It’s been a rough week, and I’m seeking solace in solitude… and the library.
My hometown boasts the second most used public library system in North America, and we’ve recently received what is probably the most beautiful public library in the world. Designed by American-Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta and Canadian firm DIALOG after the two firms’ joint bid won a design competition in 2013, the new Calgary Central Public Library was recently named one of Time Magazine’s World’s Greatest Places to Visit in 2019.
The building is so beautiful, the first time I walked through it, I burst into tears. It has quickly become the meeting place in Calgary. When I’m not sure where to meet someone, or what we should do, I almost invariably say, “Let’s meet at the library, and go from there.” And I’m not the only one—the library is teeming with people, always.
Books are dying, literacy is dying, culture is dying? Please. Not in Calgary, not at our library.
When I visit the library on my own, as today, I have a series of rituals and routines I follow. First, I walk as high up the four floors as I can without taking the stairs or elevator, on a walk-through ramp that curls along the side of the library. I walk past the incredible children’s area and the cafe—at our library, you can make all the noise you like, kiddies, and also, you can eat and drink, and be merry. And I look at the curated book displays and games and everything, but I don’t handle any books, I don’t stop. I make my way to the very top, and to the reading room.
The reading room is my favourite room in the library and the only “quiet” space: this is the place to come and work, not talk. So I set up my computer, and I write.
When I need a break, I pause, get up from my desk, and walk around the reading room, which showcases the librarians’ choices of books, arranged my topic. There’s usually a Wild West section (we do live in Cowtown after all). And Banned Books. And Graphic Novels. And, and, and…
I let myself pick up a few books and leaf through them, and I might take a photo for future reference. I’m not allowed to read these books. Not yet. I’m still writing.
I go back to my work space. Write. Pause. Browse. Write. Pause. Browse.
When I’m done writing (and I always stop just before I’m empty), I pack up, and start the slow walk down.
Now, I’m allowed to pick up books… and perhaps to take a few home.
Today, though, I’m walking and I don’t have a bag, just my small laptop briefcase. Today, I will not take out any books.
Among the many, many things I love about the library—among the many, many reasons why I think libraries will save the world—is… think about it, I can leave this place with a hundred books. For free.
Calgary Public Library cards are free, by the way. There used to be a nominal $10 application fee for adults. The library eliminated this a few years ago, because access, knowledge, freedom.
There are a dozen, perhaps more, meetings and programmes running in the library at any given time. The library offers free programming on—god, everything. Financial planning, coding, lego building, science, fashion—and, of course, literacy.
It has artists in residence and writers in residence.
And new art in its public space.
Today, I get to “meet” photographer Samuel Obadero, and his exhibit, “The Forgotten Ones.”
I also spend some time in the Create Space area, pondering some tough questions.
The Create Space is part of the library’s commitment to “Supporting brave conversations and generous gatherings that build understanding.”
You know. The conversations that will change the world.
I get sidetracked by books—thoughtfully curated by the librarians. This one catches my eye:
But it’s a brick. And I’m walking. And I am not getting any books today. I snap a picture to place a hold on it in the future.
I am not getting any books… Damn. Wait…
Well… but these are very light.
I get books.
I pass a group of citizens and tourists getting a tour of the library. It ranges in age from teenagers to octogenarians, and the enthusiasm with which they listen to the (ridiculously enthusiastic) tour guide makes my heart sing.
A family of five, Calgary locals, is visiting the library for the first time today. The father is trying to muster them along, because he wants to get to the reading room. But he’s lost the mother to a bookshelf, and the kids are staring, wide-eyed, at the balloon arch near the cafe.
I think about taking my books to the cafe. But not today. Not today. I still have to visit the drinking birds, massive sculptures by Los Angeles-based artist and teacher Christian Moeller.
The birds make me happy and give me hope, in much the same way the library makes me happy and gives me hope.
As Sadie Trombetta writes in her March 20, 2017 article in Bustle, 7 Reasons Libraries Are Essential, now More Than Ever:
“…libraries have become centers for the movement that supports women, immigrants, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and those facing religious persecution. They are free public spaces that allow everyone to feel safe and to find opportunity.”
As I leave the library, hordes of people are coming in. Citizens, tourists. Young people, old people. White people, brown people. Queer people, straight people. Rich people, poor people.
Moeller’s Drinking Birds bop to welcome them.
[there really should be a Drinking Birds photo here, shouldn’t there? But I didn’t take one and I don’t steal images. So, imagine it… or Google “Calgary Public Library Drinking Bird Sculpture”]
I smile at strangers and they smile back.
In this moment, in this place and space, there is safety, peace, knowledge, potential… hope.
I am so happy, I almost cry.
For some better photos of the library than mine, check out this fan-feature on the library in Avenue Magazine: https://www.avenuecalgary.com/city-life/inside-calgarys-new-central-library/
And, of course, the Time Magazine article: https://time.com/collection/worlds-greatest-places-2019/5654128/central-library-calgary-canada/