Grand Magazine

Library for a new age

High-energy Waterloo branch embraces technology and services for all groups

- By Barbara Aggerholm

THERE’S AN UNMISTAKAB­LE buzz when you step into Waterloo’s new John M. Harper branch library.

Children are jumping up and down during the “Stories n’ More” program in a room with colourful carpets and an interactiv­e Smart Board.

Later this day, there will be a drop-in “e-clinic” for people having issues with their computers or wanting to learn how to use e-readers. If they want, they can borrow one of the library’s three laptop computers for a couple of hours.

In the evening, teens will work on their writing, poring over original manuscript­s that may be printed, bound and available on library shelves when they’re done.

Meanwhile, adult borrowers, some with laptops in front of them, sit café-style on green swivel seats at a long counter that stretches along the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out at fields and blue skies.

Other borrowers — customers they’re called — shift from DVD and CD shelves to shelves full of new books, graphic novels and a healthy mix of magazines. A few are having an animated conversati­on in one of the three private study rooms, which are also used by nursing mothers, new Canadians, and by Muslim patrons for prayers.

Then there’s the library staff, moving, moving, always moving.

They’re a bit like sharks, but a friendly sort, laughs librarian Laura Dick, branch manager of this library branch at the corner of Laurelwood Drive and Fischer-Hallman Road in Waterloo.

“They’re always circulatin­g,” says Dick, who, with a husband, four children and an English sheepdog, knows a thing or two about energy. “They’re on their feet, moving books, interactin­g with customers.

“It’s very busy,” she says. “My life as a parent of four teenagers (one of whom just turned 20) has prepared me to man this ship. >>

>> “I see energy and I see light and I don’t see tradition here.”

The John M. Harper branch, named after the late lawyer and community builder, stands out for its size — at 21,000 square feet, it’s half the size of the main library.

Open since Oct. 22, 2011, it also stands out for its on-the-move staff, all-ages programmin­g, collection (100,000-plus books, DVDs and other items) and its technology-based services (downloadab­le content, free wireless internet and digital reference service among others).

And then there’s the inspiring architectu­re, which includes a silver LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmen­tal Design certificat­ion. Landscape features will take time to mature, but native plantings are expected to provide habitats for birds, butterflie­s and bees.

“We wanted you to experience delight . . . the sense of finding treasure,” says Alannah d’Ailly, Waterloo Public Library’s manager of library collection­s who was project leader in the design phase. “We wanted to capture that in the space.

“We didn’t want it to be seen as stereotypi­cal, to be attached to old ideas about what libraries do.”

The pulse of energy that runs through the library is also due to the partnershi­p with the Stork Family YMCA, which shares the

architectu­rally stunning building.

The building was designed by Toronto’s Teeple Architects, which worked with Garwood-Jones and Hanham Architects. Teeple Architects also designed the award-winning Preston branch library of Cambridge Libraries and Galleries. Teeple’s project architect Eric Boelling is a University of Waterloo graduate.

As you enter the light-filled “galleria” or hallway, the space shared by library and recreation users, you stroll past people exercising in the glass-walled gyms.

You can see them dive into the swimming pool beside the library, or glimpse them as they jog along the track or pedal on exercise equipment on the second floor.

Many times, families will exercise first, then grab a coffee at the snack shop and head for the books or a children’s program at the library. Or in summer, they’ll sit and read in the outdoor courtyard, located in the heart of the building.

“I like this place. We come and get books and go swimming,” says Illy Kim of Kitchener, who on a recent day was attending a children’s program with her son, Ewan, 2.

To enhance the partnershi­p, the Y and library are “bookending” some programs, or packaging them so users can flow from one facility to the other. They might, say, participat­e in a Y Aquafit program, then head to the library to learn how to find health informatio­n online.

“When they’re busy, we’re busy,” says Dick, referring to YMCA traffic. “That magic between the Y and library is significan­t.”

The feeling of energy is also enhanced by a pilot project for a new service delivery model initiated when the Harper library branch opened.

Rather than sit behind desks, library staff members are out and about on the floor. They greet you when you walk in and they’re trained to answer any and all questions.

It’s called “blended service” or “roving reference” and it means “all staff members do everything. They’re not assigned to a desk. Everyone is able to help,” Dick says.

“One of our staff refers to this type of service as bungee jumping,” says Gloria Van Eek-Meijers, Waterloo Public Library’s deputy CEO who was project manager during Harper’s constructi­on.

It takes a sensitive approach, says Joshua Ezekiel, library assistant and programmer.

“It’s new for us,” says Ezekiel, one of Harper’s 23 staff members, most of whom work part time. “You need to be aware and watching; anticipate without being pushy.

“This isn’t retail. You don’t want to bug people who are casually browsing. You just try and judge when you’re needed and when you’re not needed.”

Book-lovers are urged to use selfservic­e checkouts to free up staff for their questions. “It gives us an opportunit­y to talk to you more,” Dick says.

There are still some people who aren’t comfortabl­e with the self-service kiosks. But statistics show they’re getting high use, Dick says. In fact, 88 per cent of items circulated at Harper branch are now checked out at the kiosks, Van Eek-Meijers says.

“It’s like second nature for most,” Ezekiel says.

An “automated sorter” — the Waterloo library’s first — frees up their time even more, Van Eek-Meijers says. In the library’s first year, it sorted 370,428 books and other items.

