Nfld. & Labrador

More than just books, the library wants your input on its future

The St. John's public library system has come a long way in the nearly 200 years it has been operating, and now, the St. John's Libraries Board wants to look to the future, and what people want to see their libraries look like.

'Go nuts' with sketch contest for your dream central library in St. John's, says board

Josh Smee and Leigha Chiasson-Locke say they're looking forward to seeing what input the public offers on the future of the St. John's public library system. (CBC)

The St. John's public library system has come a long way in the nearly 200 years it has been operating, and now, the St. John's Libraries Board wants to look to the future, and what people want to see their libraries look like.

In 1820, a small crowd of people gathered to set up a reading room at the Freemasons Tavern, serving as the capital city's first public library.

While the library today looks much different, there is still a long way to go.

That's the point of the campaign called the Once and Future Library, which launched this week with an online survey to receive public feedback, as well as a sketch contest for a possible future central library in St. John's.

"We do want people to come up with ideas that could happen in reality … so no airship libraries allowed, no magic, unfortunately — I'm very sad about that — it has to be something that could, in theory, happen in the world," says Josh Smee, a member of the St. John's Library Board.

The A.C. Hunter Public Library is inside the St. John's Arts & Culture Centre. (Stephanie Tobin/CBC)

"But other than that, go nuts. Name what site you'd like, draw us a picture of it and tell us why it would be your ideal library."

With plenty of covetous comments about the fancy Halifax Central Library, the board wants to look beyond just a dreamy new building.

"We really want to hear from people: is a new central library, some time in the future, something that people want in St. John's? We don't actually really know," said Smee.

"Or is it that people want more invested in branches, or is there some other idea that people have? I think that's one of the reasons we're going out and surveying people is to get a sense."

'The new generation of libraries'

Without actual solid feedback on what people actually want their library system to look like, it's hard to make tangible changes.

"And nothing's gonna happen soon, right? We're not breaking ground on anything next year or the year after, but it's really important to start taking the pulse of the community on that and get a sense of what people want to work toward," Smee told CBC's St. John's Morning Show.

"Halifax has been good because it's started a conversation. People have become so familiar with it and I think it's just our closest example of kind of the new generation of libraries."

Youth services librarian Leigha Chiasson-Locke said discussions about what a modern library system could look like have already been happening for years, and the survey is just a more formal process for people to submit their input.

The Halifax Central Library is often cited as potential inspiration for what St. John's could achieve, but the library board wants to look at what cities with comparable population bases are doing. (Emma Davie/CBC)

"I think that comes with the changing trends in librarianship and what libraries offer, right? Now, we're more programming-focused; we have to have space for that, we have to create a sense of community with our library, somewhere where people can come and collaborate and connect with one another, learn new things, not necessarily book-focused," she said.

"So there is a call for creating a space that reflects those needs."

The Once and Future Library campaign is also getting input from people on what they'd like to see for renovations to the A.C. Hunter branch inside the Arts & Culture Centre in St. John's.

"What we want to really do is consider how can we take what we already have and make that patron-focused and contemporary for today," Chiasson-Locke said.

"Is it going to be that we're gonna offer a little bit more space for teens, for example? Are we gonna change up and add some splash of colour? What is it that we're gonna do to make that experience the best possible experience for the patrons?"

The Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries has put a greater emphasis on public programs in recent years. (Stephanie Tobin/CBC)

A greater community presence is one of the key things the library system wants to achieve for the metro area.

"A central library, that's far off in the future, but one thing that we're working with here in St. John's to go hand in hand with these renovations is also providing a mobile outreach unit, so while our facilities at this time, we can't super-extend what we offer in our facilities, we can extend our reach," Chiasson-Locke said.

"That's something that we're gonna look at doing, too, is getting to the community and bringing the community in and bringing those members of the community that maybe haven't been into the library before, and creating an exciting place for everybody to feel welcome."

People are encourage to dream big and think outside the box, Smee added, as it's part of a years-long conversation about the face of the public library.

The board will also be hosting a public forum on the 200th anniversary of the St. John's library system — this time, at the St. John's Community Market building — on March 6.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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