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OPINION: Calgary’s New Central Library is city building at its best

I’m not going to lie, when I first started walking through Calgary’s new Central Library on Tuesday, I started to tear up.

For a kid who didn’t play hockey growing up, the public library where I grew up was a special place. I could get the things I loved most for free.

My library then was an old building from the 1950s – a memorial for the soldiers of the First and Second World Wars. I still remember my grandfather taking me into the building and showing me his brother’s name in bronze on the wall.

Gramp grew up dirt poor in rural Nova Scotia, and he left school for a time to cut pulp wood for the paper mill. As an adult, he made an honest living as a carpenter and labourer.

He lived long enough to see me – his oldest grandchild – go off to college and start a career as a writer. But he died before the birth of my first child, and before my family made the move “out west” to Calgary.

So it hit me by surprise when my grandmother told me he had always wanted to move out west like he’d seen his cousins do.

“You’re living his dream, you know,” was what she said.

As I walked through the building on the media tour, everywhere I looked I saw reminders of him. What would that carpenter have thought of the curved wood all over the building? Would he have marveled at how there’s hardly a square corner to be found?

Would he have found something of interest in the archives? He loved history. He loved cowboy culture – the image of pioneers on the prairie that came to him through songs on the AM radio.

The photos alone in the archive would’ve kept him going for days.

Had his life played out differently, he might have been one of the young men in the photos from the 1950s, walking along the street of a young city – working his trade and helping build the city we live in today.

And that’s when I realized – this is what city building is all about.

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Maybe it took a couple of generations but his dream, and the dream of just about every Calgarian, is embodied in the walls of this amazing building.

My daughter, who at 6 is already a prolific artist, will attend workshops with the artist in residence. She’ll probably discover the multimedia studios as she gets older.

My son, who can’t get enough “amazing facts” books, will spend hours in the Questionarium. Tonight I will take him to hear an astronaut – an astronaut! – deliver a lecture in the new auditorium.

There are generations of kids who will probably start to take this amazing building for granted a little bit. But that’s OK, because that’s what city building is all about. When we move to a city like Calgary, it’s because we’re in search of a better life. And buildings like the New Central Library – and the opportunities they offer – are what make our lives better.

We want our kids to have more opportunities than us, to earn a little more money than we did, and to take those chances we never took.

What’s more impressive is that this will be the launching point for so many people’s lives – their dreams and careers and passions will take root and take flight in this building.

The Calgary Public Library Foundation’s president and CEO Ellen Humphrey said it to me very succinctly as I talked to her during the preview tour.

“Public libraries have a unique role to play in leveling the playing field,” she said. “So every citizen, irrespective of his age or his financial capacity or his ability or his ethnic origin, can come into this space and be welcome, and find a collection of materials that will help him learn new skills.”

This is a place that will build our city because it’s a place that will help our citizens grow. More than any overpass, cycle path, playground or road, this is an investment we can all be proud of.