Reimagining what a library can be the new central library takes shape in east village

By Janice Harvey

The City of Calgary

The new frontier: Calgary’s New Central Library will be the gateway to a world-class system

A graceful, sweeping ship-like structure is rising from the ground on the eastern edge of Calgary’s downtown, ready to take every one of the city’s 1.2 million citizens on a journey to the next frontier.

Whether your pioneering spirit is the stuff of science fiction or westerns, virtual or in-person, lone trekker or armada, the New Central Library (NCL) can be your vessel.

NCL by the Numbers

  • 2900 CPL volunteers (over 50% are youth)
  • over 6.6M visits to Calgary libraries last year, up from 5.1M in 2014
  • 240,000 square feet of usable space (NCL)
  • 600,000 books (NCL)
  • 42 free public meeting spaces (NCL)
  • 340-seat theatre (NCL)
  • 1,500 square foot café (NCL)
  • End-to-end and top-to-bottom visibility in the soaring atrium entrance (NCL)

Libraries are the hub of communities

The City of Calgary – which will provide $48 million in operating funding this year to the library system – identifies the key roles libraries play in the community. Libraries level the playing field for all citizens regardless of geography, income, language, age, ability or creed by ensuring free access to information, resources and entertainment in the form of physical and digital artifacts, knowledgeable staff and volunteers, and meaningful programming and community partnerships.

The City’s Action Plan 2014-2018 speaks to the roles of libraries. Libraries of both the virtual and bricks-and-mortar variety (or in the case of the NCL, glass-wood-and-steel) are gateways. A fundamental aspect of the Calgary Public Library (CPL) system is to provide gathering spaces and be community anchors.

“It starts with being a low-barrier organization,” says Sarah Meilleur, the CPL’s Director, Service Delivery, City Centre Community Libraries and New Central Library. “We have no registration or card fees anymore. We are open many hours of the day, and we are in so many of Calgary’s communities.” The CPL records more visits per year than attendance at all the city’s sports and cultural events combined.

So the challenge in a rapidly changing and diversely vibrant community like Calgary is to position the entire CPL system for sustainable, accessible relevance today and far into the future.

Ellen Humphrey

“The library can’t be static,” says Ellen Humphrey, Deputy Chief Executive Officer for the CPL. “As access to information and lifestyles change, the library needs to continue to evolve to be a real intellectual centre for the community.”

That requires more than switching to DVDs from circulating vinyl, VHS and eight-track tapes. In a world of specialization and targeted niche marketing to an “audience of one,” the library aspires to be all things to all people in the community. That’s 1.2 million audiences of one.

East Village, prior to the start of redevelopment

Designing a world-class system

Since 2013, experts from diverse backgrounds have been studying and designing best-practice library systems, programs and services to ensure visitors to the NCL experience real value and will return time and again.

Bill Ptacek

“The underlying assumption for the entire project is that, even though it’s great architecture, that isn’t going to be enough,” says Bill Ptacek, CEO of the CPL. “The patron experience must be really, really exceptional. And not just in this one library, but across Calgary’s entire library system.”

Ptacek’s daily mantra for more than 800 system-wide staff and the NCL’s project team is “surprise and delight.”

For the architects, engineers and planners the site itself demanded creativity and innovation. Pedestrian friendly connections had to be maintained with downtown and East Village. And, oh yeah, there’s the little matter of an operating CTrain line encased under the building.

But from a programming perspective, surprise and delight is a less obvious matter. Where to even begin? What services are key to making a difference for 330,000 Calgary families and 200 communities?

12 CPL Service Focus Areas

Source:CPL 2015-2018 CPL Strategic Plan

  • Future users
  • Newcomers
  • Families
  • Socially barriered
  • Students
  • Teens
  • Tourists
  • Early learners
  • Differently abled
  • Indigenous
  • Adult readers

The CPL operates over 80 programs and services from dual-language preschool story time to seniors’ lecture series; from presentations (75 Ways to Save on Household Expenses) to LEGO play stations; career coaching workshops to chess; writing clubs to author presentations; citizenship exam preparation to web design classes; genealogy research support to family law and sponsorship programs. There’s the now famous Engine 23 fire truck; guided neighbourhood nature walks; local and Canadian history presentations; and TEDx meetups for stimulating conversation.

That dizzying menu is what Ptacek calls activating the buildings. It’s the platform for citizen engagement.

Literally, something for everyone

There are 85,000 children under the age of five in Calgary. So one of the obvious areas to focus services is early childhood education. In partnership with Mount Royal University, the latest research has been incorporated into CPL programs and has significantly impacted user-centred design in library facilities.

CPL visits every licensed day care in the city. “Our outreach supports not only the kids but also the care givers so they can replicate and use our resources on a daily basis to support readiness for kindergarten, which leads to success throughout the school years,” Meilleur says.

New research into play and kinetic learning for kids ages one to six meant re-jigging some of the plans for children’s areas in the NCL to encourage movement. (Never fear, if you crave quiet reading space there will also be plenty of ‘Shhh!’ zones.)

Thousands of new Canadians arrive in Calgary every year and find the library system a lifeline for developing language and job skills, navigating Canadian culture and experiencing social connection in a welcoming and supportive community centre.

“Our core business is still providing access to ideas and information but it’s taking shape in many, many, different ways,” says Meilleur. Prioritization is based on need, capacity, funding and opportunity.

