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‘It’s meant for the whole city’- New Central Library data shows widespread patron use

To some, the new Central Library only serves the downtown. New data from the Calgary Public Library shows, however, patrons come from virtually every part of the city.

The data, compiled August and October 2019 by patron postal code, shows the dispersion of Calgary residents in four different categories: Checkouts, printing, wifi connection and computer use at the Central Library. The data shows extensive coverage from all four quadrants in the city – in all four of the segments.

The even spread of use even surprised Calgary Public Library CEO, Mark Asberg.

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“It does sort of draw your attention to the fact that there isn’t a part of the city that isn’t using the (Central) Library, which I was very pleasantly surprised to see – I had hoped that was the case,” he said.

Asberg said what was also interesting to him was the penetration in some areas he didn’t expect. He attributes that to the wide range of public meeting space, much of which is free to book with a library membership, as one of the drivers behind it.

They’ve had more than 20,000 room bookings over the past year.

“What I think it really points to is there’s a need in our society for that third space – not work and not home – something else you can go to where you don’t have to pay to get in and you don’t have to shop when you get there,” Asberg said, adding that they’re working on developing more public meeting spaces in the community libraries to serve a greater audience.

Central Library – old versus new

The library will act as a bridge between the East Village and the Downtown. (George Webber / CPL)

Having worked at the prior Central Library and now at the new one, Asberg said the number aren’t comparable. In 2019, Asberg said the new Central Library will see nearly 1.8 million visits. The old Central Library, he said, hovered around the 1 million visitor mark annually, or just under.

There’s a lot of visitor use the data doesn’t consider, he said. For every person that books a meeting room, there could be between two and 80 additional people participating. Likewise, it doesn’t include the number of children that come to play in the early learning centre.

Coun. Druh Farrell, library board member and driving force behind the new downtown location, said what’s attracted – and continued to attract – Calgarians is the beauty of the new Central Library building.

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“A lot of Calgarians came down, out of curiosity, just to see what all the buzz was about and then saw what all the buzz was about, and are continuing to come down,” she said.

“I know people who come down to do their homework or do research just because they love the feeling of the place.”

Farrell acknowledge that while the old Central library had exceptional programming, it wasn’t pretty.

“It wasn’t a pleasant building to be in,” she said.

“We’ve combined the excellent programming that the library does with a beautiful building.”

Printing – the outlier… sort of

When looking at the four data slides, it’s very apparent the dispersion of dots (with sizes representing different number values) look almost identical.

Upon closer examination, the slide for printing usage shows something quite interesting – more patrons from across Calgary use the print services than the other three areas, comparatively.

CPL Location Data by Darren Krause on Scribd

Asberg said that what’s often taken for granted is that people have access to a network or wireless printer either at their home or office. He said having that access helps to bridge the digital divide for a lot of Calgarians.

“If you can’t print documents, if you can’t print your resume, if you can’t print forms that need to be submitted to the government, it’s difficult to participate in the economy and the community,” he said.

Pockets of the city where printing patrons are from generally shows a different demographic than other parts of the city, Asberg said. He said one of their northeast library locations was, for years, the highest printing location in the system.

The community library system has been set up to recognize the different needs in certain parts of the city, Asberg said. Some require more meeting spaces, others, printing services. Others have more physical collections to meet the needs of users.

“I think those trends, when we talk about Central Library, we see those represented a little bit differently because, as we started talking about this, the Central Library draws from the entire city,” he said.

More dots, more coverage

We asked what insight this provides in how the Central Library can be better at reaching Calgarians. The dots, however widespread, are generally small; those represent between 1-9 patrons per postal code.

“These little dots can be bigger dots over time,” Asberg said.

“I think that there are so many people who come to Central Library and once they come, they want to come back. I think there are still hundreds of thousands of people in this city who haven’t done that.”

It could be for a variety of reasons, he said. Busy lives, happily serviced by their own community library, or the trip downtown. He did mention that they noticed less coverage in the southeast than other areas. When asked about the lack of SE LRT coverage leading directly to the Central Library, Asberg said public transit is an important way for people to get around the city, but also to the library.

“Accessibility to the library can definitely impact visitation,” he said.

“Anything that makes it easier to get downtown will attract people to the core, especially when there are rich amenities here, like the Central Library.”

Access to the Central Library

The Calgary Transit intersection at 7 Avenue and 3 Street SE. BRODIE THOMAS / LIVEWIRE

Ward 3 Coun. Jyoti Gondek said educating young people on how to navigate their city so they can enjoy places like the new Central Library is part of her job.

