Library as Community

Last night I attended the latest in the Britannia Renewal Speakers’ Series. This was a presentation on the unique role of the public library in building community given by Asa Kachan, CEO of the Halifax Library system. There were perhaps just three dozen in the audience. She was an excellent speaker and deserved more.

Halifax has recently opened a new Central Library. It was this space — and the process by which it was designed — that was the central feature of the presentation.  The previous building, a 1950s slab, was no longer relevant or attractive to the current generation; the new building is entirely different. The concepts and design ideas were developed during an active and extended community engagement phase, primarily using World Cafe methods.

As a meaningful symbol of the engagement of the local community, the library handed out 400 pairs of scissors to residents to cut the ribbon in opening day.

Ms. Kachan repeated often that a modern library needs to be both “purposeful and surprising;” that the purpose of libraries and other public spaces is to “change the quality of people’s lives.”  The Halifax Library has been designed to be open and participatory, with flexible spaces that many groups and individuals can self-curate.  As she stressed, if you build good spaces, people will use them imaginatively.

The speaker also emphasised that the community engagement process does not end with the construction project. The same importance of public input continues into ongoing operations and programming.

It was an inspiring presentation in which she stressed that the library is for the people not the librarians, giving examples of how a library can make a significant difference to an individual. She noted that Halifax is a welcoming open library for the homeless and others without other access to technology. There is a new encouragement to include food with library activities and to make the library part of a food security network.

Throughout Ms. Kachan’s presentation — and especially in the Q&A within which a wide range of library-use topics were discussed — I got the sense that she would like to add even more of the social services and community components that already form part of the Britannia continuum. In turn, Halifax’s experience is one we should keep closely in mind as we develop the Britannia library as part of the renewed Centre.


3 Responses to Library as Community

  1. Egon Simons says:

    Well put, Jak!
    I fully agree that Ms. Kachan’s presentation was truly inspiring.

  2. thetangledgarden2013 says:

    Thanks for this summary, Jak. I was also there and found it a wonderful and yes, truly inspiring talk. I was struck by how often she mentioned the importance of flexibility – in terms of spaces, furniture, function, and staff – and at how much that flexibility reinforces the lived reality that the library belongs to the people and that one of the staff’s primary missions is to help ensure that the building and its operations respond to the needs of the people, including those who are most marginalized and sometimes least likely to venture into the library. I loved her description of how the prime view corner of the building was originally designated as the CEO’s office (before her time!) but that participants in the consultation pointed out that if the building truly belongs to the people, then shouldn’t all library users have access to that amazing corner of the building? The planners agreed, and what was going to the CEO’s office became an integral and much-used public part of the library space. I also loved her frequent descriptions of the role played by food (and food security) in the library. Who would have thought?

  3. pennystreet546 says:

    Thanks so much for this summary, Jak. Wish I could have been there. :-(

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