Montreal Gazette

Fol­low Fin­land’s lead and make li­braries the place to be again

Benny Li­brary proves cul­tural cen­tre model works in North Amer­ica, too

- MARC RICHARD­SON marc.richard­son@mail.mcgill.ca Finland · Montreal · Centre · Ubisoft · Helsinki

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.

 ?? JOHN KEN­NEY ?? One of the city’s most re­cently in­au­gu­rated li­braries, Benny Li­brary in N.D.G., merges as­pects of a tra­di­tional li­brary with a cul­tural cen­tre at­mos­phere where peo­ple can hang out and in­ter­act in many ways.
JOHN KEN­NEY One of the city’s most re­cently in­au­gu­rated li­braries, Benny Li­brary in N.D.G., merges as­pects of a tra­di­tional li­brary with a cul­tural cen­tre at­mos­phere where peo­ple can hang out and in­ter­act in many ways.
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