Calgary Public Library

Connecting the Community for More than a Century

Founded in 1912, the Calgary Public Library system is rooted in tremendous history and as of today is the second-most used library system in Canada behind only Toronto.

The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Calgary Public Library CEO Bill Ptacek and Deputy CEO Ellen Humphrey about some of the incredible history of the library and how it has successfully transitioned into the new digital era while being recognized as one of the preeminent libraries in the country.

It’s not commonly known that the founding of the Calgary Public Library system was the subject of an opera. It was at a time when women still could not vote and local women in the community rallied around an individual named Annie Davidson, who had heard about American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s offer to build libraries in communities that agreed to support them. Davidson, who had come to Calgary with her 10 children, began to elicit other women to go out and obtain signatures from the men to support the construction of a library.

At the turn of the century Calgary was very much a union town, which presented a problem because Carnegie and unions did not see eye to eye. The first attempt did not get the required number of signatures, but a subsequent attempt was successful.

“The money that was offered to build the library was not enough and Carnegie kicked in an additional $30,000, which was a great deal of money at the time. It was the first public library in Alberta – the Memorial Park library, which stands to this day,” begins Ptacek.

Since 1912, the City of Calgary has wholly supported public library service and over the years it attracted a number of distinguished directors. R.B. Bennett, who would go on to become Prime Minister, was among those on the very first board. As Calgary began to expand the library system grew with it. In the 1960s the current Central library was constructed in two phases across the street from City Hall.

“There was a noted period of growth in the 1970s. What we would now consider quite small branches were built in what we now consider established communities but the growth of the Calgary Public Library system has continued,” says Humphrey.

Modern Era & Digital Transformation

By the mid-1990s libraries quickly adapted to the advancing digital era, and specifically in providing access to the Internet, which wasn’t readily available 20 years ago; deemed too expensive for many people to have at home. Public libraries did a far better job of adapting new technology than many other institutions. But now, Ptacek believes the biggest growth is in Wi-Fi and lending out laptops, which is effectively overtaking the fixed workstation setup that was so popular a decade ago and beyond.

With an employee base of about 850 people, the Calgary Public Library has a total collection size of more than 2 million books in addition to a vast supply of digital resources, which escalates in volume with each passing day. An interesting statistic finds that as more people do online research from home, the number of holds on materials at the library increases. In fact, it has gone up 20% month over month for the past two years.

“To my way of thinking it will all be about personalization of service and that involvement includes friendly, experienced expert library staff,” says Humphrey.

Libraries are used by all ages of people in different ways at different times in their lives. One aspect that has remained constant is the ability to provide endless amounts of thorough information.

“Google answers more questions in one afternoon than all the public libraries in North America do in a year, so we don’t rely on the reference services that we once had, but we think that the digital resources provides more useful content than you’re able to get on the Internet,” explains Ptacek.

A couple of the libraries have moved recently to far larger premises and two more branches are being added to serve the fringes of Calgary’s population. There are currently 19 locations but that will increase to 21 in the near future.

“We’re very pleased that we’ll be opening a library in the southeast part of the city as soon as next year and one in the north central part of Calgary very shortly thereafter, called Sage Hill,” adds Humphrey.

In the spring of 2017 a starter library was opened in Sage Hill to give the local community a taste of what is to come, and in just the first few months it is already being utilized exceptionally well with a number of young families living in the area.

The Calgary Public Library has one of the lowest per capita funding in the country, receiving as little as half the money of other Canadian public libraries and yet it sets the standard in terms of success. A monetary contribution is provided by the provincial government but the lion’s share of support comes from the City of Calgary. Municipalities in Alberta have a responsibility to provide library services to their citizens.

“It’s not totally altruistic but I think it’s remarkable that the City is able to come up with something in neighborhood of $50 million a year to support the operation of a library,” says Ptacek. “The fact they have dedicated $250 million to build the new central library along with all the other libraries that are being built on the fringes indicates to me that this investment is a commitment far beyond the scope of what libraries did back in 1912.”

Libraries are one of the few sanctuaries remaining in society where people can come together and experience the richness and diversity of the community, and it’s available to everyone in a close to home location. The uniqueness of the institution and the relevance to the lives of its citizens is a remarkable story that is manifested in the level of support that the City provides. The current library membership stands at more than 600,000, which accounts for about 50% of the entire population. The target is to reach 800,000.

