Libraries: What Are They Good For?

New central library can make Calgary a better city

At times our world seems headed for the new dark ages that urban sage Jane Jacobs warned about. Here at home we are confronted by an ill-conceived war on crime, increasing foreign military adventure, the erosion of our country’s image as a compassionate honest broker and environmental leader, economic uncertainty, growing inequality and the ethical challenge of tarsands development.

In the book Dark Age Ahead, Jacobs identified the public library as one of the indispensable assets of any community — as important as water and sewer systems, fire protection and public health. The public library, sometimes called “the people’s university,” plays an essential role in providing an inclusive place for citizens to engage in lifelong learning while ensuring that all have access to information.

Calgary’s new central library will give physical form to what is already one of the most successful public library systems in North America. Between 1994 and 2010, per capita use increased by 80 per cent to 35 million virtual and in-person visits to 17 branches. It circulated over 16 million items, behind only Toronto, New York and Los Angeles. At over 5.4 million in-person visits alone in 2010, the Calgary Public Library (CPL) had more visitors than the Stampede, Calgary Zoo, Heritage Park, Science Centre, recreation arenas and all professional sporting events combined.

The library is much more than books, magazines, videos and music. The CPL provides low-income Calgarians with tickets to arts and recreation opportunities including dance, music, theatre, festivals and rodeos. In 2009, over 11,000 kids improved their reading skills through the library’s Summer Reading Adventure. In 2010, 156,000 people attended programs and tours offered by the CPL, and for several years the CPL directly supported sustainability literacy by co-hosting Sustainable Calgary’s monthly book club.

Among the constellation of cultural institutions — not to take anything away from the thriving arts community — the library is uniquely important to Calgary’s vitality and sustainability. In a time where economic inequalities dictate access to the benefits our city has to offer, the library is a pillar of social inclusion. In a world where the ability to purchase access to knowledge or even social connection — whether via university tuition or the latest technological gadgets — defines our ability to participate in society, the library is almost alone in its promise of universal access.

For example, 40 per cent of adults in Alberta do not have the literacy skills to function effectively in society. Functionally illiterate Albertans are far more likely to live in poor households, to have served jail terms and to have misinterpreted medical instructions, reinforcing the need for libraries to be at the forefront of achieving universal literacy.

But as the campaign for the new library gathers steam and the creative class rallies its support, we have to be vigilant to avoid potential dangers. Big shiny projects in the “cultural districts” are a centrepiece of the national arts initiative Creative Cities, but let’s not make the mistake of assuming that creative cities are necessarily inclusive ones.

Serendipitously, our new library will be situated on the threshold of the East Village, its location a symbolic opportunity for Calgarians to embrace the twin promise of a public library as a celebration of the best of our culture and as a symbol of a caring, inclusive society. The East Village faces the challenge of reinvigorating itself without gentrifying and driving away “undesirables” to the point of making the central library an exclusive place enjoyed by the cultured classes, but where the disenfranchised are alienated. If you have bad teeth, a tattered jacket or Safeway bags for your belongings, will you still feel comfortable stepping inside our new library?

As Jacobs writes, community institutions like the library encourage us to “deal civilly with people whose upbringing, cultures and personalities are at odds with the traditions and customs of one’s own nuclear family, and teach children to be both cosmopolitan and tolerant.”

It is hard to overstate the importance of a library. In 2006, after almost 2,000 years, the world’s most important library of the ancient world — the Bibliotheca Alexandria in Egypt — was resurrected from the ashes. The Bibliotheca Alexandria Declaration recognized the library’s mission to advocate for reason over ideology, cultural expression over censorship and social justice over oppression.

We need our new central library to foster compassion, wisdom, learning, understanding and the deep currents of change that can create healthy and creative communities, a better Calgary and a more just world.

Geoff Ghitter teaches urban studies at the University of Calgary. He can be reached at Noel Keough is an assistant professor in the faculty of environmental design at the university, and is co-founder of Sustainable Calgary Society. He can be reached at

Comments: 5

Clairvoyant wrote:

Library, yes. New monument to the ego of an architect, no.

Refurbish the existing library at a third of the cost of a new one. Why, not? It serves all the "library" needs. Oh, yes it fails to provide a monument to some architect's ego. And the old one, well it is just too utilitarian to satisfy the urban planners. And of course the City, Commissar Farrell, has plans to use the old library for the next thousand or two bureacrats, so using the old library as a library is out of the question. And there is no shortage of money: the municipal tax rates can always be raised, and the cost can be leveraged ... by taking from the provincial and federal taxpayers ... you know, the ones in Calgary.

