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Libraries turn page to thrive in digital age

It's a weekday afternoon and the main floor of the Toronto Reference Library is hopping. Knots of people mill around the lobby coffee shop. There is a lineup for the 92 Internet-equipped computers. People read or talk at large tables. There is a din, but no one shushes the crowd.

And perhaps the biggest sign that this isn't yesterday's library is the shortage of books in this part of the building, a deliberate attempt to make it more appealing and user-friendly.

"This is public space. We're not building it for the librarians or for the board, we're building all of our space for the public to come in and use and to feel welcome," said Josephine Bryant, city librarian for the Toronto Public Library.

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Long the subject of warnings that the Internet would spell their demise, public libraries are booming through new branches, more resources and more computers.

And in addition to their regular schedule of children's programs and author readings, many have reinvented themselves as multipurpose gathering places that happen to house millions of books. Some officials actively court new patrons with everything from coffee shops and comfortable chairs to rock concerts and teen nights.

In November, two Toronto branches presided over free concerts featuring emerging local bands to launch the library's new local music collection. The evenings featured mostly indie rockers -- some of whom loudly sang coarse lyrics -- and attracted fans from across Southern Ontario. Next month, another branch is the site of an anime costume party.

At the Edmonton Public Library's main building, patrons are allowed to snuggle up with a book, food and drink in hand, in the library's plush chairs. The building also has a space for teens, complete with graphic novels, beanbag chairs and lava lamps. And for the past two years, inner-city branches have held teen nights featuring computer games, karaoke, pizza and Dance Dance Revolution, a popular interactive music-video game. The events were so popular people lined up around the block to get in.

In addition, many cities have spent millions to renovate or build new libraries. Calgary officials are planning a new central facility. And Montreal has the nearly two-year-old Grande Bibliothèque, which is attracting more patrons than officials had dared dream: an average of 8,000 visitors a day, nearly double estimates.

"I think we can say it's clear that the need was there," said Hélène Roussel, director of library services for the Grande Bibliothèque.

Indeed, many Canadian libraries are reporting increased patrons and higher lending figures. While there are no national statistics, the Canadian Urban Libraries Council, which represents public libraries in cities with more than 100,000 people, says circulation increased more than 25 per cent between 1996 and 2005. Visits also went up by more than 20 per cent in the same period. (There are no statistics for rural libraries, which are often cash-starved and focused more on maintaining service than widening their mandates.) As she marked a pile of essays at the Toronto Reference Library, high-school history teacher Lesley McLean said she is always surprised at how busy the facility is.

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"I think they've done an interesting job here in changing the library to [meet]the needs of what people want," she said, noting the computers and newspapers from different countries.

Urban libraries' renaissance in the Internet age is partly because of a more service-oriented culture, argued Linda Cook, director of the Edmonton Public Library and president of the Canadian Library Association. In contrast to the days of stern, shushing librarians, most of those who work in public libraries today are trained in customer service, making libraries resemble "a retail operation," she said.

"Libraries are just much more welcoming. They're newer, they've been renovated. Municipalities are starting to realize the importance of libraries to the economic viability of a city, so they're starting to put more money into them. And the nicer a place is, the more you want to come to it and the more you want to stay."

And in what Ms. Bryant called "a great catalyst" for libraries, many have borrowed a page from Chapters and other successful bookstores by installing comfortable chairs, signing deals with coffee shops and allowing people to eat and drink anywhere in the building.

Such developments indicate that libraries recognize the importance of providing convivial public spaces, said Alvin Schrader, professor of library and information studies at the University of Alberta and president-elect of the Canadian Library Association.

"The old models that worked in the days when libraries were more rule-governed, I think we can say, are slowly . . . giving way to user-centred services and bringing the library into a model that is more conducive to attracting people, making it comfortable and making it a place that they want to come to and spend some time in."

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As well, libraries are spending larger portions of their budgets on electronic materials, including subscriptions to research journals, databases, e-books and CD-ROMS. The Grande Bibliothèque, for example, spends more than 25 per cent of its acquisitions budget on electronic resources. To help meet their patrons' needs, many libraries have made such materials available on their websites.

In the age of split-second Google searches, the role of the library is changing. Many librarians argue that instead of weakening libraries, the Internet has magnified the need for accurate, reliable information, and, in some cases, the services of trained professionals. But rapidly changing technology, such as Internet publishing, blogs, social networking sites and photo-sharing websites, makes it hard to predict what libraries of the future will look like, Prof. Schrader said.

"All of those kinds of things, it's not easy to see where they're all leading. But I believe that there will always be a very important role -- and more important than people really recognize -- for librarians to play in helping people find information."

Adaptable libraries

Far from remaining musty relics, Canadian libraries now offer comfortable chairs, coffee shops, rows of Internet terminals and even rock concerts. As a result of this adaptive approach, library visits and borrowing are on the increase.

Circulation Number of library materials borrowed

  • 2001: 134,815,704
  • 2002: 132,800,979
  • 2003: 138,360,583
  • 2004: 158,343,800
  • 2005: 160,645,614


  • 2001: 81,912,469
  • 2002: 82,223,289
  • 2003: 79,639,711
  • 2004: 88,085,670
  • 2005: 89,641,073

NOTE: Data are from large libraries in cities with a population of more than 100,000.


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