Editorial: The New Public Library

Accessibility and inclusiveness are core design principles for the new Ottawa Public Library and Library and Archives Canada joint facility, designed by Diamond Schmitt.

In the 2018 film The Public, a group of homeless library patrons refuses to leave a downtown public library after closing time. A cold front has hit Cincinnati and the city’s emergency shelters are at capacity. Where else can they go?

While the film is set in Ohio, one can imagine similar situations elsewhere. Libraries have transitioned from being repositories for books to fulfilling a range of other roles: access points to digital media, maker-spaces, community hubs, and in downtown cores, sanctuaries for people living on the streets.

Canada’s recent central libraries are rising to the challenge of making libraries inclusive to a wide range of patrons.

In the early design phase of Halifax’s Central Library, opened five years ago, FBM Architects and Schmidt Hammer Lassen, actively sought out recent immigrants for consultation. Their feedback helped shape elements such as the design of ESL classrooms—which are cozy and discreetly located, for the increased comfort of new-language learners.

Halifax’s library is also conceived to welcome vulnerable groups, balancing their needs with those of other library users. For instance, a ground floor area where many itinerants sit has plenty of glazing, allowing people to keep watch over bulkier possessions left outside. The children’s area has been strategically located in a part of the library that’s removed from where itinerants typically hang out. “It’s about allowing everyone to live well together,” says architect Susan Fitzgerald of FBM.

While some of the inclusiveness to the city’s homeless is by design—washrooms are purposefully large enough for sponge-bathing, for instance—much of it is part of the library’s way of thinking. There is a social worker on staff. Many people sleep rough beside the library, but, says Fitzgerald, the library has been careful not to overreact to such issues. “They seem really calm and thoughtful about it, which is wonderful to see.”

Calgary’s Central Library, opened in 2018 and designed by Snøhetta with DIALOG, has a similar open-doors policy. It was opened without security gates—rather, there are staff that monitor the entrances. They’ve decided that the risk of books occasionally going missing is worth the trade-off for creating a more welcoming atmosphere. The security staff at Calgary’s libraries keep naloxone onhand, and they’ve been trained to administer it if necessary. (Similar programs are in place in Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto.)

Diamond Schmitt recently unveiled a preliminary design for Ottawa’s new Central Library, a facility shared with Library and Archives Canada. “Unveiled is the wrong word,” says Diamond Schmitt principal Gary McCluskie. In light of the extensive public consultation on the project, including four multi-day workshops, “‘tying together all the pieces’ would be a better description.” (The consultation built on functional programming by Resource Planning Group, who also worked on Calgary’s Central Library).

Diamond Schmitt’s designers led hands-on workshops that went beyond generalities to test out specific aspects of the design. For instance, the library will include all-gender washrooms. The workshops helped fine-tune the balance of shared and separate spaces within the washrooms, in order to foster a sense of comfort and accommodate the privacy needs of people from different religious groups. 

Providing access to patrons from all walks of life was part of the thinking behind creating five separate entrances to the facility—a contrast to the traditional library model, with a single secure access point. “There is a very light sense of security,” says McCluskie. A parallel stream of consultation with both local and national Indigenous groups has helped shape the design of a space dedicated to Indigenous programming.

Taken together, these moves are hopeful signs of Canadian society’s ongoing commitment to seeking greater diversity, inclusion and accessibility. The design of libraries today reveals our cultural aspirations—and our societal ones as well.