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Unpublished Opinions

Terrence Lonergan's picture
Ottawa, Ontario
About the author

A former federal civil servant (Foreign Affairs) and consultant, Terrence Lonergan lives in Ottawa and is active in local and community affairs.

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March 27, 2015

Part 5.      Ottawa’s New Central Library: What for? What like? Where?

This Essay is dedicated to the librarians at Ottawa Public Library, with special thanks to the staff at the Emerald Plaza Branch


All this week, I have filed short essays on Ottawa’s next Central Library with Unpublished Ottawa.

My introductory essay stated that a modern-day library could be defined by the following four major paradoxes.

Paradox 1. As libraries lose their historical raison d’être (store and display books), they metamorphose into Culture and Community Centres and acquire additional functions.

Paradox 2. In the future, libraries will store and display fewer books on their shelves that fewer people will borrow. Nevertheless their books business will grow, become more complex, and probably require more space.

Paradox 3. As the book-object disappears, its contents are freed, poised for a new and larger life.

Paradox 4. Though people will less and less learn from books, libraries will be more closely connected to the acquisition of knowledge.

These paradoxes were meant as choices, not oracles. Each one implies a set of goals, and its own strategies, policies and projects.

Ottawa’s New Central Library is likely to cost anywhere from $100 to 250 million. That’s a significant expense for a population of not quite 1 million: between $100 to $250 for every child, woman, and man, between $400 and $1,000 for a family of four. A high cost, though we should expect very good value from this investment, if we don’t ‘blink’ our final choice.

The temptation, I fear, will be to judge the project on the merits of its architecture. Recently built central libraries in Canada and overseas are magnificent. These edifices weave together soaring arches, glass curtain walls, huge halls open to the skies, projections of daring elegance, and cantilevered floors. Some feature rooftop lounges and terraces with panoramic views on the city. Many offer convenient amenities at ground level such as cafés and collectibles or souvenir shops. Such buildings make good tourist attractions and therefore have double value.

But, does the shell make the library? Attractiveness is a wonderful bonus, not a reasonable rationale for building a Central Library. It’s just not sufficiently related to its main purpose.


In this final essay, I describe a New Central Library (in fact an integrated network of library branches) updated to offer us good value for money and designed to embrace the fast and fascinating world we live in.

I’ve structured my argument as a response to three questions:

  1. What is Ottawa New Central Library’s central purpose, what specific functions should it be designed to fulfil?
  2. What should the New Central Library look like?
  3. Where should the New Central Library be located?

1.  Purpose and Functions

What is Ottawa New Central Library’s central purpose, what specific functions should it be designed to fulfil?

In 2015, a modern library has to be defined, I believe, as follows:

  • A public space and a commons of the intellect, the Modern Library is a store of information and a knowledge factory.

Until recently, hardcopy books were the most convenient medium to carry out both information and knowledge functions. For that reason books were at the very core of the Library’s identity.

Today’s reality is very different.

The Library as Store of Information

Computers, electronic networks, and mass digital storage have merged into better ways to store information, as well as to display, share, correlate, and preserve it. Today, a modern library can easily process information far better, and far cheaper. It can also process it in massive quantities.

It follows that Ottawa’s new Central Library should not only act as a repository for local hardcopy or digitized books, photographs, music and video, documents and pamphlets, but as a protected gateway to any type of publication, contemporary or historical, and as a node in a municipal, provincial, national (and eventually global) network of public libraries. Within the rooms of our new Central Library, from any desk and table, it should be possible to access most if not all of this world’s digitized information, without delay, without paywalls, without subscriptions, without ads, without any strings at all.

For this to happen, three preconditions must be met;

  1.          Public Library collections must overwhelmingly be in digital form and must be widely shared. Ottawa has already moved in that direction and established a network among its 33 branches. This excellent start should be followed by the establishment of a larger web linking all public libraries in Ontario and then across the country.[i]
  2.          Canada’s copyright legislation must be updated to generalize the Libraries exception so that all types of digitized information are covered. Such reform is due; the City can and should work together with other major public libraries and cities across Canada to lobby the federal government. This item deserves to be placed high among its priorities; and 
  3.          The New Central Library must have the tools and staff to turn digital and perform its share of the collective work.   

When these three conditions have been met, Ottawa’s Public Library will truly constitute a commons of the intellect and provide a fabulous Information Store.

The Library as a Knowledge Factory

As I explained in a previous essay (Part 4), the World Wide Web has not yet organised itself into a knowledge factory. Until it does, public libraries had better fulfil that function and be given the best tools for the task.

Until now, the Ottawa Library (and generally all libraries) has fulfilled this function by giving its visitors a seat at a table and making books available. Though some research is done for him, the bulk of the work and learning falls on the shoulders of the visitor.

I would call this a Level 1 Knowledge Factory: manageable, neither fast nor very efficient, but capable of delivering results.

As a Level 2 Knowledge factory, a library would take on a much greater share of the research and make the results readily accessible in a convenient format.

