The history of local libraries: An evolution from copy to code

BY RILEY LINSEMAN

Sandra Sydor has been working at Cambridge’s Idea Exchange for 15 years. During that time, she’s seen major changes, including going from physical copies to digital data. As a result, they are drawing more people to their services than ever before.

“Libraries have transformed from a location that houses books to a more digital space for reading, art and discovery,” said Sydor.

Idea Exchange, formerly the Cambridge Public Library, started out in 1836. The “Galt Subscription and Circulating Library” was established with a loan of 25 pounds ($40 today) from one of the founding members of Galt, William Dickson. The proposal to create this system was made only a year before.

The library has had lots of expansions, including one in 2007 when the Hespeler branch went through a major renovation. It increased the branch’s overall size to 14,000 square feet. The old building was encased in glass and the larger size allowed for an expansion of the children’s space and other areas around the library including the study, book and computer areas.

The Kitchener Public Library has been around for a pretty long time too. Not quite as long as the Cambridge library, but that doesn’t make it any less significant.

Dale Dyce is the marketing and communications manager of the central branch of KPL on Queen Street North. Dyce said the most exciting part of libraries is how much they’ve evolved over the years and how much they will continue to grow.

“Libraries today are hubs of activity, conversation and cultural diversity. They are vital community spaces where almost anything is possible. As excited as I am about what libraries have become, I’m even more excited to imagine where they might still go,” said Dyce.

The earliest history of a library in Kitchener was in 1854, when a small group of citizens created the “Mechanic’s Institute” for sharing books, limiting it to members only. According to In Touch magazine (that wrote about KPL’s 125th birthday in 2009), the library started out as a single room in the town hall. A board to oversee the library was created in February and the first librarian was hired. Two months later, on April 14, 1884, the reading room featured a regular circulation of three daily newspapers, 18 weekly newspapers and 13 magazines. Only 45 people used the room regularly.

On January 8, 1904, a separate building for the library was finally opened and the library was given its name, Berlin Public Library. The contractors were approached three years before with a budget of $24,500. This ridiculously cheap building, when compared to today’s prices, was considered “state of the art” with a reading room, an assembly hall, a reference area, a smoking room and an office.

Mabel Dunham was hired as the chief librarian in 1908. She was the first professionally trained librarian to head a library in Ontario.

“I prophesy that the Kitchener Public Library 50 years hence will have eclipsed the most buoyant hopes of its supporters. The public library of another half century will be all that we have dreamed of, and more,” said Dunham in 1934.

KPL had a big renovation done in 2010, adding an expansion of 25,000 square feet to accommodate the growing community that used the library. According to Matthew Kang on the CBC News Kitchener-Waterloo website, the library was only intended to serve a population of 70,000 people when it was built and now, over 100,000 use it.

In addition to the large expansion, KPL has opened Studio Central, a digital media studio. Dyce said the library doesn’t want to spend too much money, and the studio area already has plenty to offer including computers and virtual reality, 3D printers and audio booths. But the library wants to offer even more, such as a full recording studio with green screens and classes on how to use it all.

Both Dyce and Sydor know how important it is today that libraries are seen as community space. Both libraries are doing their part.

One way Idea Exchange emphasized this was by setting up a taco stand where people could share skills and ideas. KPL is planning on an expansion to the Doon/Pioneer Park branch’s community centre, which is planned for 2018. When the centre was built back in 1989, there were only 7,200 people living in the area. Today there are over 20,000 and the City of Kitchener has decided it’s time for something to be done about this.

The centre already features a huge gym with storage rooms that are stocked to the ceilings with toys for kids and a splash pad outside, but people living in the area want more space. The plans are to expand the gym (doubling its size), build a larger lobby and create more space for meetings or catching up with friends and family.

Libraries have always been a vital part of communities, and there’s no doubt this will be the case in the future.

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