Cornies: As library changed the Bay, so will it be changed

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As she sits at a meeting table on the third floor of London Public Library’s central branch, chief executive Susanna Hubbard Krimmer is keenly aware of exactly where she is.

It’s her office, of course, but if she closes her eyes and harkens back two decades, it doesn’t take much for her to imagine she is sitting on the third floor of the Bay, the gifts and china department, to be precise.

It’s been 15 years since London Public Library bought the former Bay building, radically altered its Dundas Street-facing façade, and transplanted the beating heart of the library system to its new location. It has become one of the most successful municipal projects of London’s past three decades.

In the life of a city, as elsewhere, success has a hundred parents while failure is an orphan. But credit for the central branch’s successful transformation should go to city controller and library board chairperson Gord Hume, interim library CEO Nigel Bellchamber, architect John Nicholson, and the 2000-2003 city council, led by mayor Anne Marie DeCicco, among others.

In fact, the library deal had its origin at a working lunch involving Hume, Bellchamber and the vice-president of RHK Holdings Inc., the company that had purchased the failing Galleria London in 1996.

“They tried to sell us the Eaton store,” Hume recalls. “I refused and then countered with the Bay property. That was the genesis of the entire project.

“When I first brought up the idea of buying the Bay and moving the old central (branch) there . . . most people thought I was nuts. Well, it turned out pretty well.”

Another factor in the success of the central library project was less a matter of vision or deal-making, and more one of historic serendipity.

The internet was knocking on Canadians’ front doors and the timing of the move allowed for installation of new computer system connected to a much more robust digital “pipeline” to the world. The library’s bandwidth and connectivity got an exponential boost just as demand for its digital holdings and services was about to skyrocket.

But back upstairs to Krimmer’s office.

Along one wall sits a magnificent card catalogue, its oak surfaces nicely polished and its drawers neatly labelled with call numbers. It’s a conversation piece now, a mere museum exhibit shunted to the shoulders of the information highway, like a jalopy with a seized engine.

Less than two decades ago, it occupied an important position on library floors; now, it’s history.

If the question of “where” Krimmer is sitting is easy to answer, then the questions of “what” and “why” are less clear.

Fifteen or 20 years from now, what will the London Public Library be? And why? And how? There are a lot of unknowns.

“I’m inclined to think we’re still in the middle of the storm,” Krimmer says, referring to the ways in which digital technologies are disrupting just about every legacy business or institution. “We don’t know what will come out the other side.”

She has some educated guesses, though.

One is that the library system will continue to act as a bridge, connecting the island of the technologically savvy with the island of the less advantaged.

“The majority of us have digital devices — many of us more than one — but some still don’t. Some have only a (land line) phone. Some don’t have a home computer,” she says.

Hundreds of Londoners will continue to depend on the library to provide the technology and tools they need to survive in the modern world, she thinks.

Second, Krimmer says, digital literacy will likely figure into the library’s future. Here, she speaks about helping patrons gather and organize information, use emerging storytelling tools, and wend their way through increasingly complex and digitally oriented banking, employment, housing, legal aid and social service systems.

Third, Krimmer foresees a bigger role for the library system in helping newcomers to Canada and to the city.

“There is a huge diversity of needs within that group,” she says. Some are refugees, some in their first year of settlement; some are educated, some aren’t; some speak English; some do not. And while the library likely won’t morph into another social service agency, its importance as “a point of connection” among individuals and between organizations and those they wish to serve likely will grow.

Books? Sure. Libraries will continue to do that. And periodicals. And databases and archives and activities.

But we should expect London Public Library and its branches may, in the future, be as much in the people business as in the information business. Libraries may function as much as places of connection, creativity, collaboration, synthesis and empowerment, as they traditionally have as storehouses of analog and digital data.

Larry Cornies is a London-based journalist. 

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