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The new $245-million Calgary Central Library’s exterior features warm wood and arched glass, reminiscent of a terrarium.

George Webber

‘When you walk into this building, it is so spectacular — it’s breathtaking,” says Calgary Public Library chief executive officer Bill Ptacek as he describes each floor inside the city’s $245-million central library that will open to the public on Nov. 1.

When speaking of the nearly-completed space, Mr. Ptacek touches on the impressive exterior design of warm wood and arched glass, reminiscent of a terrarium, that houses four floors spread over 240,000 square feet. On the ground level is a 350-person theatre where patrons can hear lectures or concerts. The top floor, “where silence is a service,” according to the CEO, will act as a vast “community living room” to take in all the library has to offer, including its view of the city skyline and City Hall to the west and the Bow River to the east.

The excitement in his voice is noticeable when he speaks about the building, which was designed by international architecture firm Snohetta. But what Mr. Ptacek comes back to with fervour is the feeling associated with walking through the doors.

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“You have this moment of: This is amazing. But then the thought crosses your mind: This is mine, this is for me,” he explains. “This doesn’t belong only to the rich, or to a university where you have to be a student, everybody has access to this.”

The Calgary Central Library was designed by international architecture firm Snohetta.

George Webber

It’s this recognition of libraries as a public service and their ability to attract all walks of life that have resurrected their relevance to today’s cities. Central library projects continue to emerge across the country with a directive to help bring life to once neglected areas of Canadian urban centres.

Calgary’s new central library is situated in East Village, a historic, 49-acre neighbourhood on the Bow River, between Fort Calgary and the downtown business core, that is undergoing a massive $3-billion revitalization to add housing, retail, hotel and public spaces.

The location was not an accident, explains Mr. Ptacek. “[The city] wanted to make it the anchor for the development of the East Village project, which not only gave the library an opportunity to have this great, new building in downtown, but it also put the burden on the library to become an entry point for this development.”

This kind of approach is new, or at least revived. At one point, the location of libraries wasn’t really a big consideration, explains Mr. Ptacek. “The thought was something like, this is a dying institution and we don’t want to invest too much in it, so if we see a patch of land we’ll put a library on it, but it doesn’t matter if it’s off the beaten path.”

But with the beginning of the 1990s and the introduction of the internet, an interesting thing started to happen in libraries. No longer simply a building that housed books, libraries around the world reimagined their roles and became early adopters of technology. It was at this point that their future was transformed from a public service susceptible to heavy budget cuts to a service worthy of multimillion-dollar edifices.

Calgary Central Library, undergoing its finishing touches, is expected to open in November.

George Webber

There is a nimbleness and fluidity to libraries that are rarely achieved by such large institutions. They have proven themselves to not only morph into what is needed by the community they serve, but also attract further development to their vicinity.

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“The attitude is, this is what we need to be, not, this is what we are,” says Mr. Ptacek. “And I think that’s so true of most successful libraries in North America.”

Central libraries around the world are being used as magnets for development and are often a primary project in a revitalization strategy.

In Oslo, the the Deichmanske bibliotek, Norway’s largest library, is expected to move to a new building in 2020 as part the Fjord City program that is transforming an area of urban waterfront, which was once separated from the rest of the city by ports and railways.

The Stuttgart City Library in southern Germany opened in 2011 with the specific intent that it would serve as a beacon for further development in the area known as the Mailander Platz. It did. Since then the area has become a restaurant and retail destination.

The four-year-old Halifax Public Library was designed to resemble a stack of books.

Adam Mørk

“It’s a fascinating time to work in public libraries,” says Asa Kachan, CEO of the Halifax Public Library. “This is a space where human interactions happen alongside access to democratic knowledge and learning.”

Built to resemble a stack of books, the Halifax Central Library opened its doors in 2014 to global praise for its modern, cubic design, including its eye-catching fifth storey with floor-to-ceiling windows that jut out over the downtown. Its location on the corner of Spring Garden Road and Queen Street “is a pivotal location for our community, adjacent to a bustling shopping district, an entertainment district. It’s within reach of a number of universities, so it draws more young people to our community,” explains Ms. Kachan.

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The $57.6-million-dollar facility has brought new life to its surrounding area, which is undergoing several revitalization projects and condo builds, “so what’s really inspiring is that it’s within reach of where more and more people are choosing to live,” adds Ms. Kachan.

The new Halifax Public Library is seen not only as a magnet for students but also for city dwellers looking to live downtown.

Adam Mørk

The “if you build it, they will come” mantra is also at the centre of the latest Canadian central library project in Ottawa. The property at 557 Wellington Ave. — city-owned land just west of Parliament Hill and the downtown — will house a monstrous 216,000-square-foot “super-library” as a joint project between the Ottawa Public Library and Library and Archives Canada. Ottawa’s central library will account for 60 per cent of the space, while the Archives will occupy the other 40. The estimated $168-million building is expected to open its doors by 2023.

The land, valued at around $8.95-million, was selected after scoring highest on a laundry-list of criteria. But there was some initial backlash from locals during public consultation of the library’s location as protesters argued it should be built in the downtown core. The city’s argument for the Wellington site is that it’s accessible by transit, pedestrians and is in an area that has room to grow, which is what citizens wanted.

“People weren’t being consulted on where they thought the library should be, instead we consulted with them on what was important to them in terms of location,” says Elaine Condos, division manager of the central library project at the City of Ottawa.

Today the location of a central library is just as important (if not more) than its contents.

“It’s amazing for me, being involved with libraries for all these years,” says Mr. Ptacek in Calgary, “to see the transformation, from an institution that was often an afterthought, into something that is now, in many ways, at the forefront of the development of great urban places.”

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Editor’s note: The original version of this story said the new Ottawa central library’s land is valued at $110-million. The correct figure, according to city documents, is $8.95-million.
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