Halifax Public Libraries : Building Communities

Last Thursday (10 June 2010), I had the pleasure of attending the first of five planning sessions for a new central library in Halifax.  Downtown Halifax has required a new library quite a few years.  Why is this?  The Spring Garden branch holds the system’s

  • government documents (it’s a depository library)
  • main business outreach unit
  • main reference unit

But the 50 year-old building fails horribly when it comes to:

  • Accessibility (stairs everywhere! few elevators!)
  • Community meeting space (1, maybe 2 rooms?)
  • Children and YA Services – wedged into the basement level (The branch does wonders down there, but a better space is needed)

The good news is that Halifax Public Libraries has already secured the land and funding for a new downtown branch, and it has already contracted the services of two architectural firms to build a new library just across the road from the current site.  The great news is that HPL and the architects have committed themselves to real civic engagement through the entire design process that will culminate in a proposed design in November 2010.

Photo Courtesy of HPL
The Library and Community Involvement

Thursday’s meeting shows us that community involvement is HPL’s priority in the process.  Rather than hogging a microphone and telling the public what they’d like to do with this potential space, librarians and architects turned the session over to the assembled group and asked them to answer conceptual questions like “What can the Library do for you and what can you do for the library?”.   Each time a new question was raised, attendees were asked to move to a different table in order to discuss things with a new group of people.  This process organically developed themes from the ground up since the public brainstormed on their own accord about what a new library needs and what a city needs in a library.  In the end, the public was able to tell the architects, designers, and librarians what was important to them and what the new building will require to meet their vision.

HPL rejected a top-down approach to surveying community needs and all parties came away better because of it.  Although a top-down approach likely would have determined similar themes such as accessibility, sustainability, community space and learning centers, the actual process used on Thursday night reminded the community that they are the library system’s primary stakeholders.  Giving the floor over to the public (I’m part of the public on this one) showed us that our input is not just desired but is formally required before the architects can go forward.  It reminded us that if libraries are the civic centers that nurture the growth of communities through collections, services, and programming (and they are), then it is imperative that the community take a lead role in the design process.  Halifax Public Libraries isn’t just paying lip service to community engagement on this path toward a new central library.  Rather, they’re determined to have the community involved in every step along the way.

Photo courtesy of Halifax Public Libraries
Real civic engagement

Speaking as a member of the public on this issue, the meeting reminded me that community action and awareness is a real thing at the library.  It’s real easy for people to think about municipal government as nothing more than the organization that clears roads in the winter and maintains parks in the summer.  The library, however, is an arm of the municipality, and it’s the part of the municipality that’s in the trenches working with people and for people every day to make their lives better.  What we saw at the HPL Planning meeting last Thursday was real evidence of Halifax community building by, with, and for the community itself.

Yes..