My son Hilson’s favourite spot in our local library is a cozy corner surrounded by towering windows. He beelines for it each time we visit. The woods outside feel as if they are part of the room while the interactive kid zone stokes his creativity and imagination.
For a two-year-old, the vast expanse of carpet to run around on is heaven. But my mind is always drawn just down the hall, past the stacks of books, to the Digital Innovation Hub. There, amateur podcasters record episodes to the hum of publicly accessible 3D printers. Free classes offer everything from coding to graphic design to packed rooms of eager learners. It’s not hard to imagine Hilson, just a few years from now, designing, exploring and creating with them.
That is the beauty of libraries today—far from just repositories of books, they’ve transformed themselves into hubs of innovation, inclusivity and accessibility. But they are under threat across the country, as provinces trim budgets and cut funding.
This belt tightening has led many libraries to seek support in the philanthropic community. Halifax’s Central Library offered more than 50 areas up for naming rights. Calgary raised nearly $50 million for its 18 branches from 18,000 donors—or one in every 100 Calgarians. And The Ottawa Public Library is fundraising $15 million for its new central library.
That so many Canadians are willing to support their library speaks to the integral role they play in our cities and towns—even if governments see them as easy cuts. “People think libraries are quiet spaces full of books,” says Ab Velasco, Manager of Innovation for Toronto Public Library. “But we’re busy, we’re loud and vibrant.”
Libraries are community centres that often employ social workers to help patrons dealing with mental health issues. People with disabilities can count on them as accessible spaces. They’re focal points of innovation where young people design 3D-printed prosthetics. They lead the way in inclusive design, with new libraries in Calgary and Halifax becoming tourist destinations in their own right. And they are free for anyone to use.
To mark International Literacy Day, I want to share my three favourite stories from local libraries across Canada.
Lauren Graham recorded more than 30 audiobooks for her grandchildren, using the studio and editing equipment at the Regina Public Library. She learned a new skill and brought the family—spread out between Saskatchewan and British Columbia—a little closer.
In August, children packed the John Ayaruaq Library in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, to meet their heroes, local firemen and RCMP officers. Intended to show parents that the library is about more than books, the kids were treated to rides in a firetruck and police car as a kickoff to the library’s annual activities.
In Prince Edward Island, libraries have been popping up in unexpected locations, like at the beach and in provincial parks. And they’ve expanded beyond books, with users borrowing musical instruments, including guitars and violins, along with the latest paperbacks.
If these initiatives sound unexpected, it’s likely because you haven’t been to your local branch in a while. You should check it out. The library may surprise you.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.