Circulating ideas for a library location

Central libraryBy Councillors Catherine McKenney (Somerset Ward) and Tobi Nussbaum (Rideau-Rockcliffe Ward)

Working towards a new library

The prospect of a new central public library in our city is an exciting one. No longer mere repositories of books, libraries are vibrant public hubs providing meeting places, access to technology, reading rooms, maker spaces, concert venues, cafes, social service kiosks and more.

Successful central libraries offer citizens a one-stop shop of diverse civic life while contributing to the cityscape with iconic architecture and design. Across the country, new libraries have breathed additional life into downtown cores, from Vancouver to Halifax.

Here in Ottawa, there are still hoops to jump through before the concrete can be poured. Potential partners need to be secured, a site needs to be selected and funding needs to be authorized. The interest expressed by Library and Archives Canada to partner with the City is rich with potential. In order to capitalize on the huge and positive opportunities this project presents, we must ensure there is a robust and data-driven approach to selecting the location of the new central library.

To date, location has not been a topic open for public feedback. The review of a select number of City-owned sites in early 2015 did not include potential federal or privately-owned sites, which we now know is a possibility. In its report to the Ottawa Library Board earlier this month, staff concluded, based on conversations with developers and others who participated in the Request for Expressions of Interest process, that “A site in the vicinity of LeBreton Flats, near the Pimisi LRT station, would be a good location for the Central Library.” In the absence of any evidence offered, comparison data, or identified criteria on which the conclusion was based, the statement seems premature. Before such conclusions are drawn, we should expect a meticulous review of all potential locations and a robust public consultation process.

Since library staff has acknowledged that the new central library will serve three purposes – a community branch for local residents, a library for all Ottawa residents and a magnet for visitors – criteria need to be established to evaluate how potential sites will cater to each of these three user groups. Below are some specific considerations:

Local Residents

A survey commissioned by the Ottawa Public Library Board revealed some important data regarding how people travel to the current central library. Sixty-eight per cent people who use the central library as their main branch travel directly from their homes and almost all of them (81 per cent) get there by foot. The Centretown neighbourhood is among the densest in all of Ottawa; more than 23,000 people live within a kilometre of the current site at Laurier and Metcalfe. How that population can be served by a new location within walking distance will therefore be an important criterion.

A central library serves an important public function as a place where resources – from internet use to information on social services – can be accessed by all, especially those who otherwise lack such access. Close access to light rail transit is critical, but may not in itself be sufficient to ensure accessibility to the new library for those local residents for which a return transit fare is not an insignificant outlay.

All Residents of Ottawa

For many residents who live outside the core of the City, the easiest way to access the central library is before or after work or during lunch. According to Statistics Canada data, there are more than 100,000 people who work in the area bounded by the Ottawa River to the north, Bronson Avenue to the west, King Edward Avenue to the east and Somerset Street to the south.  In fact, 24 per cent of users of the main branch who were surveyed said they travel there from their workplace.

For other residents who neither live nor work close to downtown, convenient transportation links are needed. Proximity to an LRT station as well as bus routes, active transportation corridors and arterial roads will all need to be factored in.

It will be important to consider the broader City population given that all residents will be supporting the new library through the tax base.

Visitors and Tourists

The siting of a new central library needs to take into account the relationship to cultural, administrative and commercial nodes that attract visitors to our City on the premise that the synergy among these sites is enhanced by proximity to each other. That said, whether we choose to strengthen a tighter geography of our key civic and cultural sites or diffuse it is something that needs to be discussed and debated.

Our cultural sites include many museums, the National Arts Centre, National Gallery and the soon–to-be expanded Arts Court. Our administrative sites of interest are the Parliament Buildings and other federal buildings along Confederation Boulevard along with City Hall (of course!). It surprises people to learn that the most visited building in Ottawa is not the Parliament Buildings but rather the Rideau Centre (by a significant margin). Last year, more than 20 million people passed through its doors, and with renovations and Rideau Street improvements underway, that number is expected to go up significantly.

One of the important economic benefits of new central libraries in other Canadian cities has been the draw from people visiting from outside the host city. Halifax expects to see a significant jump in tourism from its new central library, which opened in late 2014. If characterized by unique architecture, attractive design and desirable public spaces, libraries have proven to be significant draws. Besides the economic benefit, this also has a positive effect on civic pride and momentum.

How do we get there?

We’ve offered examples of demographic criteria we believe are particularly important in determining the right location of our new central public library. There are of course other factors that need to be considered from size requirements to profile. In the end, a decision on site selection should not be made without ensuring that all potential locations are thoroughly vetted and researched to ensure they fulfill rigorous criteria.  We also need to initiate a robust public conversation to give residents a chance to provide their views.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a major civic building that that will shape our city for the better for the benefit of existing and future residents .  We owe it to all of them to make sure we get it right.

(Image – North American main libraries, clockwise from top left: Vancouver, Halifax, Seattle, Calgary)