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Opinion: New Calgary library names pick away at city history

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Until recently, Calgary’s public libraries were mostly named after the community where they were located.

The exceptions being two named after long-serving librarians (Alexander Calhoun and W.R. Castell) and one after a Calgary pioneer (Louise Riley). 

FYI, Alexander Calhoun was Calgary’s first librarian when Memorial Park Library opened in 1912, while W.R. Castell was Calgary’s longest serving Library Director (1945 to 1972).  Louise Riley, as well as being the daughter of Ezra Riley who donated the land for Riley Park, authored of two children’s books and was an assistant librarian with the Calgary Public Library for many years.

In 2016, things changed

Then in 2016 things changed.  The Thornhill Library was renamed the Judith Umbach Library in recognition of her seven figure donation to the Calgary Public Library Foundation, as well as her countless volunteer hours, including 12 years on the Calgary Public Library Board (eight of those years as its Chair).

In March 2018, the Calgary Public Library announced the renaming of the Alexander Calhoun Library (3223- 14 Street SW) to the Giuffre Family Library in recognition of the family’s $1.5 million donation. The press release stated “The Giuffre Family has deep roots in the community and we are delighted to honour them with this library naming. Their investment will support free access to collections, programming and services across the city that will transform the lives of generations of Calgarians.”

Large donation in exchange for renaming

While I applaud Calgarians who give back to the community, it doesn’t sit right with me that a large donation warrants a library named after the donor.  Perhaps if it was a new library, I would be OK with it. To rename a library after it had been called the Alexander Calhoun Library for more than 50 years just doesn’t seem right. 

To me, a little piece of Calgary’s history will be lost.

In fairness, the library will still honour the memory of Calhoun but in a lesser way.  They’ll rename the Memorial Park Library’s meeting room as the Alexander Calhoun Salon. I was told by the Calgary Public Library Foundation that several options were considered with the Memorial Park room chosen because it’s increasingly a venue for community activities. Also, Calhoun’s living relatives were consulted and accepted this as an appropriate way to recognize his legacy.

Turns out, both Umbach and Giuffre were part of the Calgary Public Library’s $350M “Add In” campaign. Kudos to the Library, as of September 2019, the campaign had raised $343M of its whopping $350M goal. 

It has three strategic directions:  

  • Realize the full potential of a bold new Central Library that is the leader and hub of a progressive city-wide library system.
  • Invest strategically in libraries to accelerate their ability to respond to needs within the neighbourhoods they serve and help Calgary’s communities to thrive.
  • Develop the best public library system in the world.

The Giuffre Family and Judith Umbach were “Add In” Founding Partners as were Deirdre and Ian Harris, Greig and Brenda Nicholls, Linda and Mike Shaikh, Britt Simmons and Janet Harvie, Wal and Irene DeBoni and Conrad Whelan, along with numerous corporations and foundations.

Other Calgary building donation terms

This led me to ask the Calgary Library Foundation “what were the terms of the Giuffre Family naming rights?”  Turns out the Alexander Calhoun Library will be the Guiffre Family Library for the next 25 years (i.e. $60,000 per year).  Will the other future founding members get a library named after them?  

FYI: The Calgary Public Library has a detailed Naming Rights policy to govern the naming of the entirety of a Library facility, parts of a Library facility, or other tangible assets for a specified number of years. The naming of the entirety of a Library facility requires Board approval.

This led me to wonder about the terms of other recent high profile naming rights for city buildings like the Brookfield Residential YMCA at Seton or the Shane Homes YMCA at Rocky Ridge. 

Shane Homes’ website states they donated $3.5 million to get the naming rights but no details for how long. When the City of Calgary was asked for the details of the terms of these two donations (aka sponsorships) they stated the only way to get the information would be via a Freedom of Information and Privacy (FOIP) application. 

Naming rights: The Last Word

I believe one of the best ways to celebrate and honour a city’s history is to name public spaces and buildings after key individuals who have helped shape our communities.  While I admire and respect the monetary and other contributions made by Umbach and Giuffre Family, surely there were other ways to recognize their contributions – perhaps a room, auditorium or children’s area in an existing library.

I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the new Central Library is named after a major donor. (The old Central Library was called the W.R. Castell Library, but that name got dropped with the new building.)

After all, the University of Calgary’s main library is the Taylor Family Digital Library and Mount Royal’s is Riddell Library and Learning Centre. 

I’ll just have to accept that going forward more and more of Calgary’s parks, plazas and other buildings will be getting new names.

Many of these names not only lack historical significance but will very likely change every 25 years or so (generation) as naming rights expire.

BTW: I am still trying to get over the renaming of the Round-Up Centre in 2009, which I thought was a very clever and appropriate name for Calgary’s convention trade show facility in Calgary. Much better than the BMO Centre. 

I’m hoping the building’s name will return to the Round-Up Centre with the BMO naming rights expiring this year.