Sunday, January 23, 2011

Cambridge Public Library & Galleries

The Cambridge central Public Library & Galleries is my hometown library, one of four library branches.  The central library is located in Queen's square which now serves as the heart of the Galt downtown core.  The library was moved from its original downtown location in 1969, the new building constructed with the dual purpose of expansion and modernization.  When circulating the exterior of the building I was immediately struck with the accomplishment of both above mentioned goals.  The library is huge!, and is definitely not what one would envision as a 'traditional' library.

 There are many works of art decorating the exterior of building, giving it the appearance of something much more than a building of books.  In particular, the 'Library Eye' piece really sticks out, which gave me a sense of confusion and interest.  The eye illuminates at night, and in being familiar with the social commentary of my town I know that my feeling of confused wonderment towards the eye was one shared throughout the community.  Many patrons believe the library's choice of artwork to be "eye-sorers," and detract from the beauty of the downtown core.  When the eye was initially added to the exterior of the building there were large petitions
 by the community to have it removed, as many people felt it to be ridiculous.  However, the eye has remained, and I think it now successfully stands a reminder to the public that 'this isn't your average library'; the central Cambridge library encourages artistic expression through a variety of means, not just books.

 As I continued to walk around the library I noticed signs of the diversity in community.  The library is located directly beside a large retirement home, which immediately sparked my awareness that a lot of elderly people were likely to visit the library, probably for a mixture of both leisure and borrowing purposes.

On the other side of the library were a lot of social service buildings.  Doctor offices, pharmacies, a homeless shelter, and my own personal dentists office were all in easy walking distance of the library.
The homeless shelter specifically drew my interest because, from my own personal experience

working there, I know that the homeless are encouraged to visit the library on a daily basis.  Such an influx from this part of the community would undoubtedly mean that the library would have to make measures to accommodate them.

On the South-East side of the building is the river and the heart of the downtown area.  Churches, and a lot of commercial buildings, as well as the Waterloo School of Architecture comprise this section of the downtown.  Being located close to these areas would probably mean a much different type of demographic being attracted to the library.  Specifically, with students having close access to the library, one would think that an increased emphasis on research materials and areas for private would influence library decision making.

Upon entering the library I immediately noticed the signage.  There were signs advertising free ESL workshops (great for new immigrants or new library users) as well as various reading, poetry, and art clubs.  This emphasis on art was carried through into the main lobby where expression through architecture and design was easily noticed.  The atrium was lined with a very unique piece created by a local artist, while the black steel beams inside the library gave it a modern tone.

After passing the circulation desk I entered the general reading/meeting space.  The overall tone of this space made me feel that the library was not just a space but also a public place.  There were people of many different ages and backgrounds, some just reading the paper or looking out the windows, while many others were talking.  Talking!, in a library!  It seemed that public discourse was far from discouraged, as this space was specifically designed for that exact purpose.

I then again noticed a lot of public displays being scattered throughout the library.  Books, and staff picks were on display, which seemed to lend an overall feeling of activity and enthusiasm about learning through books.  There was also a grand piano located near the reference desk which could be played by members of the public.  I really liked this idea because, while the stigma potentially attached to a 'grand' piano could possibly marginalize certain communities, the library was sending a message that culture was encouraged to all members of the public.

 Located directly beside the public meeting area was the information and referral service desks.  This area seemed to play a crucial role in the library's functioning as it was, by far, the most heavily populated area.  People seemed anxious to get on a computer, and many people were lined up, either waiting to have access to a computer or speak with the information librarian.  While I felt that many patrons seemed to be merely browsing the internet out of boredom, others were willing to stand at express terminals for many minutes in order to have access to the internet.  It seemed that these people
were looking for jobs, or navigating around government websites, and truly valued and needed the services that the library was providing.  Thus, while this area of the library may have had little to do with the library's actual collection, I came to the conclusion that this was probably the most highly valued space in the library.

 Comparatively speaking, the library stacks seemed to be by far less valued and used.  While the collection seemed to be wide and varied, most people roaming the stacks didn't seem too concerned if they found what they were looking for or not.  I got the impression that the library -- in terms of the stacks -- was merely a secondary or even tertiary resource for people in their information needs (feeling the sentiment of: "well if the library doesn't have it, I'll just get it somewhere else"). 

In contrast with the stacks, the second floor (fiction and popular media) seemed to be much more valued and more used.  Here, people were seen borrowing books or magazines off the shelves and sitting down for a leisurely read of their chosen materials.  The tone of the second floor was much more quiet, and the older members of the community seemed drawn to this section of the library as an escape from the every-day bustle of the first floor.

 On the third floor was probably my most favorite area of the library.  While the rest of the library carried a somewhat subdued tone, the children's floor had a culture of its own.  The colors were vibrant, the walls covered with pictures and crafts, and there were kids running around everywhere!

(Note: After consulting with the librarian it was decided that I should not include any of the kids in my photographs...which might have been kind of creepy anyways.)
Here, I also noticed a decided shift in terms of demographics.  Besides the average age obviously being much younger, there were also people of many different ethnicities.  Cambridge is a growing community that has recently seen high levels of immigration and in the children's section I definitely felt this demographic trend to be true.  However, the overall feel to the space was warm and very welcoming, and I think both the kids and the parents felt comfortable using this space in the library.

 The one quite unique aspect of the Cambridge central library is that it houses the Cambridge Galleries.  The art gallery is updated on a regular basis, and never fails to exhibit some original, beautiful art pieces, many of which are created locally.

However, like the 'eye' that was previously described above, the art gallery has been met with some resistance by the community.  Many people seem to feel that the gallery is a bit pretentious in its tone, and feel that it has marginalized and alienated certain members of the community. 

I myself have occasionally felt a little intimidated by the gallery, unsure if I was even allowed inside since no one else was there.  It is definitely not the most welcoming place, and if any area of the library could be improved it is probably this one.

Yet, despite its shortcomings I still believe the gallery to be a valuable part of the library and community.  In a manufacturing community somewhat void of culture and creatively, the gallery stands as a bright spot for artistic expression and creativity in Cambridge.  Being housed within the library, the gallery thus helps the library make the statement that libraries should not just be about books, but that free thought -- and democracy -- are encouraged within this community.   

In its mission statement the Cambridge library states that it hopes to “improve the quality of life of the community by assisting them in their pursuit of information, education, research, recreation and culture.”  Most libraries seem to have the first three covered; it is the last two that libraries seem to struggle with.  But, in my experience observing the Cambridge Public Library & Galleries I felt that it was refreshing to see recreation and culture so well developed within a library setting.