Library as Place: Weaving Stories, Tailoring Spaces – Libraries as Fabric of the Community


Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
Ontario Library Association Conference
July 11, 2019, Ottawa, Ontario

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As the custodians of our distant past and of our recent history, national libraries and national archives are key resources for all who wish to gain a better understanding of who they are, individually – thanks to genealogy – and collectively – thanks to history.

And in this world of misinformation and so-called fake news, these institutions find themselves endowed with renewed relevance.

Indeed, whereas people look more and more to the media for support of their biases, for “affirmation rather than information,” libraries and archives are still perceived as places where one can find information that is authentic.

According to a Pew Research Center report published in August 2017, 78% of adults feel that public libraries help them find information that is trustworthy and reliable.

And that figure goes up to 87% among Millennials.

Because of that, libraries and archives are key to underpinning a healthy democracy.

Furthermore, because in Canada as well as in most Western countries, access to the national library and archives is completely free,

more than other cultural institutions such as national museums and theatres, they can provide solace, learning, opportunity, hope and a refuge from the wind and the snow to

“your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” to quote the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal.


Because of the tremendous democratization of knowledge we have seen in the wake of digitization, national libraries and archives are no longer the sole territory of faculty and graduate students.

Thanks to the Web, anyone and everyone – not only from our own countries, but from anywhere else in the world – has total and unimpeded access to our documents, provided they are digitized and online.

This has awakened an appetite for knowledge that is frankly difficult to satisfy and has provoked the fading away of the distinction between scholarly and mainstream collections.

Thus, the long-standing distinction between a national library and a public library has blurred over the past 25 years.

The unprecedented traffic we are seeing today at places such as the British Library – with 1.5 million visitors per year – and the Bibliothèque nationale de France – with well over 1 million visitors per year – are but two examples of that phenomenon.

So that is the general context in which we decided to explore – with Ottawa Public Library – the opportunity to create a new kind of knowledge centre that combines the strengths of a large urban public library with those of a national library and archives.

I have told you in my opening remarks of the blurring of the distinction between national libraries and public libraries.

Over the past few years, LAC has plunged head first into this movement by bringing itself physically closer to public libraries.

In November 2017, we moved our Vancouver offices, which used to be located in a technology park in a remote suburb, to the premises of the Moshe Safdie–designed Vancouver Central Library. As its name suggests, this is located right in the heart of the city.

This shift has already borne fruit, not only in terms of attendance, but also in terms of the receptiveness of our employees toward their new colleagues and clients from the public library.

And, of course, when it comes to breaking silos and blurring borders, nothing can be more symbolic than our project to relocate our public services to a new facility shared with Ottawa Public Library.

Let me give you a little background on this initiative.

For the philosophical reasons I mentioned earlier, I felt our public-access building should be open and welcoming to everyone, not just our regulars, the researchers and the academics.  

The architecture of our building at 395 Wellington Street did not lend itself to creating such open access.

Its location is prestigious, steps from the Supreme Court and Parliament Hill.

It overlooks the river and has expansive windows and natural light.

It is built of noble materials such as marble, brass and gold.

And it is filled with art, glass engravings, sculpture and gorgeous murals by Canadian painter Alfred Pellan.

But while the brutalist-looking building that opened in June 1967 is certainly imposing, it is not welcoming.

And because it was built over 50 years ago, its infrastructure does not allow for the flexible efficient digital access that our clients expect in a library.

Plus, it does not have a proper environmentally controlled exhibition space to allow us to present originals from our extraordinary collection and borrow documents from other memory institutions.

Set back from Wellington Street, it seems to challenge the potential visitor to approach the temple of knowledge.

Since I took office in June 2014, we have put in place robust public programming that includes interviews, seminars, round tables, conferences, exhibitions, book launches and more.

And despite the success of these events – attendance of more than 200 people on average – the total attendance at the site has never exceeded 30,000 per year, a far cry from the millions at the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France and of the projected 1.7 million visitors that are expected at our joint facility on Albert Street.

I had in mind the model of the Grande Bibliothèque de Montréal, an institution that I had the pleasure of leading for five years before moving to Ottawa.

The Grande Bibliothèque, designed by Patkau Architects, is a 33,000 square-metre building that houses a very large public library and the national library of the Province of Quebec, which holds documents obtained through legal deposit of publications and musical works.

