Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Libraries as inspiration

This past weekend, I had the good fortune to be an invited author to do a reading at the Halifax Word on the Street Festival. For its size, Halifax, located in a spectacular harbour on the Atlantic shore of Nova Scotia, punches above its weight in terms of cultural and artistic activity, and also in post-secondary institutions. There are 400,000 people in Halifax and six universities. That's a lot of education.

Word on the Street is a celebration of all things literary, and includes author readings, panels, workshops, and booths which can be rented to showcase the products of publishers, authors, illustrators, and others connected to the written word. Similar events happen across Canada in the fall. They are organized by grassroots organizations and require commitment by local individuals passionate about the cause. Halifax is in its 23rd year, a testament to the dedication to literacy of the people of Halifax.

Another example of Halifax's dedication to literacy is their new Central Library. Fittingly, Word on the Street is centred around the library, using its front foyer for book sales and author signings, the conference rooms and halls for author readings, and the square outside the front entrance for the display booths. The library is in the heart of the city on Spring Garden Road and easily accessed by bus. It is a stunning, imaginative modern sculpture with floor-to-ceiling windows that flood the inside with light and warmth, and soaring ceilings that invite you to look up in awe and inspiration. I wish I'd had more time to explore the inner workings, but I'm sure it was designed with the latest digital access and learning hubs. Modern libraries have to do more than stack books in dusty rows of shelving. They are sources of community and information to connect people to ideas in the world.

To this end, the library has a wonderful independent cafe in the corner of the main foyer and a coffee shop on the top floor, serving fresh and local food. They have space for catered receptions and a beautiful outdoor patio on the top floor with a view of the harbour.

Ottawa has a dismal excuse for a central library, built in 1973 and crammed into a downtown corner far too small for it. It was designed in the brutalist architecture style which is what it sounds like, Brutal. Raw concrete and harsh lines suggestive of the Soviet Gulag.  Inside, it is dark and uninviting. The city is finally proceeding with plans for a new central library which it hopes will embrace the needs of the twenty-first century. The site has been chosen, and in the manner of public projects, it is likely to be many years of consultation, assessment, recommendations, more consultation, and so on before any shovel breaks the ground on the new site. I hope the politicians and the design committee tasked with it are possessed of imagination, courage, and vision, so that the city gets the bold and inspirational design worthy of a national capital, rather than a conservative, safe, and cost-effective building that offends no one but bores everyone.

In their deliberations, I hope the decision makers visit the great libraries already out there, from Vancouver to Halifax. Merely looking at pictures and blueprints don't do them justice. I dare anyone to walk through the glass front doors of the Halifax Central Library, look up in the middle of the foyer, and not be struck dumb with awe. That is a great homage to knowledge. 


Sybil Johnson said...

What a great library and event.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Wow, sounds like you had wonderful time and thanks for telling us about Halifax library. What an inspirational place. I love libraries and now I feel I've visited the Halifax one :)