by Paula Arab
As someone who was constantly shushed in the library growing up, it's surprising how much I miss the silence. The main floor of the Calgary Public Library (Canada) is now a hub of noise, computer activity, beeping phones and student groups, working collaboratively on projects. The library even has a coffee shop, which would have come in handy during those all-nighters we used to pull, but then I was never one who could study in public places, unless of course, it was the library.
With eReader in toe, I visited the Central Library this week to interview CEO Gerry Meek, who is turning the page, as it were, on his 39-year career as a librarian. Meek, who has been in charge of the Calgary Public Library for 21 of those years, is retiring. He has seen a world of change since his first job as a library assistant at the public library in Owen Sound, Ont., back in 1973, but leaves before the last chapter is written on Calgary's new central branch, being built in the East Village.
Today's library layout is dramatically different. The main floor of the Central Library looks like a busy Walmart, with cashier-style checkout counters and people running around like harried shoppers. Gone are service desks, which once dominated every floor. Now, there are work stations with computers and other latest-and-greatest technological gadgets. Librarians are more mobile and wander around the library offering help. Back then, much emphasis was put on classification theory and the cataloguing of physical books, periodicals and other items, all done manually and at each location. Today, it's digital and centralized. Far more effort is spent on engaging the community, and building a place of inspiration, where people want to come to create and innovate. The modern-day library, says Meek, is an incubator for ideas. It offers a gamut of programs to meet the needs of modern-day Calgary. There's something for everyone, like movie nights for teens, or how to make plush toys in an environmentally conscious way, targeting the nine to 12-year-old set. It's also provided vital settlement services for new immigrants, offering literacy programs that teach everything from language skills to financial, digital and health literacy.
One of the greatest changes Meek has seen is the impact of technology, and the rise of the digital age. We are in the midst of transitioning from the old world of shushing librarians and hardcovered first editions, to the new world order of eBooks, that automatically disappear when they come due. Thus a new generation of kids will never feel the consequences of late-book fees, life's first hard lesson for most of us of a certain age.
"When we look at the future ... we are seeing massive sea changes in the way books are being manufactured, produced and distributed. There's not a good model, yet, for public libraries to participate in that eBook world," says Meek, who plans on having the time now to write his own novel, set in Hamilton's coke ovens during the 1950s.
To be sure, the eBook hasn't been written on what the future looks like, or even the new Central Library, still being designed for the East Village. The fundamentals of libraries, though, are thankfully universal.
"At the heart of libraries are still people," says Meek. "It's the most public of all public institutions and it's where everyone is special. No matter what stage of life you are at, the library still has something to offer you, and it's where everybody is a somebody."
Judging from the latest statistics, there's no shortage of library VIPs in Calgary.
This city has the second busiest library system in the country, even though it is only the fifth largest city in Canada. About every other Calgarian is a card-carrying library member, with 572,702 current memberships issued at 18 branches.
And much to my delight, quiet seems to be making a comeback. The Academica Group, which issues daily reports on university and college trends across North America, summed up an article this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education: "Library quiet is making a comeback in part because students themselves are asking for it; they are often the first to bring up noise issues in the library, to ask for more quiet spots, and to police those spaces themselves."
Meek concurs, and says there are many quiet study areas being built in the new branches. "People come to the library looking for different things. Some are looking for that social experience. Others are looking for that quiet space for reflection and contemplation."
Libraries will survive well into the future, as long as they figure out how to balance the buzz, with our need for silence among the noise.
No one understands that better than Meek, who for two decades served Calgarians well. He provided the leadership that ensured our public library evolved to meet society's changing needs, while continuing to be a great public institution.
Meek now plans on doing some teaching and hopes to find board work in the nonprofit sector. On behalf of all Calgarians, I wish Meek the perfect balance of engaging activity and peace and solitude in retirement, as he writes the next exciting chapter of his life.