The story of Calgary’s New Central Library is about taking something that nobody really wanted – in this case an odd-shaped parcel of land – and making it into a success.
Elaine Molinar, one of the architects at Snøhetta – the architectural firm that designed the building – said it presented many problems at the start.
“It’s a very unusual site,” she said. “It’s quite long and very narrow, and it has the LRT arcing through it, not just in a simple way but in a a very complex curve that transitions from above ground to below ground. That, in a way, it was in just the right spot to block any connection between the municipal building and East Village.”
They took those problems and treated them as opportunities. They allowed the narrow parcel of land to inspire a wide building that captures the broad landscape of Calgary.
Molinar said photos they were shown of the Chinook arch also inspired the building’s many archways – especially the cedar arch that Calgarians have been able to see as their building was under construction for 750 days.
Today, patrons who walk in the front doors of Calgary’s New Central Library will walk into one of the most impressive entrances to any building in the city.
Eyes will immediately be drawn upward, past the curved hemlock that lines each floor to the eye of the building itself – the Oculus – an eye-shaped skylight that allows natural light to flood into the building.
Visitors will also see a three-panel art display just to the left. It’s a tribute to the Indigenous people of the Treaty 7 territory – each of the three panels completed by an Indigenous artists, each piece of art representing past, present and future.
Keegan Starling was still putting finishing touches on the middle panel on Tuesday. His piece features a woman holding a baby in a traditional moss bag, with a teepee in the background.
The models for the woman and child were his own wife and son, who live on the Tsuut’ina Nation.
“I wanted to showcase that the women and the children are the most important asset in our communities, especially nowadays with the missing and murdered, and all those kind of issues,” said Starling. “We wanted to showcase our strength.”
He said he felt honoured to have his artwork featured in the building.
“The first thing you see is the architecture. And the next thing you see is the artwork on the left hand side. And it kind of makes you forget why you’re here,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Oh yeah. I’m here to read some books.’”
The main level is where you’ll find the auditorium, some curated selections of bestsellers and the cafe portion of Lukes Cafe, which also has a restaurant attached to the outside of the building.
And yes, you can take your coffee anywhere in the library.
Eric Hendry, co-owner of the cafe and restaurant, said there will be a focus on vegetables and local grains at the restaurant.
He said he was floored when the library accepted their restaurant and cafe proposal.
“The other option was put a Starbucks or a Second Cup or some big chain in that place, or you could put somebody local who can do the same thing but maybe a little bit better, a little bit more interesting.”
The next side of the building, extending up to the second floor is the massive 12,000 square foot children’s section.
Although the massively popular Fire Engine 23 installation will be moving to a yet-unnamed library elsewhere in the city, kids will find a massive indoor play structure at the new library.
“Kids can climb, they can bounce, they can slide, Really, they get to also have a lot of creative expression,” said librarian Sarah Meilleur. “It really is about building executive function, social, emotional skills that they need to function as adults.”
The play space “ages up” as you make your way east along the outside wall, starting with babies, and ending at the pre-teen section that includes the Questionarium – the children’s non-fiction collection.
Meilleur said everything the Calgary Public Library has learned at its other existing early learning centres has informed the creation of this one.
“We’ve been building early learning centres, we’ve been trialing and testing things, and so we know what works with children,” she said. “We know what they’re drawn to and interested in, and this really is the result of that.”
The second floor begins to look more like a traditional library with long rows of fictions stacks, but there are also seating areas and meeting rooms that can be booked.
The third level includes a computer lab, but also a self-serve kiosk that allows you to borrow Chromebook laptops that can be used anywhere in the library.
A teen centre and a teen tech lab gives youth a place to play video games, or perhaps work on programming their own game. Audio and video recording studios will allow people of all ages, not just teens, to record music or produce webcasts, videos and more.
Mary Kapusta, director of communications for the Calgary Public Library, said these new services might seem strange to someone who hasn’t visited a library in the past few years, but it’s where they’re headed.
“Yes, there’s books, but libraries more than ever are community hubs – safe, accessible, barrier-free places where you can reinvest in yourself, and where you can meet people,” she said.
For those who love a more traditional library, the top floor holds the TD Great Reading room.
Ellen Humphrey, president and CEO of the Calgary Public Library Foundation, said while the other spaces welcome the noise of children, it’s the one room dedicated to the service of silence.
“It’s an homage we pay to the traditions of public libraries in the past – the British Library, or the Great Reading Room in the New York Public Library,” she said. “And people can go up to that beautiful space – with wonderful hand-crafted furniture made of oak – and have time for reading, and study and quiet contemplation.”
Humphrey said the new building was constructed with at least a 100-year lifespan. She said as the city grows, they’ll be able to convert more of the current out-of-sight office space as public space.
As it stands, they’re expecting two million visitors in the first year.
She said the bold design is meant to send a message to the world.
“The message is that libraries matter,” said Humphries. “Public libraries matter. Public libraries have a unique role to play in leveling the playing field 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.
“He’ll find a collection of materials that will help him learn new skills, and a collection of programs and and services and materials that help kids discover the joys of reading.”