The Future of the Community Library

By Heather Romito

While the Dewey Decimal System may be online rather than in a card catalogue these days, one thing that hasn’t changed is the importance of libraries as a place for communities to come together. Recognizing this, the Edmonton Public Library (EPL) decided to undertake a renewal project for their downtown branch, the Stanley A. Milner Library, which began in January of 2017. As a well-used and much-loved community resource, the library’s renewal has resulted in more space, more technology and a greater focus on diversity.

The Milner Library’s history dates back to 1923 when it was first called the Central Library. Since that time, the library has been relocated and subsequently renamed in 1996 to honour long-time supporter Stanley A. Milner. Over the years, the library has supported everything from an artwork rental service, to a smoking room (closed in the 70s), to a petting zoo housed in the children’s library.

Discussions around redesign of the building began in 2005, and the project was officially approved in 2014. The total approved budget was $84.5 million, with EPL responsible for raising $10 million dollars. In the end, the organization managed to raise over $18 million dollars through hard work and the generosity of major donors, provincial and federal government individuals and organizations.

The Hub for Community Support

While the redesign was initially prompted by a need to improve services and address structural and safety concerns, it became much more of a community-minded modernization than a physical renovation.
Pilar Martinez, Chief Executive Officer of the EPL, believes libraries to be the front porches of our communities. “We wanted the revitalization to reflect our community’s needs and ensure they felt heard and supported. We knew there was a limited amount of space for community groups in our city, so we increased available meeting spaces from 12,910 sq. ft. to 28,000 sq. ft.”

In keeping with its role as a hub for community support, the Milner Library also offers affordable leasing opportunities to not-for-profit organizations in need of office space and the Robert Tegler Trust Foundation Outreach Services to connect vulnerable individuals with important social services.

A Safe, Accessible Cultural Space

For the EPL, it was important that this renewed commitment to community focused on support for the Indigenous population of Edmonton and brought important awareness to cultural diversity. As such, the renovation plans included a dedicated space for meeting, sharing and connecting called Thunderbird House (PÎYÊSÎW WÂSKÂHIKAN).

Per the EPL’s CEO, “Thunderbird House was an opportunity to meet a need for safe, accessible cultural space and represents the first public space in the City designed to support Indigenous ceremonies. We worked with Elder Jo-Ann Saddleback and many other members of Indigenous communities to inform the design of this space. The walls, ceiling and floor are made of white poplar. According to Nêhiyawak creation stories, white poplar is the first tree in our territory.”

The Library of the Future

But space to connect is just the tip of the iceberg for the Stanley A. Milner Library. Some key features of the modernization effort include a children’s library (Shelley Milner Children’s Library) that has tripled in size, a Children’s Makerspace with hands-on STEAM (Science, Technology, Art, Engineering and Math) activities like coding, robotics and digital creation, and a Gamerspace that has the latest gaming consoles as well as retro video games.

There is also a larger Makerspace where library-goers can book time in one of three recording studios (at no cost) or make use of the Studio Lab, which is a space that allows photography, video and audio amateurs to get hands-on experience with the most current equipment. Customers can also access creative software, design wall decals, press a t-shirt and use sewing machines.

According to Pilar, “As digital literacy is fundamental for success in society, and in keeping with our commitment to technology and innovation, we have increased our Makerspace from 2,027 sq. ft. to 10,000 sq. ft. and have installed a two-storey interactive touchscreen wall. We are the only public library in North America to have this technology at this scale, and we are extremely proud of that.” In fact, “The Wall” is said to be the biggest digital exhibit in North America and one of the largest in the world, requiring 12 computers and 278 screens to run.

And speaking of computers, the Milner Library offers Edmontonians access to over 70 public computers and free wi-fi.
How Fabulous!

If all this isn’t enough to pique one’s interest in visiting this educational mecca of modernity, perhaps the Fab Lab will do the trick. The Lab includes access to a laser cutter, a CNC mill and an SLA 3D printer that allows users to print 3D designs using high-resolution, UV sensitive resin.

“The Fab Lab is also home to our new book-making equipment. This service puts local self-publishing authors, hobbyists and book nerds in the driver’s seat with classes and staff support so that you can make beautiful, self-published single or short-run books in perfect bound hard cover or soft cover.”

Staying with Tradition

Not to stray too far from tradition, the Stanley A. Milner Library currently holds more than 150,000 titles in the collection, including 10,000 new titles. Says Pilar, “We also have new feature collections including Capital City Press, which features local Edmonton writers and North of 52, which is our heritage collection that helps local historians, genealogists and everyone interested in our past to access archival records, including our brand new microfilm reader.”

The new library was scheduled to open in Spring 2020; however, reopening was pushed to September 17, 2020 due to the pandemic. To-date, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and Edmontonians are thrilled at what they see when they tour the revamped spaces, either physically or virtually. The EPL Kitchen, a teaching kitchen for health, nutrition and food literacies and a new café, are both slated to open in the near future.

“It’s a space packed full of learning opportunities and innovation and is quickly becoming the vibrant community hub we have always imagined.”