As of July 8, the conversation should get much more serious about the new central library. On that date, council is expected to approve the library as a strategic initiative for this term. Before the city takes even an initial step in the procurement process, it must consult citizens about location.
The public needs to have a say about potential sites because it’s the public’s library. Existing users will be affected by the wrong location – especially the half who comes by foot. To date, the library’s only public consultation specifically excluded any citizen input into the location – input that could suggest how to attract new users while ensuring existing users are not left behind.
The new location will have positive social and health impacts only if properly chosen. A central library should be a community hub supporting social interaction and individual well-being in the downtown core as essential elements for a healthy city. With more than 100,000 workers, 25,000 residents and thousands more moving into new condos, the heart of Ottawa has a rich, diverse population who will benefit if the location is readily accessible.
For residents who may never visit the new library, or will do so only occasionally, they will still want it to be a place of pride – an “iconic” civic landmark, as the mayor has said. For tourists to the nation’s capital, a location in the heart of downtown will make it a destination of choice, along with the Parliament Buildings and the National Gallery of Canada.
We have only to look at the excellent location, design and size of the new Halifax Central Library to see what is possible if Ottawa takes the right approach. It is not a public-private partnership, its design is the result of an international competition, there was ample public engagement and it’s located downtown. Since opening last December, it has surpassed expectations for numbers of visitors or person-visits by 100 per cent in just a few months.
At this stage in Ottawa’s process, there is an identified city-owned site outside of the downtown core. It is off the beaten track, at 557 Wellington Street, below the escarpment that drops west of Bronson Avenue. The city will invite proposals for other sites, but for the time being 557 Wellington Street is the “public sector comparator” and could well be the future location.
After the LRT investment, the new library may be the most high-profile civic project the city will undertake this term. To date, the public engagement on the initiative has been completely inadequate, relative to the big decisions being taken by the OPL board and council.
The best public engagement is a sustained, authentic and open dialogue. By the city’s own standards, the public needs enough time, opportunity and attention to speak out and feel heard on this all-important question of location, as well as design and size. We urge library and city leaders to incorporate a comprehensive and meaningful public engagement process into the upcoming Stage 1 planning phase.
Politicians knock on a lot of doors and eat a lot of Timbits before they ask their constituents to cast their votes. Why should this very important project not get its own campaign and process of time and investment in dialogue and conversation to ensure Ottawa gets the new library right?
Mary Cavanagh is a former public librarian, now associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s graduate School of Information Studies. Sarah Anson-Cartwright is a member of Bookmark the Core, a citizens’ group advocating for a downtown location, an international design competition and a public engagement process for the new central library.
Link to article: http://ottawacitizen.com/news/national/op-ed-ottawa-lets-get-the-new-library-right