" ... East Village ... without gentrifying ... " Sorry Mister Van Winkel, that's a done deal. If the foreign corporations putting a billion or three into East Village are going to make their standard profits on high density development, there won't be room for "undesirables", except as wax figures in a museum. And you can bet your bottom dollar that they already have that covered, though in the open and transparent City of Hope & Change 2.0, we the Citizens, will never see the deal, or the real costs to the taxpayers. Sorry, but the "undesirables" are headed north across the river.

"40 per cent of adults in Alberta do not have the literacy skills to function effectively in society". Well, that's hard to believe!!! It seems that every day we hear how great our education system is, how great the results of our public schools are, how the fantastic members of the ATA deserve even more money. But then, maybe I do believe it. If 40% of our university profs are functionally illiterate, that would explain a lot. (Sorry for the abuse of statistics, but that one I couldn't resist.

Library, yes. Architect's ego, no. Refurbish, do something sustainable. Sustainable?

on Oct 16th, 2011 at 9:31pm Report Abuse

ghuntington wrote:

"The East Village faces the challenge of reinvigorating itself without gentrifying and driving away “undesirables” to the point of making the central library an exclusive place enjoyed by the cultured classes, but where the disenfranchised are alienated."

I've lived in the area for two years now, and I think the goals mentioned above of avoiding gentrification and alienation are co-productive.

As long as services to the disenfranchised are maintained, those who live there now will remain there. With the disenfranchised remaining there, Mr./Mrs. Highfalutin will probably just leave the area alone - though I'm no expert.

on Oct 17th, 2011 at 4:35pm Report Abuse

C2N wrote:

Clairvoyant - I am starting to think that you are hired by ffwdweekly just to argue with Ghitter and Keough? :)

It is interesting how you have no problem when it comes to raised taxes to subsidize a form of architecture that is known as the Balzac Mall... but not a new central library. I am also just wondering, when did the article state that this library is being built to feed an architect's ego? Or is that a matter of opinion? And why is the ego of a developer one to force feed? Urban sprawl is visible evidence of the developer ego. One that an entire city supports (well... just the citizen's who don't like to go downtown and then complain about how they can't... even though there are many academics, architects, and good ol' regular people who try to allow it).

Oh, and the sustainability thing, refurbishing would be wonderful! I do think that is a great idea... Sadly I am sure an architect would have to head the re-design... since they have been educated... in... well... building structures... so buildings don't fall down... shame on them for wanting to create a work of art out of a structure (but of course, they are only educated by the 40% of illiterate profs in our university system, so you better not go in the library, it could fall down).

I am sorry to be defensive, but I strongly support our Albertan post-secondary system. Since moving to Calgary four years ago, I have seen huge changes in this city because of those who support new urbanism. It is exciting, I thought Calgary was going to be a half-way point to Vancouver or a major international city, but I may just stay a while.

on Oct 17th, 2011 at 6:38pm Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

I don't think I am working for ffwdweekly ... so far they have not sent me a cheque.
Interesting that architects "have been educated ... in ... well... building structures ... so buildings don't fall down" Not quite: it's the engineers, civil, structural, some of the guys & gals licensed by APEGGA that are responsible for ensuring that buildings don't fall down, not architects. Think "Falling Water".
Do developers have ego? Sure. But urban sprawl is predominantly visible evidence of the type of housing and community that a very large fraction of the citizens prefer.
Cross Iron Mills is a privately funded & owned development, so it's their money, not mine. The library is taxpayer funded & owned, so it's my money. If CIM was subsidized, and it probably was, that is just one more example of why we need clear open books, all income and all spending, of our governments in full detail. Subsidization of developers is wrong: it's wrong for green-field development (CIM?), and it's wrong for redevelopment (University City, by Knightsbridge & Riocan? East Pillage?).
I argue with Keough & Ghitter because we have fundamentally different values sets. They believe that they have seen the future, and that vision gives them the right to compel the rest of us how to live: I believe that their crystal ball is just cracked glass and I have zero faith in central planners (and that includes the delusionaries of new urbanism).

on Oct 19th, 2011 at 11:28pm Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

You bring up one interesting point, that sprawl represents the way the majority of people want to live. I think you've got that wrong. I think it represents the way a majority of people can afford to live. And I think we need to change that. (there are also arguments that paying more for your house to live centrally saves you money in the long run, but I won't pretend to know the finer points of that breakdown.)

on Oct 20th, 2011 at 12:10am Report Abuse

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