Calgary's new central library tells us how much our community has changed

"Even if the image persists in our imaginations, the notion of a library as a rarefied temple of erudition and illumination is long extinguished,” says Aritha van Herk.

Libraries are places that inspire in me dream and delight

Calgary's Central Library, which has been celebrated by the global architectural community, is offering three different Indigenous language programs for anyone with a free library card (Dave Dormer/CBC)

Editor's Note:

As Calgary's new central library opens, we asked noted author, historian and bibliophile Aritha van Herk to share her thoughts on libraries and what they mean to us all.

Library: from Latin libraria; feminine (used as a noun) of libraries, meaning "relating to books," from liber, libr-"book."  A place for books.

I have not yet toured Calgary's new Central Library. I have been saving up that experience, relishing the anticipation, for libraries are places that inspire in me dream and delight. 

I have read and written and done research in dozens of libraries, from the Library of Congress in Washington (under the impressively domed Reading Room) to the British Library in London (now very bureaucratic), to the Nobel Library in Stockholm (a special privilege I was granted), to old Rutherford at the University of Alberta (where I wrote most of my undergraduate papers), to the Nose Hill branch of the Calgary Public Library system (which has the best view of any library in the world).

I have definite feelings about all of them, although perhaps the most charming is the intensely independent London Library — a subscription library set up by Carlyle because he disliked the British Museum Library's rules.

But this love affair began on the prairies.

Modest beginnings

The first library that I frequented was in the modest central Alberta city of Camrose. 

The building was once the courthouse, as its somewhat ostentatious columns proclaimed, and then became the library.

When a new library was later built (through Lt.-Gov. Lois Hole's determined efforts), that old one became a Treasury Branch, then a café, and later was designated a historical building.

The historic library and former courthouse building in Camrose, Alta. (Jeffery J. Nichols/Wikimedia Commons)

Yet, my first library still prompts intense memories.

I do not remember learning to read — I think I was born knowing the alphabet — but I can recall with absolute clarity the steps leading up to the main door, so steep that my child's legs could barely stretch from one to the next. 

Those high stairs came to symbolize the ascent that I associated with books — their capacity to transport me to different places and times. Emily Dickenson's lines, "There is no Frigate like a Book/To take us Lands away," was certainly my prompt.

Inside, the library smelled of oiled wood, damp winter boots, the delicious dust of books — of thumbed pages, the linen-like texture of the protective binding, and the manila slot for the due-date card at the back, as official as time itself.

I loved the atmosphere of stilly hesitation, the shelves and shelves of tantalizing spines with their embossed titles and authors' names.

I set out to read every book in that library, and probably did, visiting once a week and taking out as many volumes as allowable.  I loved too the furnishings, the gravity of the tables, and especially the librarian's desk, heavy oak, behind which she sat erect, wielding the imprint of her date stamp. 

If European cities preserve cathedrals, and if American cities flaunt ostentatious courthouses, then we Canadians might claim to revere our humble hometown libraries — although they are often squat, utilitarian buildings, designed by government architects and as usefully nondescript as the old ALCB stores.

Calgary has been loyal to both the graceful sandstone of 1912 Memorial Park Library and the brutalist Central Library of the 1960s.

Calgary's old central library, photographed in 2008. (Calgary Public Library)

But the new Central Library is a different edifice, a declaration and a vindication, an outgrowth of our city's avid use of the library system.

A gateway

It is the second largest in Canada.

There are more than 600,000 members, and 21 branches that support some 6.6 million visits each year — despite having one of the lowest per-capita funding ratios in the country. (And that is shameful.)

Calgary library users here are so conscientious that during the 2013 flood, they kept returning books — little knowing that as they passed through the slot they slid down into the water-filled basement and drowned.

For five years, the new Central Library has been slowly growing and glowing behind City Hall.  It is much discussed and approvingly measured as "potentially under budget," despite its imposing elegance and the arches that mimic the rolling clouds of the Chinook.

The exterior assembled itself like a Tetris game, the interleaving glass spaces as hexagonal pages — an entire new cruise ship sailing into downtown. It is touted as a "natural" building, open and airy, a "gateway" to the formerly grubby East Village. 

A home to books

On Nov. 1, when the building is "activated," the celebrations surrounding the opening promise to be fittingly flashy, worthy of its eloquent style.

But the real test will be whether the place can succeed not only as the community hub, meeting place and activity centre that it aspires to be, but as the home of books — those collections of words that instigate the "sharing of knowledge" that we talk about more than we practice.

Libraries remark a culture's attention span, measure the temperature of what matters synchronically. Historically, libraries denoted wisdom and understanding — two ideals no longer common currency despite the technological advantages of this information age.