At Level 3, a library would organize the supply of information and index the information in relation to contents so that meaningful correlations between the individual’s interest (or query) and the information appear spontaneously and the most pertinent data comes to the top. Research is facilitated, its quality improved, and complements and extensions can also be suggested. At this Level, with the best available information in front of him, the visitor can easily dig deeper into his subject, optimize the scope of his enquiry, and perform the kind of high quality work that leads more rapidly to fuller comprehension and finer knowledge.

Let’s see how this would work in Ottawa’s New Central Library.  

In my first essay, I called attention to the public library’s natural ability to act as a community centre and to draw crowds. I did so because I am convinced that institutions capable of creating communities and Wiki-groups gain access to their latent talent, and acquire the power to release their potential energy. In the 21st century, masses of people possess a high level of formal education, certified professional expertise, and valuable life experience. The trick is to find a way to tap into the crowd’s pool of resources. Success seems to hinge on three factors: a virtual platform (an open space), an appealing objective, and a good work plan with a reasonable schedule. Blend these three and volunteers emerge from the crowd.

Here lies, for libraries, a unique opportunity. A suite of large, comfortable but functional rooms, a quiet and studious atmosphere: these are precious assets, propitious to setting a crowd into motion. It would be hard to find a better, practically cost-free, launch pad for getting done things of interest and value to the community.

To reinforce the Library’s effectiveness as a knowledge factory and to explore how this function can be raised to Levels 2 and 3, I propose two immediate projects:

  • ‘Total Reading’, which I outlined in my third essay; and
  • Establish and organise a sub-section of the Web that contains all the information pertinent to Canadian literature (in both official languages). This initiative could be called ‘CanLit on Tap’.[ii]

These two projects are complementary. The first brings together hardware, software and a community of local volunteers (a Wiki-force). The second relies almost exclusively on the work of a Wiki-force.

These are simple but far-reaching projects, potentially transformative.

I imagine a future visitor to Ottawa’s New Central Library. She sits at a slightly inclined desk. The room’s lighting dims, the desk brightens into a very large low-intensity screen. She taps a few words on a virtual keyboard and her book comes up. Opens where she left it, two pages displayed full centre. All around, greyed boxes that she illuminates with a sweep of the hand, each a resource to build the argumentation of the review article she is writing. She reads a number of pages, takes notes, copies sentences, investigates a couple of links, and finally brings up her draft. It opens, already enriched by the notes, quotes, images, and references that she has just gathered. She types or dictates, formatting the pages as she goes on. A well-informed, well-organised essay is born.

Sounds impossible? How could research be so exhaustive, yet so simple?

Many people will have worked long hours to make it possible. But in the digital world, that work sticks around, just like the words in a book, until a single young woman, or large numbers of women and men, need to read it. 

Can the Ottawa’s Public Library realistically attempt to tackle these two projects?

I don’t see why not, given they each can be dealt with separately, within their own time frame. Our City does not lack drive or imagination and it possesses strong assets, including a big and dynamic new technologies industrial sector and a large, highly educated population with a lively sense of community. Years will have passed before the New Central Branch is inaugurated, which leaves plenty of time to bring these two projects to fruition.


2.     Size and Architecture, Scale and Network

What would Ottawa’s New Central Library look like?

Be reassured, it would still display thousands of books. They would be arrayed in the entrance lobby and in dedicated rooms, places where people would find it handy to pull them off the shelf, to consult, read, and borrow, or just admire. Though, in every sense, visitors would be nudged to pursue their exploration beyond hardcopy books.

For the real business of the Library would be found in spaces, rooms and workshops designed to respond to the challenges outlined in the first four parts of this paper as well as to meet the many needs of a local community that has assembled and is willing to work as a team at the Library.

The architect’s brief would start with: “build an open public space” designed to operate seven days a week, for long hours, morn to late in the evening.

I readily admit no architectural competence but none is required for stating that my preference lies not with a magnificent, monumental building, nor with a skyscraper and its vertical stacking of narrow floors.

Instead, I long for an agora, a square or area where people naturally congregate, where stores and all kinds of private hustle and bustle intersect with the public sphere. So coffee shops indeed, all sorts of shops in fact so that, at ground level, the public and the private intermingle.

From this perspective, it would be possible to cast eyes on the whole Library building and understand its structure, and its two main functions.

Below ground, in protected environments, the digital heart of the Library, its memory banks and servers, would beat steadily. People would be present too, in workshops real or virtual, building the Library’s expanded knowledge factory. I don’t object to the Library offering room and board to individuals and start-ups and acting as a technological incubator. Why should it not contribute to local innovation?

Above ground, over and around the square, I imagine an organic three-dimensional array of rooms, on different floors, of different height, some large, some smaller, some quiet, some noisy, but all easily accessible from the ground square and from each other. The number and variety of these rooms will enable the Library to accommodate all its individual visitors, communities and Wiki-groups, no matter their interest and activity.

To complete the structure, greenery, not in small pots, not in symbolic places and numbers, but virtually everywhere.

