Tristan Cleveland: I love our new downtown library and so should you, for many, many reasons
Imagine how amazing HRM could be if we spread the quality space and staffing levels of the library to other places.
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The Central Library was impressive when it was the exciting new thing. Now that it is just a part of city life, it’s better.
They said it would be the city’s living room. Well, it’s also our local hangout, our meeting room, our grand auditorium, our little internet cafe, our office, our playground. They said it would get 900,000 visitors per year. It got 1.9 million its first.
I love our library. And perhaps the best thing about it doesn't get mentioned in news stories: the diversity of the people it attracts is incredible.
The library’s branch manager, Sharon Haley-Mancini, told me, “we’ve got students rubbing shoulders with seniors rubbing shoulders with moms, with kids. And we’ve got people transitioning one stage of life for another. They’re all coming and they’re all coming for a different purpose.”
That’s good news for Halifax. There is all kinds of trouble that can fester when people in a city only see and talk to others like themselves. Stereotypes and resentment are easier to maintain, and problems are easier to ignore. We’re better off the more there are places where we all spend time.
“It is so easy to talk about in a passionate way,” Haley-Mancini went on. “To walk into this building and see that people that are struggling and maybe out of work, are getting help in writing a resume. Then you go up a floor, and somebody is creating a big event, because it feels right.”
There are two things that make this level of diversity possible, and they both hold big lessons.
First, when a public facility is designed with the level of dignity the well-off expect, it says everyone deserves the same.
Imagine if all our transit terminals, and even key bus stops, had the level of dignity the library offers. Imagine if our libraries in Bedford, Sackville and across the region felt that way, or our rec centres. It takes a bit more funding, but since they would all attract more people, they might end up costing less per user. And they would do so much for the culture, pride and cohesion of our city.
Second, design is one thing, but so much depends on the culture of staff.
“We had one kid who came in and he spilled milk all over the holds area,” Haley-Mancini told me. “Staff got to know him, and he continued to come in, and they would check in on him. They look out for him, they make sure he feels comfortable coming into the library.”
While our transit system doesn’t let you bring a coffee on the bus, our libraries are showing how it’s done, prioritizing people, making them feel welcome whatever it takes. For that, these staff deserve a round of applause.
I’ll leave you with one more quote from Haley-Mancini, that expresses what our attitude should be for creating great city life:
“When this library first opened, the furniture was arranged a certain way along the windows. Pretty soon after that, it was so well used, people would move around the furniture, the way they feel comfortable. And so we said, so what? Let’s leave it.”
And that’s it. That way of thinking is why the shiny new thing will become a lasting monument to be proud of.