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Sandra Singh, Vancouver Public Library’s chief librarian, holds an iPad with a copy of the book ‘Ru’ shown on it at the VPL’s main branch on Dec. 19, 2012.Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

It's not news that the public library in the 21st century is a very different place from the days when stern librarians and cathedral silence presided over the great treasure house of books that dominated its services until the arrival of digital.

Even so, at a time when the Internet is king, bookstores are disappearing and some question whether physical books themselves will exist at all in the not-so-distant future, the Vancouver Public Library is not only hanging on but thriving.

Under the direction of its enthusiastic chief librarian, Sandra Singh – at 39, the youngest head of a major public library system in Canada – visits to the VPL are up, circulation is up, and wireless use in particular, not surprisingly, is skyrocketing.

"This is a very exciting time to be in libraries. We are being transformed," Ms. Singh said. "When they think of libraries, many still have the old mental model of books on shelves. Well, we are books on shelves, no doubt about it. But we are so much more."

The evidence was clear on a wet, miserable afternoon this week at the VPL's multi-storey main branch downtown. The place was packed. Most were not borrowing books.

Teenager Jerrison Oracion excitedly checked out a couple of dance video games. "It's the only place where you can get video games for free," he said, with a big grin.

Up on the fifth floor, a group of community college students sat around a table, talking over their opened binders. "There's peace and quiet here," Jen Hall said. "If I go to Starbucks, I get nothing done."

Nearby, long rows of computer stations were full up. "Just browsing," said fashion designer Jewelz Mills, one of the users. "I try to come in here once a week."

While insisting that the books are all right, with a long life ahead of them, Ms. Singh said the library is meeting the challenges of the digital age head-on.

The popularity of e-books, which can be downloaded directly from the VPL's website, is on the rise. The cost of most Internet paywalls is absorbed by the library, and computer courses abound, ranging from basic skills for seniors to surfing the net beyond the obvious.

"What libraries are really about is learning. It's not really about the format," Ms. Singh said.

Ingrid Parent, chief librarian at the University of B.C. and the first Canadian to head the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, said there were those, not so long ago, who predicted physical libraries would soon be obsolete.

"Instead, they are doing very well," Ms. Parent said. "Technology has become a catalyst for transforming the library."

But libraries are no longer the only diversion of its kind in town, able to sit back and wait for people to show up. That's another challenge. They must engage the public. Reaching out to the community is a cornerstone of the VPL's new direction.

An extensive series of Free For All sessions, seeking community opinion on what was wanted from their libraries, including the wishes of teens, produced more than 7,000 responses over 10 months. What emerged is that people still value the VPL's extensive collections, and they treasure its space, a refuge from the density of modern living.

There are ambitious plans for a large rooftop garden in 2015, when the province vacates its several floors in the VPL's signature, coliseum-like building. The architect for the iconic structure, the renowned Moshe Safdie, has signed back on to help design it.

Also on the drawing board is the Inspiration Lab, a groundbreaking project that will provide members of the community with the technological equipment and instruction to create their own stories for the library.

"What we're looking at is extending the idea of collections and databases and articles to thinking about what the community itself has to offer," Ms. Singh said.

The library's latest piècede resistance is the remarkable Inspiration Pass. Since October, every two weeks, 120 library card holders receive a special pass allowing groups of six free access to 18 of Vancouver's cultural and recreational institutions, from the Art Gallery to the Vancouver Aquarium to the high-priced opera. The waiting list already stretches into the New Year.

"It's the best pass in the world," the irrepressible Ms. Singh said. "All of Vancouver is open to you. People tell us these are venues they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford."

At the same time, the pass serves as a reminder of the library's survival as an anachronistic marvel in these times of cost-cutting, reduced public services and user-pay demands. True to its original mandate, the library continues to provide all its information and knowledge free of charge, funded almost entirely by taxpayers. The VPL's $43-million budget is covered by fines, some fund-raising, a modest sum from the province, and most of all, $38-million from the city.

"It speaks to public value and the recognition that you shouldn't have to have money to be able to access knowledge," Ms. Singh said. "I would say we are the cornerstone of a democratic society."

The VPL's Marpole branch, meanwhile, is also facing the future unflinchingly. "We are ready, and changing," affirmed chief branch head Desiree Baron. "We've just had a course on e-books for pre-schoolers."

System-wide VPL usage statistics, 2010-2011
Foot traffic6,066,5026,523,6307.50%
Total programs7,2167,4212.80%
Program attendance224,494239,2306.60%
Internet sessions (VPL workstations)1,363,1871,396,6902.50%
Wireless accesses274,836397,14844.50%

SOURCE: Vancouver Public Library