Here’s how the automated sorter works: From outside, in an area resembling a bank vestibule, people drop their items through a slot. Inside, a laser reads the informatio­n on the items’ white radio frequency identifica­tion tags and they’re dropped in bins according to branch location and type of material.

The items are removed instantly from the person’s account and a receipt can be printed.

Ezekiel likes the brisk pace and the architectu­re of the new digs.

“I always joke it feels like we’re working on a fast spaceship because it’s so angular and different,” he says. “I like how modern it is and the use of colour is not what you typically think of when you think of a library.”

Magenta and green shelves, orange and green chairs — “the splashes of bright colour accent the space. It’s very open and airy and bright. Even on a dark, cloudy day, it never seems dreary,” Ezekiel says.

At the official opening in 2011, more than 500 people lined up to see what was under the unusual, angled roof, partly planted with drought-resistant, flowering sedums.

It was as though a rock star, or a new >>

>> video game, had come to town.

Children and adults pressed forward as the special guests cut the ribbon.

“It was unbelievab­le,” says Laurie Clarke, Waterloo Public Library CEO. “I felt like I needed a bouncer to help. People surged in. That’s what you see when there’s a new video game or a new iPhone.”

The $22.3-million building was financed by the federal government gas tax fund, the City of Waterloo, the YMCA and Waterloo Public Library. The University of Waterloo made the land available for the project as part of an agreement for developmen­t of services for the northwest campus.

The library itself cost $7.2 million. The library began fundraisin­g in 2008-09 and completed its campaign, raising a total of $530,000, at the end of 2011.

In one year, the library has seen incredible activity, Dick says.

“I have worked in more than 20 library branches and I’ve never seen anything as busy as this,” says Dick, who worked in Toronto, Cambridge and Kitchener before joining Waterloo Public Library in early 2012.

The Harper branch has a waiting list of potential volunteers.

“When I came in January, I got a file a few inches thick of people who want to volunteer at this location,” Dick says.

From October 2011 to October 2012, the Harper branch circulated 571,976 items. That compares to 940,428 items at the main downtown library.

About 5,713 new members signed up at the Harper branch in that time, compared to 5,535 at the main library. “It’s constant and hasn’t died down since it opened,” Clarke says.

“In library land, usually it’s dead at the end of August,” Dick says. “We didn’t find that here at all. You use that time to catch up. We didn’t have time.”

Dick has noticed that high numbers of young families and senior citizens are using the new library branch. Many are new Canadians.

On a recent day, library assistant and programmer Jennifer Atkinson was leading a group of young children, parents and grandparen­ts through a rousing half-hour in which she read Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons.

“Good job, guys,” says Atkinson, as even the shy participan­ts threw themselves into a spirited drumming session.

“My children like her style,” says Ling Xi, who is with her son, Aydan Jia, 2.

A member of the YMCA, Xi, who lives in the nearby neighbourh­ood, also brings her daughter to Y and library programs.

“The staff is friendly and very helpful,” says Wendy Chappell, as she plays with Sasha Hillock, 2. “The ones I talk to really like the children.”

To attract more teens, Ezekiel leads a new program called Y.A.W.N. or Young Adult Writer’s Network.

A core group of seven to 10 teenagers came out this fall on Tuesday evenings to write, talk about writing, and get tips from authors.

“Some like poetry, some are trying to write novels. I don’t want to pressure them to have to write 20,000 words,” Ezekiel says. “As long as it’s an example of what they like to write.”

It’s usually tough to get teens to attend library programs, Ezekiel says, but the teen paperback rack is often cleaned out and teen magazines are getting heavy use.

“Even if we don’t see them hanging out here, they’re around,” he says, smiling. “They’re like the library Polkaroo. There’s evidence they’re here.”

When Harper branch was designed, librarians wanted us to be able to see to the far corner of the library when we walked in. “You can scan the space and have a sense of where you are and where you want to go,” d’Ailly says.

There are three areas of varying noise or quiet, depending on your perspectiv­e.

The preschool and family area, bounded by shelves and containing computers for children and parents, is not expected to be quiet. Nor is the space at the front of the library where popular materials are kept, and students and adults are working on computers.

But head to the back of the library, near the newspapers and magazines, to an area dubbed the “living room,” and you’ll find comfortabl­e chairs and a quieter, more contemplat­ive crowd. The large space and sound-absorbing ceilings aid the mood. Sitting at the counter, looking out the windows, there’s a more industriou­s crowd, some of whom have plugged in their laptops for wireless access.

Meanwhile, a community room outside the library’s main doors is busy with English conversati­on circles, Mandarin Chinese lessons offered in partnershi­p with the Confucius Institute at Renison University College, and other events.

“You walk into the building . . . and you’re invited to find your own place,” Clarke says. Colleen Whyte found her space. The University of Waterloo PhD student is writing her dissertati­on on a table at the end of the library near the floor-to-ceiling windows. Here, she sets up her computer and spreads out her books.

“Working from home is too solitary,” says Whyte, a student in recreation and leisure studies and a faculty member at Brock University in St. Catharines.

“I like this because you’re surrounded by people,” she says.

“I come most days and I just like this open space here. It’s bright and you can watch people come and you can see the pool and families and kids are everywhere.

“I love that it’s a free space, with free parking and you can do your own thing.”

It’s also good to be able to leave the books for awhile, and cross the hall to the YMCA where she has a membership.

“When I run out of steam here, I run.”

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