It doesn’t get nearly the same attention as light rail and stadiums, but somewhere on the city’s wish list is a new central library to replace the dated and undersized main branch at Laurier and Metcalfe.
Almost invariably, trains and sports beat boring old books, and the library’s a quiet place that’s too easy to ignore.
The Ottawa Public Library’s main branch, which opened in 1974, is a Brutalist grey concrete bunker with few windows. Apart from the central staircase and mezzanine, natural light’s in short supply inside.
The population has outgrown it, accessibility is limited, and yet we still use the hell out of it. At 10:30 on a Wednesday morning, most of the best spots for plugging in a laptop and people-watching are already taken.
A security guard at the entrance is reading (Metro, as it happens).
There’s a whole lot of reading going on here. That might not surprise you, but while the Internet terminals are in constant use and napping in the reading chairs remains a popular pastime, most of the “information age” seekers of knowledge have their beaks buried in old-fashioned books, magazines and newspapers.
This is a place designed for loitering, for sitting and thinking.
Stay as long as you want, with no obligation to buy a thing. That’s the public part of a public library, and it clarifies the oft-blurred difference between a citizen and a customer.
Library citywide visits are increasing in these recessionary days, 7.7 per cent this March over last.
There is, after all, no end to the cheap thrills on offer, not just the books, music CDs and videos, but passes to city museums, which can be borrowed for up to a week, and discounts on National Arts Centre performances.
We may take our libraries for granted, but politicians mess with them at their peril. A city council proposal a couple of years ago to balance the budget by closing some of the library’s 33 branches was smacked down by stiff public opposition.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1896, voters rejected the expense of establishing a library in the first place. Only after American moneybags Andrew Carnegie was successfully tapped for $100,000 did the nation’s capital open its first public library, in 1906.
The new central library was supposed to open a century later, in 2006, but years of tight budgets and dithering over location have delayed it repeatedly.
The last time anyone even mentioned a date, it was 2014. So far, a location hasn’t even been announced.
Maybe it would happen faster with a stadium attached.