The semester is over and the students in The Guelph Library Project have moved on to other courses. As is typical, during the last few class days they worked feverishly to pull all their ideas and recommendations together.
Benjamin Field, Emily Goldberg, Emma MacDonald, Emma Snow, Gillian Conley, Hamid Dwyer, Jesse Wiemer, Jessica Kool, Kyle Hayes, Mohit Sekhon, Peter Andreakos, Raphaela Simoes, Rohan Verma, Ryan Medwid, Sarah Ruest, Tejal Patel, Yilin Yao and Zakaria Ali.
Introduction and Context
from Michael Ridley, Instructor, Guelph Library Project Course
Through a variety research techniques (key documents and reports, presentations from experts, interviews with opinion leaders and citizens, surveys, focus groups, and class discussions) the students (all in their 1st year) developed an understanding of the issues and prepared a set of observations and recommendations. This report is the result of their work.
Guelph has been talking about a new downtown public library for nearly 20 years. Sometimes it seems imminent and at other times it seems very unlikely.
Why the long debate?
Why the uncertainty about a decision?
Do we really need a new library?
The Guelph Public Library’s Mission, Vision, Values, and Customer Service Pledge describe how the Library understands its role and the value it brings to the community. In part, the Project wanted to test these statements and assumptions against the views and opinions of those in Guelph and those leading libraries in other jurisdictions.
Perhaps the most significant impetus for the course and the project was the statement by Mayor Cam Guthrie on February 16 of this year:
“You already have five different [branch library] locations in the city, you have a huge library at the University of Guelph, pretty much every public school in town has libraries. I just think that before the city commits to any huge costs associated with a new library, this really heartfelt discussion needs to happen about what is the future of libraries and how is it going to best fit into that future.”
The Guelph Library Project agreed with the Mayor. Libraries are expensive, there are other libraries in the city, and libraries are changing, dramatically. The Project wanted to nurture that “heartfelt discussion” the Mayor called for so that the members of the Guelph community can identify “the best fit” whatever that might be.
What the Project discovered tells us a lot about libraries and about the Guelph community.
Disclaimer: As the instructor for the course, and a librarian, I have an obvious bias. It is a testament to the critical perspectives and independence of the students that they recognized this bias and attempted to minimize it throughout the course proceedings.
Report Table of Contents
1. Libraries and Community Development
2. Observations and Themes
3. Four Scenarios for the Library
The Guelph Library Project team wants to thank those who were so generous with their time and ideas: Steve Kraft (CEO, Guelph Public Library), Guelph Public Library Board, Karen Farbridge (former Guelph Mayor), Cam Guthrie (Guelph Mayor), Dan Gibson (Ward 1 Counselor), Asa Kachan (CEO, Halifax Public Library), Helen Kelly (CEO, Idea Exchange), Wendy Newman (University of Toronto), Virginia Gillham (Friends of the Guelph Public Library) and Dan Atkins (Director of Operations, Guelph Public Library).
The issues, opportunities and concerns around the need (or not) for a new downtown public library in Guelph are extensive and complex.
Rather than trying to be comprehensive, the students in the Guelph Library Project identified a number of key themes which have emerged from their readings, visits, presentations, and discussions.
These themes will likely form the foundation of their report:
Theme: Citizen Alignment. Is the current plan for a more progressive, 21st century downtown library be supported by Guelph citizens? Does the plan align with user expectations?
Theme: Commercialization. The partnership model for the proposed library includes commercial or quasi-commercial partners. Will these partnerships result in the commercialization the Library?
Theme: Community Outreach. Is the Library adequately and effectively reaching out to the community to provide wanted services and to garner their support for a new facility?
Theme: The Building. The current building is in poor condition (cramped, dirty, leaks, maintenance issues, infrastructure concerns, etc.). Can it be renovated or is it beyond repair? What will happen if repairs or renovations are delayed in anticipation of a new facility? Does the state of the building compromise the functionality of the library and the wellbeing of its users.
Theme: Cost. Is the ~$90M estimate for a new downtown library appropriate and/or affordable?
Theme: Resources. While the library is well provisioned for books and other materials, it needs more technology. This means more than just computers; it needs other resources to enable users to use the library to create and collaborate (e.g. a makerspace).
Theme: City Priorities. While a new downtown library may be needed and wanted, does the city have other more important and immediate priorities (acknowledged by the citizens) which will preclude this?
Theme: Success. Many users are happy with the downtown branch and feel a central library is therefore unnecessary. The Guelph Public Library model is based on a set of satellite libraries not a “hub and spokes” model. If the current library is successful, why change it?
Theme: Accessibility. The downtown library is not accessibility to those with various types of disabilities. The lack of effective elevators, ramps, and washrooms (to identify just a few issues) creates barriers to for these people and limits their participation.
Theme: Community/User Space. The current facility lacks effective space for community gatherings, studying, collaboration, and other social space typically provided by public libraries.
“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead.”
