It’s been a long time since libraries were mere repositories for books to be borrowed, with a few students being shushed for whispering and giggling while there to study.
The value and goal of today’s public library is to help the community achieve “an informed and involved citizenry, creating engaged teens and adults, a level playing field for literacy, lifelong learning, and access to technology,” Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library board chair Madeleine Lefebvre told town councillors recently. It also strives to ensure “an inclusive, culturally diverse society wth a strong sense of community and well-being,” she said.
The duties of the library board, she added, as legislated by the province, include providing a comprehensive and efficient service that reflects the unique needs of the NOTL community.
Credited with having the first circulating library in Upper Canada, founded in 1800, Niagara-on-the-Lake opened its current public library on Anderson Lane in 2000 — a modern building designed with those goals in mind.
Since then membership has grown to just shy of 5,000, says Debbie Krause, the community engagement co-ordinator. With about 12 regularly-scheduled events listed each week on its calendar, and more scattered throughout the month, Krause helps guide the progress that continues to evolve to meet the needs of the community. In the decades since the library added videos to borrow and a small bank of computers for members without them at home, it has transformed to a bustling meeting place, a hub for events and programs related to literacy and education in a much broader sense — and that’s only what takes place within the Anderson Lane brick and mortar. There are also several outreach programs that take library services out into the community to further achieve its goal, says Krause.
NOTL’s library has been the envy of other municipalities since it was built, but after about six months’ closure in 2017 for an extensive renovation, a bold move for those in charge of a relatively new building, it re-opened with a design even more suited to the programs already being offered, and which allows for many others that had only been imagined.
“It’s made a world of difference,” said Krause of the current design. “It’s become even more of a multi-use space.”
One of the biggest changes made during the renovation was to the shelving, which is more accessible, curved and shorter, opening up the look and feel of the library — patrons can now stand at the front and look across the stacks, through the windows to the outdoor space behind the building. The shelves can be easily moved to create a cozy and cocooned rotunda for gatherings, as it was last week for a reading from favourite author Ian Hamilton’s new book to a full house, or to accommodate a larger crowd for an event such as Tales by Moonlight, an interactive story-telling, dance and drum circle to celebrate Black History Month, to be held Saturday, Feb. 16. These activities can be scheduled during library hours, without interrupting members who have wandered in for other purposes.
There is a quiet space, where people can read or study — it’s used by students of all ages, said Krause, as well as by those who work from home but want a change of scenery. Walk by it and you’ll see people surrounded by papers spread out around them, brows furrowed, deep in concentration and oblivious to the activity in the rest of the building.
The glassed-in computer room is usually busy, the children’s corner floor is often covered with kids sprawled out while they read, and the comfy chairs tucked away in nooks and crannies, especially those pulled up beside the fireplace, are taken by folks reading magazines or the local newspaper.
There are programs for babies and toddlers, which combine playtime with activities that encourage reading readiness, and there is the new Makery space, where people “think, build and solve,” which is used for several programs. One encourages parents to gather early in the evening to have fun with their kids — a time of day when youngsters are often drawn to the TV.
New this month is a book club for teens Grade 7 and up, encouraging reading, discussion and debate. It’s organized by the library and the Lord Mayor Youth Advisory Council — books and snacks provided.
Last year, there were 1,600 participants taking part in a total of 201 children’s programs at the library.
And there’s room for all of them. “We looked at the needs of the community, and provided the space to satisfy those needs,” said Krause.
Aesthetically, she adds, “it’s a beautiful space, with a really great atmosphere in a physical environment that works for the community. We did very well with the space we had before the renovations but everything is easier, more comfortable now.”
It’s also a great place for staff to work, she adds.
The InfoHealth series is one of the most popular programs for adults, said Krause, held in the Rotary Room, which was also moved and enlarged.
Also popular is the Moccasin Talk series, with Indigenous speakers addressing issues of Truth and Reconciliation, including the history of land agreements.
There is a Nobel Prize series, a movie matinee, yoga, workshops on DNA and genealogy, book clubs for adults, technology classes, e-books to borrow, and book lending made easier with the help of volunteers who visit those who are home-bound, not only delivering their favourite books but sometimes staying to read to them.
Wine and Words is a great example of another successful outreach program, said Krause — authors are invited to local wineries and offer readings and discussions in a relaxing atmosphere over a glass of wine, and locals are introduced to a winery they might not otherwise have visited.
Another outreach project is travelling wifi, making high-speed internet available to migrant farm workers to help them connect to their families at home.
Then there are the lockers in the St. Davids fire station on Warner Road, and in the Virgil arena — books can be ordered online, and picked up and returned at those locations.
New last fall, said Krause, is the book-stocked “vending machine” at the Centennial Arena. A library card can be scanned, the door will pop open and the items selected will be checked out when the door is closed. Books can also be returned through the same process, said Krause.
Library CAO Cathy Simpson was at the January council meeting with Lefebvre to explain the budget request which will be decided by councillors at Monday’s committee meeting, and ratified at the Feb. 11 council meeting.
The library, she said, “is a great community building and one of the last free public spaces. Everyone is welcome; it’s open to all.”
To support its many programs and all it offers the community, the library is asking for an increase of a little more than six per cent over last year’s budget, said Simpson, which represents an extra $42,000, bringing municipal funding up to $728,759.
There is some revenue from fundraising, and small grants from the provincial and federal government — although provincial legislation controls libraries in Ontario, 97 per cent of the library’s funding comes from the municipality, she said.
The provincial contribution to libraries was significantly reduced in the ’90s, and leading up to last year’s provincial election there was lobbying to increase it, said Simpson, but with the change in government, “we’re not hopeful.”