The Grande Bibliothèque, whose most remarkable feature is that it is built on the major hub of the Montréal subway, welcomes between 2.5 and 3 million visitors per year.

You heard me correctly: 2.5 million, almost twice as many as the British Library and more than the New York Public Library’s Central Building on Fifth Avenue!

So with that experience in mind, when I heard about the Ottawa Central Library relocation project, I thought to myself that I had a unique opportunity, one that would not come back for 50 years, to open wide the doors of my institution.

And, thank God, I found that Danielle McDonald was as excited as I was about joining forces.

As luck would have it, the local Member of Parliament, Minister Catherine McKenna, had made a promise during the electoral campaign of 2015 to fight for federal funding for the new central library, to be located in her riding of Ottawa Centre.

Our proposal to make the new facility a joint project between a federal agency and the City of Ottawa made it all the easier for her to keep her promise, since the federal investment could be made entirely to a federal institution.

And Minister McKenna became a super champion of the joint facility, which was a definitive factor in success, her efforts culminating in the announcement in the federal budget of February 27, 2018, of the government’s decision to contribute $73.3 million for Library and Archives Canada’s share of the new facility.

As the project developed, I was more than pleased to discover that the staff and clients of my institution were also very enthusiastic about the move from 395 Wellington to 555 Albert.

The resistance to change that I quite normally expected never materialized, and it was with great energy that my colleagues invested themselves in the development of the Functional Program, a joint exercise with staff from the public library that lasted for almost two years, from 2016 to 2018.

That Functional Program described the visitor experience, operational flow, general layout and practical requirements of the shared building.

Since January, the architectural firm selected for the project has initiated a broad consultation with the users of our two institutions, under the Design-Bid-Build model, which consists of choosing an architectural firm not based on a plan, but rather on a record of achievements.

The selected firm – Diamond-Schmitt Architects in our case – then has the mandate to consult users on their needs and desires and, only after that conversation, to develop the plans for the new building.

This model was used to build the City of Halifax’s new public library that opened in December 2014 to great acclaim.

In addition to the many architectural awards the library has received since then, the model’s proof lies in the success of the Halifax library:

while optimistic forecasts estimated its attendance at 900,000 people per year, 1.9 million visitors, more than twice as many as expected, showed up during the first year of operation!

And one must remember that the population of Halifax is only 430,000, while that of Ottawa is now a million.

The estimate we now have for the number of visitors at our joint facility is 1.7 million a year, and I am willing to bet the farm that this is conservative, given the Halifax experience.

So far, in Ottawa, this approach has proven to be spectacularly successful.

We have had two sets of workshops as well as online consultations to engage the public – both in Ottawa and throughout Canada – in the design of our joint facility.

Overall, almost 700 citizens participated in person and almost 2,000 online.

In February and March, we held our first workshops under the theme Building Blocks.

Their aim was to get our users’ advice on the interaction between the site and the building.

Things like an accessible rooftop, the need for multiple entrances, the opportunity to take advantage of the views and unique features of the site were mentioned.

The second round of workshops was held on June 1 and 3, and its theme was Spaces and Relationships.

Our patrons were asked to comment on the flow and relationships between the programs and spaces.

Unsurprisingly, users were in favour of an interlocking model that would see national library and archives spaces next to public library spaces.

And we are also holding consultations with the Indigenous peoples on whose traditional land the facility will be built.

While this is going on, Library and Archives Canada is working to transform its services to meet the demands of an expanded clientele.

We will create an orientation venue to welcome all clients in a way that is inclusive and barrier-free, and to display treasures from our collection.

We will also create a virtual reading room where our most highly referenced collections will be made accessible in digital format.

We will also have on site a curated collection of 45,000 to 55,000 frequently requested items, such as official publications, literary and non-fiction books, audiovisual recordings, and electronic media.

And, of course, in addition to the Treasures of Library and Archives Canada exhibition space, we will have a sizable room to hold special exhibitions showcasing elements from our collection as well as from other memory institutions.

We are hoping for the final design to be revealed in early 2020 and for the facility to be in service at the end of 2024, five years from now.

In many ways, the Design-Bid-Build model reflects what has always been the modus operandi of libraries.

That is, to listen and respond to the needs of the community, by innovating and using the latest techniques and technologies.

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