She took summer campers from the Vivo for Healthier Generations in her ward on the 301 bus along Centre Street and into the downtown. They talked about the Centre Street redevelopment, the Diefenbaker High School (that would soon be their education location), the Centre Street Bridge, the importance of Chinatown (including good bubble tea) and eventually down to the new Central Library and a walking tour of East Village.

“It was a sort of little educational journey,” said Gondek.

“The Central Library is something that should be appreciated and enjoyed by all Calgarians. If our youth are not familiar with how to get downtown and experience all the great things we have down here, then someone should be able to educate them and inform them on how to do that.”

She said the big lesson for those kids was understanding that the whole city is their city. For many, the way they access that city is through public transit.

Accessibility seems to be the biggest stumbling block in participating in the new Central Library.

Suburban use of the new Central Library

To test the idea that the new Central Library was serving the vast reaches of the city, we put out an informal question to users on Twitter: Question for suburban dwellers: Have you been down to see the new Central library?

The response, in general, was substantial. Roughly 80 Calgarians wrote back to us. The majority had been to the new Central Library. Some once, others several times. Of course, some hadn’t been at all.

(It should be noted that most respondents had used their neighbourhood library.)

Shawn Streeton, who lives in the deep southeast of Calgary said the lure of the new library brought them downtown.

“You hear the word of mouth about the building and how beautiful it was,” Streeton said, saying that when they first went down, they made a day trip of it.

“It was almost like a day being tourist in your own city.”

There’s a caveat, to Streeton’s enthusiasm, however.

“The only question is now, would I go back again, dealing with the parking or the transit and that sort of thing,” he said.

Among all the responses, even those who had been to and enjoy the building, parking and transit access (not necessarily the destination point, but the starting point) were their largest concerns. Others who hadn’t been did mention their infrequent trips downtown, lack of desire, frustration with public spending – but access crossed all boundaries.

For others, like Kelly Van Weber, who lives on the city’s west edge, there’s been no real priority to get to the new Central Library – though he appreciates the building.

As a busy dad of both a daughter and son, even when they’re downtown, the question of hitting the library never pops up.

“It’s sort of one of those out of sight, out of mind things more than anything else to go downtown for,” Van Weber said, noting they often use the Signal Hill community library.

“We don’t think of (the new Central Library) as being a magnet for the community.”

Drawing more people to the new Central Library

The Mom’s Stairway, named by an anonymous donor, looks out over the children’s section. (LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO)

Coun. Gondek said she also hears that it’s hard to get to.

“It’s hard to get to unless I have a car and even when I have a car, where am I going to park? And when am I going to make the time, and the list goes on and on,” she said.

Transit, including the LRT, does drop people off right outside the Central Library and there’s parking in the area; some of it is adjacent, some you have to walk a couple blocks.

Gondek said that even though there’s passage downtown, as she showed the group of kids, there’s nothing in terms of rapid access for north Calgary.

“It’s a big giant gaping hole,” she said.

There are opportunities to open it up to Calgary’s vast reaches, Gondek said.

She’d like to see more money from the tourism side to be spent showing Calgarians that they have great places, like the new Central Library, they can access in an instant. The focus is often on bringing others to the city.

“What we don’t focus on is bringing the people that are already here into places that they haven’t been,” she said.

Coun. Farrell said (as did others in the Twitter responses) that access can sometimes mean hours of operation. She said for an urban library it needs to be open longer.

“I’m hearing people want the library open later. I’m hoping in the future we’re able to fund longer hours of operation for this library, because there are very few places in the city where you can go and be and not have to fork out money, and the library is one of them,” Farrell said.

Farrell said more work is being done on improving parking in the area and they anticipate increasing density in the area to add to the library’s viability.

‘It’s meant for the whole city’

Asberg recognizes this data is only a snapshot in time. They’re eager to gather more data so they can shape programming and outreach, not just for the new Central Library, but for the entire system.

They need to replicate the data and find the inconsistencies and the increases and decreases in certain parts of Calgary, and why those are happening.

“We also use all this data in terms of where our patrons are, where there are new communities; the demographics of those communities are also very important to us in terms of any new libraries that may be built in the coming years,” Asberg said.

He also said it’s valuable in learning where they aren’t reaching Calgarians.

“Where should we be maybe sending that book truck out or doing a little more outreach with the schools and community associations,” he said.

Asberg believes, however that the new Central Library is serving its purpose as not only a community library for the downtown and Beltline areas, but as a beacon to attract people to a struggling downtown.

He said they’re seeing different people from different areas and all walks of life using the new Central Library every day.

“That means that people from all over all over the city are coming to downtown is really good news not only for the library but for the city,” he said.

“It’s not like any other community library. It’s meant for the whole city.”