Kitchener Public Library

Not just books anymore

For many people, libraries bring to mind images of dusty shelves and begrudging visits for school projects. But city libraries have come a long way since the early days of paperbacks and card catalogues. In fact, for today’s library visitor, the options far exceed what was traditionally offered.

Today’s library is a place of learning, but also a place for expanding experiences with new technologies. In Canada, almost every city or town is host to a library.
The Kitchener Public Library (KPL), located in downtown Kitchener in southwest Ontario, is a hub of information and activity. The KPL has expanded so much in the last few years, in fact, that the library’s Board decided it would be a prudent move to finally expand the facility itself. The plan to expand has actually been on the table for over a decade, but what the library will look like after the project is finished will be well worth the wait for Kitchener residents.

Central Library Project

The current Main Library is almost fifty years old and the need to revamp the library’s structure began because the current library just isn’t what it should be. After 10 years of investigation looking at a library project in various forms, September 11, 2010 saw the first day of work begin on the exciting Central Library project. The project is worth $40 million and will see the complete renovation of all three floors of the existing Main Library located at 85 Queen Street North, along with the construction of a new 25,000 square foot addition to the rear of the building.  The project also includes the construction of a 412 space, three-level underground parking garage.

The original library was built to serve a population of about 70,000. Today’s library population is not only larger (the population served is now 200,000+), but is also much more diverse as a whole. The library also provides collection and administrative support to four community libraries with a fifth anticipated for 2016—a large scope for one library to handle. 

The library project will accommodate the community for growth, and will accommodate some much-needed environmental attributes. The project will take approximately 2.5 years to complete (with a completion date of January 2013), and the parking garage is the first phase of construction.

Sonia Lewis, CEO of KPL, explains that the business case for the library’s board was built over many years. “We originally reviewed different sites in the community and our original idea was to build a brand new library on a downtown site right next to City Hall. We spent a number of years developing that project, but in the end, Council decided it wasn’t the way we wanted to go,” she says. So the plan for the library changes and eventually, she says, “we came back to this building and looked at developing a renovation and expansion of this facility—there is a lot of refining once you develop the need.”

A key part of the library project is considering how to keep services running during construction. The library has teams in place to actually complete the project, but also to focus on service provision. Overall, Lewis is personally pleased with the progress and potential of the project. “I’m excited at the potential to transform and revitalize our service to the community. It is exciting to be able to apply my past experience from the construction at the Burlington Library to this project. We start out with a vision, and now that we’ve seen concepts it is a really great feeling. Also, presenting those concepts to the community and seeing them react favourably has been an even better feeling. That is the reinforcement that we are on the right track.”

The new facility is being constructed with the goal to gain LEED Gold certification—a high standard for any building. “We established 10 major goals for the project, one of which was consideration for a sustainable building,” Lewis says. “And our efforts related to the environment are not restricted to the Central Library. Our Green Team staff is always looking for opportunities to introduce energy efficiencies and make sure the environment information is there for the public,” she adds.

Accommodating the new library visitor

One of the most important things a library does is unite the local community. A library acts as a central resource but also as a meeting place. Lewis explained that as the community dynamic shifts, so does the library.

“It is extraordinary to work in a place that is open and welcoming to all people in the community. [The library] truly is serving people of all ages, all needs and really providing access to resources that a lot of people cannot afford,” she explains. The KPL is a hub of information for people that might not have access to internet at home or might be faced with unique social challenges, including recent immigrants to Canada.

Kitchener has a large multicultural demographic, and so the development of multicultural resources is critically important—the library currently offers collections in more than 26 languages. The most popular languages for books are Spanish, Chinese, Serbian and Croatian, and the most popular language for DVDs is Hindi. “As for our international newspapers, the most popular are Serbian, Croatian, Polish and Spanish,” she adds. In addition, one of the KPL’s librarians specializes in services to multicultural visitors and enhancing services for them. The library also subscribes to a unique service that allows people to print newspapers from around the world. All in all, the KPL aims to make the library a place that encourages learning of all cultures and diverse groups. “We are making sure that there is more space devoted to multicultural resources and increasing the size of those collections, so that was definitely a planning factor [for the library project],” Lewis continues.

Currently, the library offers English language conversation circles, bringing together people in the community whose first language is not English.

The KPL has a number of programs dedicated to increasing literacy, as “literacy is one of our core goals and services,” Lewis says. “There continue to be special activities dedicated to promoting literacy, not only in the library, but with partners in the community. It will always be one of the reasons why the library exists.”

“We are also celebrating the One Book, One Community (OBOC) program, which is something we work on in partnership with a variety of other organizations within the region, including other libraries, the region, and the Kitchener Record. The idea behind that program is bringing a whole community together in reading the same book and then having a series of programs that celebrate the book and encourage discussion of the book,” she explains. In fact, the KPL is very much involved with an interactive book festival called The Word on the Street, of which the latest installment took place in Kitchener in Victoria Park on September 26. This project aims to encourage reading and literacy by inviting the local community to see their favourite authors speak and meet publishers and public figures. For more information on this event which takes place across Canada, visit

Enhancing the library experience

Adapting to serve a larger, more diverse, and technologically savvy library community means implementing new technologies into the library experience. Lewis explains: “We’ve had to change and adapt to technology, which complements our print collection. These are the things that are in demand and we will continue to look at accessibility. The more digitalized we become, the more interaction is needed.”

Lewis sees that understanding changing technology will ultimately attract an even bigger population to the library. “Technology places an extremely important role in public libraries. It is increasingly how we provide access to certain information resources,” she says. Beginning last year, the library introduced a technology called Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), which allowed the library do a number of things, including offering a self checkout option for customers. “Each year, we see increases in the amount of activity in all of our locations. RFID allows us to introduce efficiencies. It’s all about better customer service. Another factor of RFID is it allows us to do better inventory of our collections. Ultimately the library user benefits,” Lewis comments.

Betterment of the community

The library offers such a wide variety of programs and learning resources, it’s hard to imagine anyone not having a reason to visit. Even teenagers, traditionally known as a group who might not be keen on visiting the library, can now find reasons to visit regularly. Lewis says that approaching the teenage population has been a surprising experience. “Teens, who we often think aren’t interested in libraries, we’ve had to rethink how we serve them,” Lewis says. “We appeal to that demographic by looking at what is important to them and so far one of the highly successful activities that we have hosted in order to bring teens to the library has been Wii events.”

She explains that teenagers are much more apt to use the library because of its more recent technologically-friendly strategy. “Teens use our services electronically, and so we are adapting to how teens search for information. At the same time, as we plan the new Central Library, we have thought about what teens want and need, so we are tripling the space that will be available to teens. We are planning the furniture and the décor for the area,” she adds.

Whether its 70,000 or 200,000 people that the KPL serves, the library is certainly doing something that any community would be proud of—uniting a changing demographic of people who all want to read and learn.