My New Central Library might look organic, but it would be well structured, amenable to well-organised activity. And it would fulfil the two essential functions of a Modern Library making it a huge store of information and a dynamic knowledge factory.

How big should this New Central Library be? I should think big without excessiveness since it still forms part of (in fact acts as hub for) a network of more than 30 local branches.

However, the design of the Ottawa’s New Central Library should not be constrained by the existence of these branches or their present size, function and mode of operation. All of these variables will have to be reconfigured and upgraded so that the whole network functions as a integrated information storage and knowledge building system.


3.     Location, Urban Development and Private/Public Partnership

Where should the New Central Library be located?

Apparently the smart money bets on Le Breton Flats. Why not? That hapless, long-neglected half rubble half built neighbourhood seems to draw to itself all of Ottawa’s major building projects, including another Canadian Tire Centre type hockey arena, on which I prefer not to comment for fear of offending.

More seriously, I believe location should be decided on the basis of three criteria.

  1. Ottawa’s New Central Library should be located at or near the city’s population centre of gravity (resident population, not working population);
  2. It should be very accessible, for pedestrians, cyclists, motorists and anyone taking the bus or LRT. A new hub of activity and creativity, the New Library should stand at a crossroads where all transportation systems converge; and
  3. It should be located in a high population density area (i.e. the population density immediately around, say within a circle of 1km in radius, should be far above the average)

I don’t know of any place within the general urban area that meets all three criteria.

Ottawa’s downtown is nowhere near the city’s population centre of gravity but it’s just about the only district in town that any resident can reach with relative ease, whatever his means of transportation. Furthermore, it has remained a high population density area (except for the government/business core).

I would therefore conclude that two locations downtown; the old Market area and the neighbourhood well south of Laurier (the border of our business no-man’s-land) would not be unreasonable emplacements for the New Central Branch.

Are other areas of town possible, especially since Ottawa’s population centre of gravity has moved South and West with the expansion of the City and its inclusion of Nepean, Kanata, Barrhaven and Gloucester?

Today, this centre of gravity is located in the vicinity of Carleton University and Hog’s Back Road and it will probably continue to move down and left, away from the inner core, in spite of the City’s development through intensification policy.

This suggests a potential third emplacement for the New Central Library, in the form of a new ‘Town centre’ developed close to or in a major Arterial Mainstreet Zone (AMZ). The largest one in the area happens to be the Merivale Road AMZ.

However, to be viable as a location for the Central Library, this particular AMZ would have to be infinitely better served by roads and mass transit. In Ottawa’s Official Plan, Merivale is stranded right between two future North-South transportation main axes, the first going along Woodroffe, the second following the O-Train tracks.

I leave it to the City and its Planning Department to examine whether and at what cost its Mass Transit Plans over the 2015-2031 horizon can be altered to make the Merivale AMZ a viable location option.

I would prefer not to dismiss this third option, not entirely, not right from the outset, for two reasons. First, I believe proximity to the population’s centre of gravity procures the Library an important advantage. Second, as the development of Lansdowne Park demonstrates, a Public/Private partnership can be forged, and bring in significant knowhow and some private funding, when a large tract of land is available for development. Merivale’s AMZ has plenty of those, whereas downtown has none.


Wrapping Up

The City of Ottawa could very well decide not to trouble itself with whether hardcopy books and learning from them have a brilliant future. In which case, the City would probably opt to build what I have uncharitably called a ‘blink’ library.

Then it might as well settle for Le Breton Flats. At least the War Museum won’t look so lonely and dreary.

But let’s not sell our city short. The world, Canada, and Ottawa don’t need another 19th or 20th century book based library, no matter how beautiful, or monumental the building, no matter how famous the architect. At any price, whether cheap or expensive, such an edifice would not give Ottawa a Modern Central Library but merely build another Mausoleum to Gutenberg’s era. The City would commemorate past greatness rather than celebrate what its residents have become, it would invite us to look back rather than prompt us to achieve all that we can be.

Ottawa’s New Central Library ought to showcase how information in all its guises –fiction, non-fiction, facts, beliefs, opinions, and all other forms of discourse, story telling, and imagination– are recorded and preserved in the 21st century. The Library ought to demonstrate that knowledge can be and is more efficiently acquired, processed, and transmitted in 2015. It ought finally to illustrate how a technologically advanced nation expresses its culture, and nurtures its creativity.

Though it may sound paradoxical, it’s all a matter of choice, a choice that depends on us and us alone.

Terrence Lonergan



[i]           I would personally include College and University Libraries in the network. That may or may not be possible given that these institutions have a somewhat different status and mission.

[ii]          I am well aware that a large number of websites already offer expertise, background, reviews, samples, citations, i.e. all matters of information and advice on Canadian literature. My purpose here is not to bypass them, reduce their value or spoil their market but to link and organise them according to contents so that functional navigation among them becomes possible, and research be considerably simplified.


A Modern Library for Ottawa: