Vancouver Public Library

A Vancouver icon

There is an innately invigorating spirit to a library. A place where people gather to learn, observe, engage and expand the mind. An irreplaceable resource to a city, the public library is a community tradition and offers unlimited access to information, entertainment, culture and more. Vancouver Public Library, the third largest library in the country, has over 373,000 cardholders spanning its 22 branches. Largely funded by the City of Vancouver, the library is a cornerstone of the community in the city of Vancouver. Every day in Vancouver 21,000 people enter a public library. The iconic central downtown branch, built in 1995, is a striking nine-storey building designed by famed architect Moshe Safdie. The modern facility is home to over 1.5 million books, periodicals and reference materials which move throughout the building via vertical and horizontal conveyors. Including its extensive audio-visual resources, Vancouver Public Library now has over 2.5 million items available to the public.

The community spirit of Vancouver Public Library

The library offers the best of resources for the public to utilize: extensive book collections, online resources, reference libraries—everything you anticipate a library to offer. What sets Vancouver Public Library apart, however, is its commitment to working with vulnerable populations and its expansive community outreach programs. The library spearheaded a national campaign called Working Together and has secured funding for numerous programs. Paul Whitney, City Librarian, passionately talks about these infectious initiatives. “We are actively engaging with people who wouldn’t necessarily enter a library and seeing what they want and need. What could get them into the library?” It is no surprise that Whitney has received the B.C. Library Directors Award of Excellence this year. He explains how traditionally in the 19th century, public libraries were seen as a place of refuge and a sanctuary from the streets. This benevolent ideology has upheld a place in the mandate of Vancouver Public Library, despite the modern space and technological facilities.

Always encompassing the spirit of learning, the library maintains an excellent relationship with Vancouver Community College and offers various programs for different populations. One particular community of interest is newcomers to the country. The library offers programs for skilled immigrant populations seeking work and even operates a job fair to connect workers with employment. Other relevant resources such as ESL classes and ESL reading circles are available. The library strives to reach out to communities such as this, explains Whitney, so they become aware of the services they can utilize. For the community in general, resumé writing workshops are very popular. From basic computer skills for seniors class, to a small business planning course, to lectures on poetry, literature and politics, it seems there is something for everyone in this facility abuzz with the exhilaration of learning.

The new media landscape

It is refreshing to see an organization that manages to integrate new media and technology with a traditional community-based role. Comments Whitney, “Libraries have proven to be one of the really effective institutions in terms of effectively integrating the new media, without losing our core mandate.” And integrating new media they are indeed. There are 8,000 downloadable e-books available in the catalogue currently. The growth to downloads in the future, Whitney feels, is exponential. Part of the mandate for future growth and expansion is deciphering a realistic way to offer the public more electronic resources.

Currently, there are restrictions placed on downloads by content providers over which the library has little control. For example, certain electronic readers cannot be used to purchase access to an e-book in a library. The goal is to find a fair and viable way that libraries can pay for content and allow users to access this content.

Children and the library

In the face of an evolving publishing landscape, there is still one segment of society that continually leans toward traditional printed material: children. Another vital part of Vancouver Public Library is its collection and services for children. About 30 per cent of overall borrowing at the facility is for use by a child. “Children still learn to read through books,” explains Whitney, “They engage through storytelling.” The library is committed to helping children develop a deep love of reading. This extends into the relationships they maintain with schools and daycares and the learning programs they offer as well. Programs are offered for children of every age—even babies. The library considers it an important mandate to continually promote and encouraging a lifelong love of learning.

The library is a space for the community to gather. At any given moment as you wander through the grandiose building, you get a sense of the vast mix of people who congregate inside these walls. Students, writers and people from virtually all walks of life pass through at some point. Whitney likens this to the welcoming environment a library offers. People can be in a public space and surrounded by other people, but not necessarily engaged with them. “We are social animals,” he says. “We like that sense of belonging.” With over 5.9 million visits every year, the community clearly understands what Vancouver Public Library has to offer. Says Whitney, “We touch people’s lives every day.”