To the Newmarket Public Library to find out if libraries are surviving or thriving.

This is the latest in the series of excellent IdeaMarket meetings (28 October). A hand-out I pick up at the door tells me:

Libraries are undergoing immense change due to such factors as technology, economics and demographics. What can we expect to see from libraries in the future?

In front of me sits a panel of luminaries from the library world describing the changes that are unfolding before our eyes. Stuffy old libraries are morphing into nimble “learning centres”.  Old-fashioned books still have a place of course but they are increasingly under threat from the new “co-creation spaces” with their sofas, giant screens and 3D printers.

The Director of Libraries at Seneca College, Tanis Fink, tells us they have 75,000 books on their groaning shelves but 215,000 e books, floating weightlessly.

Wrong Location

Todd Kyle, Chief Executive of Newmarket Public Library, in a rare moment of public candour tells us bluntly we need a new library. I learn that ours in Newmarket has one of the smallest footprints in Ontario per capita in terms of square feet usable by the public. He tells us the present site is simply not big enough. And it is in the wrong location anyway.

This is fightin’ talk. Foot-dragging politicians have not been pushing energetically enough for a new building. Newmarket is, apparently, more of a hockey town.

I demand to know who is responsible for this state of affairs. I see the Board Chair, Joan Stonehocker, sitting a few feet away from me and, diplomatically, suggest it cannot be inaction on the part of the current Board. Todd launches into a long complicated explanation on how we got to where we are now, involving development charges and much else besides. He loses me half way through. But the bottom line is this: we need a bigger library.

Asset Replacement Strategy

Last year, the Town commissioned the consultancy firm, Hemson, to draw up and recommend an Asset Replacement Strategy. A new library is indeed needed – but in the distant future when many of us will no longer require reading material.

“…the largest expenditures on replacements are anticipated in the 20-40 year period. The Ray Twinney Complex and the Library are the two key buildings that will be at the end of their calculated useful lives at this time.”

But why do we need to wait until the library is falling down before we replace it? The library has reserves to go towards a new building (unless they have already been plundered). So why hasn’t the Library Board been agitating for a new Library?

NPL costs the average household about $2 a week and if they use it they probably get back at least ten times that value.  (Kimberley Silk from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management tells us that every $1 spent on libraries in Toronto gives $5 of value). But libraries have got to be accessible and in the right location. Toronto, of course, has an extensive network of branch libraries. In Newmarket, poised for rapid growth, we have none.

Information overload

With the Mayor’s promise of a high-speed connected Newmarket, surely now is the time to get moving. And we will need help to navigate our way through the mass of information that threatens to engulf us.

In an arresting article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, the sci-fi writer Neil Gaiman quotes Eric Schmidt of Google who tells us that every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003.

Librarians say they know what needs doing but, first, they must sell their vision to an otherwise distracted public. And that means opening up the conversation.

A few years ago, I wandered into a board meeting at Newmarket Public Library. These are theoretically open to the public but are held in a tiny claustrophobic board room. When I entered everyone was polite. But I sensed they were taken aback and bemused to see a member of the public drop in. They stood up in turn and shook my hand. On three or four occasions in the course of the meeting I was asked to leave because something private was being discussed. After each closed session I returned, probably to make a point to myself as well as to them. It felt a bit awkward as if I was intruding on a private conversation.

Screwed into the side of the library building is a sign that looks as if it was rescued from a now-demolished 1950s movie theatre and bought on e bay. It tells us when the Library is open.

The contrast with Cookstown Library is stark. It has a big, bright informative LED screen outside its spanking new building, flashing information on what is on offer and letting people know when the Board is meeting, inviting everyone along.

So, on the back of the Mayor’s call for a wired up town, why not meet in a big room and throw the doors wide open and invite everyone?

It could get us talking.


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