The single cluttered room of my childhood library was hardly anything special to the untrained eye, but the escape it provided was limitless. Otterville, Ontario is a small town in every sense of the term. It is encompassed by the farms of the Amish and the village itself is inhabited in large part by Mexican Mennonite families. Both of these cultures are fairly inclusive and although their families are close-knit and caring, the itch to see beyond the walls is inevitable. Even having the privilege of a family with cars and televisions didn’t stop me from feeling stuck in the loop and wanting to know more about the world outside. This is why the community library is such pillar in my hometown. It serves as a cultural vista, a portal to places otherwise inaccessible. It allows us to explore the world in ways that many of us wouldn’t have the opportunity to otherwise whether it be because of financial strain, cultural practise, or lack of transportation (You can only get so far on horse and buggy.) While I still had access to the world beyond via tv and internet, nothing quite scratched the itch like reading a good book. Over the years I’ve felt that while you’re reading, you’re living vicariously through the characters as you take on their perspective. You get to experience their world first hand in unparalleled depth. Connecting with the innermost thoughts of a character makes them so familiar that they almost merge with you in a way. Aside from physical travel, there couldn’t be a richer way to explore the world. This is the escape that many small town residents need to break the monotony of a rural lifestyle and this is why the Otterville public library is the heart of my community.
In a previous post we highlighted the new branding for the Guelph Public Library. A few days ago this editorial cartoon from Pierre Doré appeared in the Guelph Mercury:
A few questions arise from the re-branding and this cartoon:
Was the $30K well spent? Do libraries need to re-brand to reflect their changing role?
Is buying books the priority for any funds the library might have?
Does the fact that it’s a librarian indicating concern suggest that the professional staff are not on-board with this new branding?
Does it also suggest that librarians think libraries are just about books?
It may be interesting to contrast the re-branding initiative at the Guelph Public Library with that being considered at the Seattle Public Library; an initiative that will cost $365,000! Some commentators are very upset.
The oldest public library in Ontario, the Guelph Public Library is a place that residents can go to sit down and enjoy a good book, access the internet, or simply take advantage of a quiet, relaxing atmosphere. These all sound like things any decent library should be able to provide for their town, but is the GPL able to live up to these standards in its current condition? Some loyal, frequent customers may say so, but evidence proves otherwise. After getting a behind-the-scenes look into the library’s back rooms and work spaces, it is clear to me that the GPL is long overdue for an upgrade. Even if you were to look past the crowded facilities, cluttered work spaces, and overall unpleasant appearance of the building, it cannot be ignored that there are some serious- not to mention potentially dangerous- maintenance issues to be considered. Restricted accessibility, infrastructural problems, and town archives one flood away from destruction are just a few of the obvious reasons Guelph is in desperate need of a new public library. The small, aging facility can no longer provide the services a proper library should, and with the ever-growing population of Guelph, more space is essential.
So, do I think Guelph should go forward in the plan to build the new downtown library? Absolutely- but it isn’t really up to me. Residents of Guelph are the most significant factor in this plan and so it is important to gain insight on their ideas and opinions. My classmates and I hope to go out and survey the public to be able to get an idea of what they think of a new library, as well as whether or not they would use it and what they would like to see it potentially become. Do people want a more innovative, technology-based service, or do they want a classic, comfortable atmosphere citizens can go to gather as a community? This information will allow us to go forward and determine whether or not a new library is a good idea in terms of public demand and, if it is, what it should provide as a facility.
The reconstruction of a new main library has been in discussion for around twenty years now which begs the question: why has Guelph not built one yet? The GPL’s CEO Steve Kraft presented his vision of the new downtown library- and it’s looking great so far; so what’s stopping the town from making the investment? The simple, straightforward answer is cost. The expense of constructing any new building in the heart of a growing city is going to be substantial. When considering all the reasons why the current library just isn’t cutting it anymore, however, it seems that building this new facility for the town should be a priority.
Something residents need to consider is the very real possibility of the current library falling to pieces- literally. Because the building is so old, there are dozens of maintenance issues that need to be immediately addressed and, even if they were individually handled, there would sure be more to come. The GPL can’t afford to keep putting band-aids on its structural problems as it is becoming a serious safety issue to everyone in the building. Everything considered, there simply aren’t enough feasible reasons to not go forward with the plan of building the new library.
The Guelph Library Library has released a new logo and branding …. and I’m impressed. The old logo and brand IMHO was very dated and spoke to only a traditional library mission. Not so the new one. Here are two versions:
“The tagline – Explore . Connect . Thrive – communicates an experience, a promise of all the library can be for its members. It invites the community to make use of the library’s resources as a hub for people to share their ideas as well as to connect with the outside world using the library’s technology. The new tagline reinforces the library’s commitment to provide the resources, services and leadership to help the community remain prosperous, resilient, and strong.”
The #GuelphLibProject class has completed its initial research phase (scanning the literature, reviewing strategic plans, visiting the library, and hearing from Guelph Chief Librarian Steve Kraft and library expert Wendy Newman. The have posted their observations.
The majority of students were concerned about the state of the downtown library and favoured a new facility. However, almost of of them raised the issue of cost and whether Guelph citizens were truly supportive of the Library’s vision and plans.
The next phase is to identify people or groups the students need to talk with, determine the key questions and issues, and find the best ways to interact with them. The students identified four priority groups (each group has a set of draft questions and strategies to engage that group):