The Battle of Public Literacy and Public Finance

The view from Laurier and Metcalfe. Image: May 2014.
The view from Laurier and Metcalfe. Image: May 2014.

For a city that truly values literacy, it has always been a curious thing to me that Ottawa has something of a strange ambivalence when it comes to the construction and funding of public libraries. To be certain, the Ottawa Public Library system is most certainly something to be proud of. Well-run and generally balanced across the entire city, the network is well-used and highly popular.
At the same time, we’ve retained many of the old “ratepayers’ objections” to any adequate outlays right to this day. Our dedication to literacy is never exceeded by our dedication to thrift. Of course, the definition and operation of the two terms are now and have always been, highly subjective and will be used accordingly by everyone who ventures into the issue.

Nevertheless, I was looking through the May 19, 1954 edition of the Ottawa Journal and happened across this gem:

“That Crowded Library, Old, Old Story.” Click for full size. Source: Ottawa Journal, May 19, 1954.

Essentially, the original 1906 Carnegie Ottawa Public Library was considered too small almost as soon as the doors opened. When you consider that it was too small and crowded for at least 40 years before this article was written – and another 20 until the version we have today was completed, you’d think the desire to not repeat past mistakes would be strong.

It has been called the ugliest building in Ottawa, a text-book example of “brutalist” architecture. Perhaps it is even the “least beautiful, least functional” building of its kind in Canada.

Mayor Bob Chiarelli calls it simply, and tactfully, taking care not even to insult a building: “inadequate in most every way.”

Welcome to the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library.

It’s an embarrassment, really, there is no other word that can properly describe Ottawa’s main library. Located at 120 Metcalfe St., it is a near-windowless, multi-tiered, pillar-obstructed, earth- tone-painted, soul-deadening monstrosity that has all the warmth and charm of a warehouse.

In addition to that (maybe it’s a blessing) it’s too small.

Ottawa’s main library opened in 1974, to service a city of 300,000. Even before amalgamation, the 80,000-square-foot building had become too small. Now, the main branch is expected to service a city of more than 700,000. The only saving grace in all this — the only way a problem is averted — is that the main branch is so damn ugly, not many people want to go there.

“When we started researching it, we discovered the branch was built in an architectural style called “brutalism,” remembers Barbara Clubb, chief librarian for the Ottawa Public Library. “In this particular case, at least, there is truth in advertising.”

Ottawa has, according to Ms. Clubb, the “least beautiful, least functional” main library in Canada. (That’s polite librarian talk, by the way, for “ugly and useless.”)

[emphasis mine] Ron Corbett, Ottawa Citizen, January 24, 2001, Page D1

Strong words, of course, and ones that were somewhat unfair to its architect, George E. Bemi (though I’ve personally not warmed up to the Brutalist aesthetic). In an interview with Maria Cook, it became clear that the same thread ran through his project as well: funding. Like the music teacher, library funding is often among the earlier ones to go when the greater economy becomes less certain. It always seems to feel like a frill, luxury, or option.

“Some would say the library started off too small,” says Ms. Clubb. “Everything gets kind of squished. Within a couple of years, they had to move a bunch of services out into this tower over the building.”

Trevor Boddy, a former Carleton University architecture professor and now a Vancouver-based architectural critic and historian, agrees.

Originally from Edmonton, Mr. Boddy recalls that his home town built a “much bigger, much better” library as a 1967 Centennial project. “Ottawa was always kind of undersized and lacking in vision.”

“I think the criticism is fair in the sense it’s too small now,” says Mr. Bemi. “We always knew that computers were going to come along, but we underestimated the amount of it. We feel the computer areas are too small and need space.”

And although Mr. Bemi did make the building accessible — people with wheelchairs enter a side door onto the first level and then use the elevator — it was always considered a weakness, especially since the circulation desk could only be reached by climbing stairs.

Critics have pointed to the one-way escalator and single elevator for people and freight. These were not his fault, says Mr. Bemi, but the result of a tight budget. “We would have probably put in a two- way escalator, but there wasn’t money for that sort of thing.”

[emphasis mine] Maria Cook, Ottawa Citizen, May 6, 2002, Page D1

And so it goes. Discussions have come and gone and will come and go again at a later date. I suspect that we can predict with astonishing precision just how the discussions will progress.

I’ve come to appreciate the bunker of knowledge. I just hope that the replacement that gets built in 30 years is a befitting a temple of learning.

Update: Yup

But Harder, a long-time advocate for public libraries, believes the $70-million price tag is a non-starter.

“I’m just not sure that’s the wisest expenditure of taxpayer dollars in this location,” said Harder. She points out that in 20 years, the ownership of the entire property at Laurier and Metcalfe will revert back to the city, at which time the city could sell the land or redevelop it in another way.

Harder is right. At $70 million — and likely more, as this is a basic estimate that can be off by as much as 30 per cent — this city must start a serious discussion about the possibility of building a new library.

Consider the new central library in Halifax scheduled to open later this year (and already named by CNN as one of 2014′s most “eye-popping”new buildings): the cost for the new building is about $58 million. Although at 108,000 square-feet, the East Coast library is slightly smaller than the 130,000 we’re looking for here in Ottawa, the build-from-scratch project is also costing significantly less than the estimate to rebuild ours.

There are those who will balk at the idea of a possible private partnership to build a new library. That’s a discussion worth having. But it’s more important that we do something about the eyesore that is the downtown central library. And Monday is the day to re-start that debate.

[emphasis mine] Joanne Chianello, Ottawa Citizen, July 7, 2014.