Many people think of libraries as book depositories. But according to the Vancouver Public Library’s chief librarian, Sandra Singh, they are also places of learning and creation.
In an interview with the Georgia Straight in her seventh-floor office in the VPL’s central branch, she said that 20 years ago, people would visit libraries to study or work individually. Since then, she noted, pedagogy has changed in the schools to promote more group projects, and teamwork has become the norm in many workplaces.
“The types of furniture we offer and the types of spaces we create need to really reflect the diversity of needs that people have,” Singh said.
Another big change is in how libraries have evolved into safe places for people to learn how to access digital information. A large portion of the central branch’s third floor, for instance, is filled with computers that VPL members can use for free.
On Tuesday (May 5), the next step in the VPL’s digital revolution will take place with the launch of its Inspiration Lab, which will occupy 7,500 square feet on the third floor.
It arose out of extensive consultations on the library's strategic plan with Vancouver residents, who expressed a keen interest in learning about technology.
Informed in part by the Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia lab, the VPL's Inspiration Lab will include software to enable patrons to create oral histories and edit films, sound, and photos. Whereas the digital facility in Chicago is restricted to teens, the one in Vancouver will be open to people of all ages.
Singh said that there will even be a portable green screen for people who want to film interviews inside the central branch.
“We’ll have another smaller recording booth,” the chief librarian added. “You can create your own podcast. You could take in your acoustic guitar and record a song.”
It’s part of what Singh characterized as the “maker movement” in libraries in many cities. In some cases, that has involved setting aside space in branches to physically create things. The VPL, on the other hand, is focusing on what Singh calls “digital maker spaces”.
“The traditional library service of providing access to public technology needed to evolve further with the 21st century,” she stated.
From May 5 to 30, the VPL will provide four daily tours of the Inspiration Lab to introduce patrons to its various features, including self-publishing software and analogue-to-digital conversion. Library staff will offer “basic training” on some of the software suites, Singh said, including those dealing with photo editing.
“Then we will be bringing in experts from the community to offer workshops on a deeper dive into the skill set,” she added. “We have such a creative community in Vancouver…from game developers to film editors to filmmakers. We also have a very rich musical community.”
Under the Library Act, the VPL cannot charge Vancouver residents fees for admission to any part of the building used for public-library purposes. It’s also illegal to charge fees to Vancouverites for using library materials inside any of the branches.
Meanwhile, technology is driving other changes at the VPL. Singh pointed out that 20 percent of Canadians prefer ebooks to physical books, which means that staff sometimes order hard copies and electronic versions of new titles, which drives up costs.
“I’m not one of those people who think we’ll see the demise of the physical book anywhere near on the horizon,” she stated.
As the third floor of the central branch is more devoted to the wired world, books will continue to be stacked on the fourth, fifth, and sixth storeys. She also said that there’s funding in the city’s newest capital plan to expand the central branch onto the eighth and ninth floors of the building. The library foundation will need to raise another $12 million before construction begins in 2017.
According to Singh, the eighth floor will include community gathering spaces for meet-ups and other meetings. The ninth floor will feature an outdoor public garden.
“That will be really conducive to contemplation and learning,” Singh said. “I view it as an integration of Vancouverites’ love of nature and their love of learning in a really neat space.”