbourhood branch is the tiny, much used Rideau Library. The computers there are very often in use, and I see young students from local schools in the area doing homework. I admire them for taking advantage of the services being offered – services which I assume they don’t have at home.

    The latest offering from the OPL is their Maker Space – that’s the next project I have lined up for myself, trying out some of the digital technology on offer!

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