With the economic downturn and subsequent job losses in Calgary, CPL is seeing more people coming to do research on startup businesses, and to access free resources like computers for online job search, resume writing workshops and skill development. In the first month of adding to its services, over 30,000 hours of ‘how to’ video was viewed through CPL.

The upcoming ‘Add In’ campaign by the Calgary Public Library Foundation will help facilitate the pursuit of the aspirational vision to be “the best public library system in the world.”

“They’ve already raised more money than any other library in all of Canada and the campaign isn’t even public yet. So corporations and organizations are already seeing the value to the community and are supporting the vision,” says Humphrey.

Details that surprise and delight

The stacks may talk to passers-by (“what are you cooking for dinner tonight?” calls the cookbook section). Opportunities to shape and colour the environment can be found in nooks and on walls; every space is a possible learning lab. At the Beltline branch, patrons entice each other into interactive play with crossword tiles on the wall. At the NCL, they may contribute a line to a communal story or poem left on a table-top typewriter. A children’s painting class creates an instant art gallery.

For the staff across the CPL, roles also must change to meet the demands and standards required of such big promises.

“There is an absolute shift in how we’re all working together to learn, change and build competencies system-wide. We’re adapting to support enquiry-based learning the same way the education system has. It affects how we engage with our customers when they come to us with a question,” says Meilleur.

In anticipation of the 2018 opening of the flagship Central Library, prototypes and trials are evident across the city’s network of community libraries. New shelves are being tested at Fish Creek Library. Enhanced customer service and engagement skills are being developed through Engine 23. In addition to formal learning, staff are gaining skills in small ways before implementing in larger-scale fashion.

Bringing the NCL concept to life

The opportunity to re-imagine a city-wide library system that would rival the best in the world began in 2004 when City Council set aside $40 million. This ultimately became the seed fund for the capital project to expand and replace the current and now 50-year-old central library north of City Hall, along the 7 Ave. S. C-Train line.

The City provided $175 million to fund the construction while Calgary Municipal Lands Corporation (CMLC) contributed the remaining $70 million to cover the remainder of the price tag. CMLC is a wholly owned subsidiary of The City, incorporated to execute the Rivers District Community Revitalization Plan, which includes the East Village area.

A triumvirate of the CPL, The City and CMLC have worked together since 2013 to design and oversee construction of a landmark facility worthy of the lofty tag line, “Inspiring all.”

CMLC is also overseeing project management for the New Central Library construction.

Kate Thompson

“The New Central Library is an important gateway project for East Village. It really activated that portion of the master plan and made it tangible and attractive for other developers to get in,” says Kate Thompson, Vice President, Projects, CMLC.

As an arms-length organization of The City, CMLC also sees its involvement in the library project as a unique opportunity to contribute to Calgary, says Thompson. “We are skilled planners, engineers and architects with our eye on delivering value for Calgarians. Rather than distracting librarians from what they do best, CMLC brings our core services and expertise.”

The library project has had an average of 230 trades workers on site each day

At a time when energy industry jobs were being cut, a major capital project was also a welcome economic stimulus in Calgary. “We’ve been able to capitalize on lower construction costs and convert that to more jobs,” says Thompson. The library project has had an average of 230 trades workers on site each day and will peak at about 300 per day during the finishing stage.

The entire curtain wall – the distinct hexagonal panels on the library’s exterior, was manufactured locally while the prominent western red cedar soffit was sourced from B.C., further benefiting the region.

NCL Construction Fun Facts

  • Over 1,700 tons of structural steel (approximately 3,500,000 lbs., or over 1000 mid-sized cars)
  • Over 1,600 tons of rebar (reinforcing steel within the concrete)
  • Over 11,000 cubic metres of concrete used
  • Over 91,000 metres (300,000 feet) of electrical conduit
  • 800,000 metres of wire and over 5,000 light fixtures

Wood Soffit

  • Sustainably harvested Western Red Cedar surface battens, Douglas Fir structure
  • Approximately 2,000 square metres in area (22,000 sq. ft.)
  • Approximately 170 individual panels
  • Each panel weighs from 225 – 900 kg. (500 – 2,000 lbs.)

Environmentally conscious

The new Central Library has considered the environment at each step. The completed building will seek LEED gold certification, a rating of the environmental performance of a building. A strong focus on recycling has kept 85% of the site’s construction waste from landfills. Glazing on the windows allows natural light to be filtered without additional costs to then cool the building from the sun’s excessive heat.

“We’re using District Energy rather than having a separate boiler system, and the related operational requirements, to control temperature in the building. It’s a sophisticated mechanical and electrical environment that protects the artifacts, ensures comfort for patrons, and runs efficiently,” Thompson says.

In addition to meeting high environmental standards, designers are acutely aware that materials chosen be long lasting and hard wearing. “We want it to look beautiful and be comfortable. But it also has to stand up to tens of thousands of uses,” she says.

A gift for all Calgarians

Whether from administrator, staff, volunteer, patron, designer or construction worker, the creation of the New Central Library carries one consistent refrain. It’s more than a library. It’s a harbour of activity, ideas and exchange. It’s one in a network of ports for shared discovery and creation of the future.

Its unique design may draw us in, but the vision is that it’s the community experience that will keep us coming back.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.