Follow Finland’s lead and make libraries the place to be again
Benny Library proves cultural centre model works in North America, too
I was planning on writing this column from the Aire Commune space in the Mile-End, which is located in a formerly vacant lot near de Gaspé and Bernard Aves. It’s a novel co-working concept driven by the provincial and municipal governments and MileEnd tenants such as Ubisoft and Romeo’s Gin, among others. But with the warm weather making the prospect of working outside under the sun less attractive, I settled on an air-conditioned café instead.
One place — or type of place — that never crossed my mind was a public library and, frankly, that should ring alarm bells. I’ve written about the emergence of the gig economy before, and I don’t mean for this to sound like a redux of that column, but maybe it can offer us added reason to reconsider our public library system.
Libraries in Montreal tend to be thought of as places where thousands of books and magazines are kept. Which is true; libraries are where you go to get your hands on books, archival news clippings, magazines and even DVDs. But they should be way more than emporia of printed word.
A glance toward Scandinavia, where they always seem to have things figured out just a little bit better than we do, can offer us some enlightenment as to how we should think of our libraries. Finland is arguably the world’s library capital. Roughly half of the country’s citizens are members of a library, with each of those members making a little more than 20 visits a year to a library.
What makes Finnish libraries so great isn’t necessarily the selection of literature, but the philosophy with which the country’s libraries were built and continue to be built. In Finland, libraries aren’t places to store and borrow books; they are public spaces unto themselves that just happen to be stocked with thousands of books.
Finns head to their libraries to enjoy a coffee and the Saturday newspaper, to get work done outside the confines of stuffy offices, or to relax. The crown jewel of Finnish libraries, Helsinki’s Oodi Library, boasts a restaurant, a cinema, a café, a recording studio and, of course, plenty of shared workspace.
Enough about Finland, though, and back to Montreal, where there is a noticeable dearth of genuinely engaging public libraries.
There are, however, indications the city is attempting to buck that trend. One of the city’s most recently inaugurated libraries, Benny Library in N.D.G., seems to have adopted a more holistic philosophy, by merging library and Cultural Centre, with the borough’s new sports complex and CLSC quite literally a stone’s throw away.
The result is they bring people together in one place for myriad reasons, creating a modern version of a town square.
The library is no longer a place to only borrow books, though you can still do that there. Instead, it embodies the type of social library the Finns love. It’s a place to take in a play or concert, to work remotely or to learn new skills in innovative environments such as Benny’s new “FabLab,” where participants can learn to program or use a 3D printer.
Ultimately, it’s all part of a shift toward the future and away from the stuffy, silent libraries of decades past.
More important, though, the buildings are welcoming. They draw people in, whether they’re curious about the gleaming structures or want to take advantage of the airy, naturally-lit workspaces they see from outside. The new complexes seem like herculean efforts to undo the stigma of libraries being “uncool.”
Despite waxing poetic about its success as a veritable shared cultural space that plays a central role in the community, the reality is Benny is an outlier when compared with the whole of the municipal network.
In 2017, Benny Library saw an increase in foot traffic of 227,057 people compared with its inaugural calendar year, 2016. The entire city of Montreal library network — some 45 libraries strong, including Benny — saw an increase of 227,744 people. In terms of borrowing trends, Benny saw an increase of 79,372 items, while the entire network only increased its outflow by some 9,124 units. That means Benny outperformed the rest of the network combined.
I would consider that proof enough that people respond well to this brand of engaging social library and public cultural space.
Hopefully it’s proof that, despite the purported death of print and rise of digital, libraries are not relics of the past. They’re just taking on a new purpose, where they help establish new links between people and their neighbourhood communities. They are places to learn new skills, be exposed to new things and meet new people.
People tend to frequent libraries as kids or retirees, but that doesn’t have to be the case; they can be real public spaces for people of all ages to interact, in an era where interaction far too often takes place impersonally.