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Halifax looks forward to the opening of its very own library of the future Add to ...

It is being billed as the “city’s living room.” Its rooftop patio offers stunning views of Halifax harbour. There is a 300-seat theatre, two cafes, gaming stations, two music studios, dedicated space for adult literacy, a First Nations reading circle and boardrooms for local entrepreneurs.

Oh, and it will lend books, too.

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Halifax’s new $57.6-million gleaming glass library of the future is to open later this fall – a 129,000-square-foot building in the city’s downtown with a unique cantilevered rectangular glass box on the top, suggesting a stack of books. Fully accessible, culturally sensitive, environmentally sustainable and architecturally stunning, with elegant angles and lines, it is the first piece of modern architecture to be built in Halifax in decades, and the first major central library to be built in Canada in several years.

Libraries are competing with Google, the Internet and even Chapters and Starbucks, but they are holding their own.

In Canada, library use has increased slightly year after year, according to statistics from the Canadian Urban Libraries Council. From 2008 to 2013, the CULC tracked an 18-per-cent increase in library use, which includes the population served, attendance at programs and number of programs offered.

That is the story in Halifax, where so-called “in-person” visits have increased 2.9 per cent from 2012-13. Website visits were also up by 1.8 per cent. About 15,000 residents signed up for a library card this year and 8,340 library cardholders signed up for the library’s digital download service, according to Halifax Public Libraries’ performance report, released in June.

Libraries are also competing for taxpayers’ dollars – and making progress. New libraries are being built; some are being renovated. An architect was recently hired for Calgary’s Central Library, which is expected to open in 2018; the Toronto Public Library is completing a five-year, $34-million revitalization of its reference library.

All this change has forced libraries to become more than passive book lenders. “They are extremely creative and innovative,” says Valoree McKay, executive director of the Canadian Library Association, about the way libraries are adapting. “It is not what you envisage your library being – books and librarians with buns saying ‘shhh.’”

At the Toronto Public Library, for example, public-health nurses give vaccinations while other customers can self-publish books or print off a résumé. In Ottawa, librarians are teaching people how to Photoshop or make video clips; the Edmonton Public Library has an entire gaming section that allows visitors to play or make their own games.

In the United States, Sari Feldman, president-elect of the American Library Association, says in the future libraries “will be less about what we have for people and more about what we do for people.”

For Danish architect Morten Schmidt, whose firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen designed the Halifax library with its Nova Scotia partners, Fowler, Bauld & Mitchell, modern libraries are “much more places for social gathering.”

His firm, which has designed large libraries in Europe, including the extension of the Royal Library in Copenhagen, is now designing the New Central Library in Christchurch, N.Z. The 2011 earthquake destroyed the library. New Zealand officials toured the new Halifax library recently, and Mr. Schmidt says elements of it are being incorporated into the Christchurch design.

“A public library is probably as important as a church today or even more important than a city hall because it’s the people building and everyone can come there,” he said in a telephone interview from Denmark.

Haligonians have wanted a new library since the 1980s to replace the Spring Garden Road Memorial Public Library, which opened in 1951 as a tribute to the city’s war dead. It took a recession and federal infrastructure dollars to finally get it going in 2009 – and after extensive public consultations, construction began in November, 2011, on a site just across the street from the old library.

The federal government contributed $18.3-million, the province gave $13-million and the municipal government’s portion is $26.3-million, of which the library has had to contribute several million, raised through donations.

The new Halifax Central Library is full of light and wide-open spaces. An atrium opens up the five storeys, and from the cantilevered glass rectangle you can stare out at both the harbour and Citadel Hill. Mr. Schmidt says he wanted to “reach out to these two points” because they are important symbols of Halifax’s history. Environmentally sustainable, the library also features a green roof and rainwater is used to flush the toilets.

As for the exterior architecture, George Cotaras, the Nova Scotia lead architect, believes it will be a catalyst for the city: “Halifax has had a very conservative attitude [that] good architecture has to look like old architecture. Well, I think that is going to change.”

Bruce Gorman, director, Central Library and Regional Services, says being able to grab a latte, use the free wireless and on a nice evening sit out and watch sailboats in the harbour is “not what people expect to see when they are going into a public library. We are shifting people’s thoughts about what public libraries are.”

Follow on Twitter: @janetaber1

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