The notion of libraries as hoarding the bounty of high literature is long dead, and they have metamorphosed into civic centres that now declare how much the communities that libraries serve have changed.

This new library is rich in "facilities" that have little to do with shelves of books or the Dewey Decimal system.

It's about more than just grabbing a book and sitting down quietly, although it's also about that. (Dave Rae/CBC)

It boasts two cafés, a performance hall, an interfaith room, a collective gaming area, a child-minding service, a "Questionarium" (I quizzically imagine a fish bowl with a Siri-type answering device), a digital commons, an idea lab, audio-video editing suites, and a room for nursing mothers.

It will provide public computers, free Wi-Fi, free printing and gender-neutral washrooms. The Bookscalator device, which transports materials between floors, will be worthy of Beakerhead attention.

All marvellous. All amazing. All spectacle.

Somewhat dismaying fact

The public library is the new town square, dispensary and classroom — the most accessible of all civic buildings.

That everyone is welcome is a crucial aspect of its role, but that inclusivity disguises the somewhat dismaying fact that libraries have become outreach centres, service hubs for the dispossessed, the homeless, and the unemployed.

They fill the gaps that social services do not, providing key guidance and ESL classes for newcomers, teaching numeracy and literacy, programming lectures and talks and movies and panels.

Willingly or not, they now wear the mantle of community arbiter, safety net, refuge and resource.

I do not want to return to the library as a hushed and sacred space where no one dares to whisper. I certainly do not want to go backwards to the time (not so long ago) when users had to pay to join, and when libraries were not hospitable to the disenfranchised.

Even if the image persists in our imaginations, the notion of a library as a rarified temple of erudition and illumination is long extinguished.

But on the home page of the new Central Library's website, the word "Book" appears only in the phrases, "Room Bookings," and "Book Donations." So it is with considerable relief that under the Explore Tab, I find "Books" at the top of the list.

The $245-million project occupies about 240,000 square feet of space in Calgary’s East Village. (Dave Rae/CBC)

This library will have books, and books are still the mainstay of why libraries matter and why they should matter.

Of course, there are also e-books and movies and music and newspapers — our access to information swollen with the virtual.

This is no lament for the physical object of the book and what it has come to represent in this uneasy age.

The need for books

In an interview, director of communications Mary Kapusta insists, "We're all book lovers so we want book lovers to have a great place to research and read."

A hundred-thousand more books will be added to the collection, bringing it up to 450,000 books.

But I worry about the busyness and the hectic determinations of programming leaving no space for dream and contemplation. About it leaving fewer and fewer opportunities enabling the happy accident of pulling a book off a shelf and opening it to discovery.

Our curiosity deficit grows every day, so perhaps the greatest need the library must serve is instigating enquiry.

The Oculus Skylight, a metaphorical eye hovering over the core of the new building, surely suggests that reading enlightens — rather than the Orwellian eye of Big Brother.

From the centre of the building, you can see all the way up to the sky. (Dave Rae/CBC)

I am personally intrigued by odder details — that the building is engineered to support a live load (the weight of books) of 7.2 kilopascals. Is that a lot or not?

I wonder about the library's straddling the LRT track and the potential effect of trains running underneath. Will the sound of trains provide the subterranean rush and roar that is so often heard in theatres above the Tube in London's West End? I am eager to see the public art around and within the library, particularly the Indigenous placemaking pieces, reflections of Moh'kinsstis and Treaty Seven people.

There are many reasons to celebrate this moment, not least because Calgary right now needs some joyful occasion, needs to imagine that we will pull ourselves out of this somewhat negative trough. The library, physical and present, speaks to our respect for smartness and its accompanying sophistication.

Without knowledge, we are but ciphers.

And the proof will be in the performance.

A library used is a library loved

It is up to us as citizens to "use" the library. For its best review will be in its employment. 

To celebrate is not only to visit and to gawk, but to check out a book, take it home, and read it. 

And so, I have three suggestions. 

The Library At Night, by Alberto Manguel.  A book about how love of libraries must be learned; Manguel is one of Canada's most beautifully erudite writers.

The Library Book, by Susan Orlean. A brand new and compelling non-fiction account of the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Central Library.

The Calgary Public Library: Inspiring Life Stories Since 1912, by Brian Brennan. This last one is obvious, for the story of how a story happens is perhaps the best aspect of what a library can mean and what a library can inspire. 

What more is there to write, other than, read more.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at

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Aritha van Herk

Calgary author

Aritha van Herk is a born and raised Albertan who teaches in the department of English at the University of Calgary. Author of numerous novels, journal articles and several works of criticism, she has lectured widely throughout Canada and Europe. She is a member of the Alberta Order of Excellence.