Active cardholders make good use of the library and the foot traffic remains robust. People still need the physical space that a library can provide.

“Our meeting rooms are free to the public so there are all kinds of reasons for community groups and individuals to come to the library,” notes Humphrey.

There are nearly 90,000 children under the age of five who live in Calgary, so it’s a very young community. Research shows that a child’s ability to read and succeed in school is largely formed by the time they’ve reached the age of five, so before they even go to school both Ptacek and Humphrey emphasize the importance of building those literacy skills, which the library can and does play a large roll in.

The Calgary Public Library bought vehicles for each branch and employees visit every licensed daycare in the City of Calgary. It’s a month-long program of not only Family Storytimes but activities that are passed along to the caregivers and workers in those daycare centres so that they can nurture the children’s development of literacy skills.

2015 Rebranding

The Calgary Public Library underwent an exciting rebranding program in 2015 and the results have been outstanding. As part of the process a new logo was unveiled and a decision was made to provide the meeting rooms free of charge. The fee for obtaining a library card was also struck down. The library is for people of this age and the rebranding symbolizes a new start for this organization, which remains an integral part of society.

“We want to be seen as a contemporary institution. We download more books than any public library in Canada, other than Toronto,” states Ptacek.

Political groups, community organizations and smaller individual groups often use the meeting rooms as do entrepreneurs and business groups. About 20-30% of a typical branch’s space is dedicated to the children’s centre and there will be more than 10,000-square feet dedicated to it in the new Central library. Both Ptacek and Humphrey say they’ve witnessed a noticeable evolution in the way libraries are used and the spaces that are needed. In days gone by the quality of a library was primarily judged by the number of books on the shelves. That is not the way libraries are rated today.

“If you go into a library in North America and count the number of people, very few are in the stacks. More people are reading newspapers, they’re studying together, they’re doing projects they’re in the children’s area, they’re going to a program and they’re using computers,” remarks Ptacek.

A visit to any of Calgary’s library branches on a weekday afternoon and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a seat, which only lends further credence to Ptacek and Humphrey stating that more library space is needed, which makes the inclusion of the new Central library so widely anticipated.

“This is a city of about 1.2 million people. I come from King County in Seattle, which has a similar population but we had 45 libraries. We have less than half of that here so we need more libraries,” says Ptacek.

Library Foundation

The Library Foundation was created in 1999 to provide an opportunity for individuals, businesses and foundations to participate in building a library system for today and future generations. Funds raised do not replace the Library’s core funding, but enhance collections, programs and services. The Foundation plays a vital role in the overall success of the city’s library system. The Foundation recently provided a $1 million grant to build Early Learning Centres in four of the branches.

“Our ultimate goal is to build Early Learning Centres in all of our libraries. Schools are not funded to do this and while there are agencies that try to do it, they do not have the scope that we do,” says Ptacek.

The Foundation creates an ability to provide access to programs, services and events to every interested member of the public, regardless of their financial situation.

“One of the things that we provide access to, for people who do not have a lot of money, are things for free and that may be, as example, a partnership with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, that provides concerts in our library locations on a Sunday afternoon or it may be that through a partnership we can provide arts and culture passes so that people get tickets to a number of community events,” says Humphrey.

On a recent Friday night the old Central library hosted 930 mostly millennials for a locked Library event that had the participants being split off into 240 different teams. They solved puzzles as part of a fundraising event for the Foundation. It’s yet another reason for a whole different generation to want to use the library.

“The library is fun. It’s not like going to the dentist,” interjects Ptacek with a hearty laugh. “What other tax-supported institution would lend millions of dollars’ worth of materials on the premise that you’ll bring it back in a couple of weeks?”

The human connection that is made in libraries is one of its unique attributes that can’t be duplicated elsewhere and in many ways technology facilitates some of that closer interactivity. As an extension of the expanding digital media platform, Ptacek says the library now has a significant presence on social media to help promote and market the brand, which wasn’t the case five or 10 years ago.

“The original library board that formed in 1908 in preparation for the opening of the new Central library wouldn’t recognize the resources and the shape of the tools that we now have, but it would recognize those values that drove them and continue to drive us. We are a values driven organization,” says Humphrey.
“It’s about community and access to ideas and information,” concludes Ptacek.