The Edmonton Public Library’s (EPL) Stanley A. Milner Library has been a fixture in the city for more than 100 years, but like most fixtures, it can be relegated to the sidelines sometimes, and is often seen as a building full of books from a bygone era. However, nothing could be further from the truth! EPL has a rich and interesting history, and with its revitalization it is poised to reaffirm its status as an educational, social, safe and progressive space in the city.
To understand the future impact EPL is about to have, we have to go back to “once upon a time” to learn how this story began.
EPL opened in 1913 and was replaced with the Centennial Library in 1967. It was renamed the Stanley A. Milner Library in 1996 to honour Dr. Milner’s contributions to the library, and his tremendous impact in Edmonton. From the start, EPL was a place where anyone of any age could go for free, to indulge themselves in novels, learn something from non-fiction, and support homework and research with reference materials.
The image of the “dusty old library” was simply due to the times. Books, it was believed, would fade in direct sunlight. Therefore, the early libraries eschewed natural light. However, with modern windows and new layouts, this is no longer an issue. In fact, light is one of the drivers in EPL’s revitalization.
“Before the reno, there were windows on the main floor and some on the second. The rest were tiny slits. There will be 650 windows in the new space. That natural light is so important to people when they are studying, meeting friends, or just reading a newspaper,” says Pilar Martinez, EPL’s warm and friendly CEO, who is filled with excitement as she describes the new spaces.
“Another thing that will be different is the vertical openness of the space enabling you to see what is happening floor to floor. The children’s area will be almost three times larger, going from 4,000 to 11,000 square feet, and will have its own makerspace. There will be a 3D printer, green screen for digital media manipulation, and lots of activities, robotics and circuitry, that support STEAM-based learning.”
Adults have plenty to look forward to as well, as the makerspace is geared to customers of all ages. Growing from its current 3,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet, the enhanced makerspace will include a desktop CNC mill for metal and mill working, a serger and sewing machine, a book printer, photo studio and three sound booths. The revitalized library will also feature a culinary centre, among other services.
For Martinez, however, one of the most exciting aspects of the revitalization is how it will enhance EPL’s role as a community hub.
“We know there is a limited amount of space for community groups in the city, after the revitalization the space available at EPL will be over 28,000 square feet.”
Always one to move with the times, EPL is going to get a huge technical upgrade as well – and it’s going to be enchanting. As part of Martinez’s job, she is often invited to speak in various parts of the world about EPL’s innovative services. This also provides opportunities to explore what makes other social spaces unique and provides a chance for incorporating applicable ideas back home. When visiting the Queensland University of Technology in Australia while speaking at a conference, she saw her first digital simulation wall.
“It was simply awe-inspiring!” smiles Martinez. “It’s a multi-storey interactive touchscreen and it was displaying information about the Great Barrier Reef. A fish would ‘swim’ by and you could touch it; information would be displayed to tell you its species, what it ate and what its enemies were. There was also a game where you used rockets to learn about velocity. I’m very excited to bring this technology to EPL and how it will be used to highlight Edmonton attractions like the river valley and work from local artists. We are the only public library in North America that will have this technology on this scale.”
EPL looks back to time-honoured, meaningful traditions with the same commitment it has to technology and innovation. Martinez explains.
“We are very excited about the Indigenous gathering space. It’s a round room that is ventilated for ceremonies. We consulted with local Elders to learn, for example, what direction the doors need to face, which is very symbolic. This room is something we are really proud of.”
EPL is also committed to growing its digital offerings, which provide educational resources for patrons of all ages.
Martinez continues, “EPL has online certificate courses through Lynda.com and Gale Courses, such as leadership or interior design that you can take for free. There is also language learning software – again, all free with your library card.”
For students there is free homework help through volunteer peer tutors (for reading) as well as online resources (BrainFuse and Solaro) for a variety of school subjects.
There will be plenty to see and do at the revitalized downtown library, but one thing has not changed since EPL opened 106 years ago – lending books and other materials.
“We have a physical collection of about 200,000 items,” says Martinez; and that doesn’t even count the digital library where customers can borrow, for free, digital copies of books, movies, comics and TV shows through Hoopla, and digital magazines through Zinio.
The revitalization started with discussions in 2008. The grand opening will be on February 14, 2020. Out of the $84.5 million price tag, EPL committed to raising $10 million with community partners. With just under a year to go, EPL has raised $8.6 million of that goal.
“A lot of people don’t know that they can provide a donation, as EPL is a registered charitable organization,” Martinez says. “Customers can also support us by naming a seat in the theatre, donating at their local library, or online through our website.
“We welcome everyone. Everyone can come into the library. You don’t have to pay. We are very accessible and welcoming to all demographics. It doesn’t matter what your income or heritage is. There is something for everyone, from early literacy where we collaborate with Alberta Health Services, to ESL conversation circles, to workforce development and job seeker support. There are so many opportunities to meet people’s needs all in one safe and welcoming space.”
The countdown to the grand opening has begun, and there is still a lot of finishing touches to take care of – moving collections from storage back into circulation, transferring staff that were relocated to other branches during the renovation and decommissioning sites used for administration during the process, for example. But Martinez and her staff are not worried about the work ahead. They are excited about the process and grateful to everyone that has helped to make it happen.
“City Council has been tremendous champions and supporters, as have Mayor Don Iveson and former Mayor Stephen Mandel. Mayor Iveson was on our board for six years when he was a councillor and he never missed a meeting. Mayor Mandel was the one who initiated the project and continues to champion it. Our staff have such a passion for providing service and connecting customers with knowledge and information. They are our foundation.”
There is another very important person that is quietly watching history unfold at EPL: Dr. Stanley A. Milner. At over 90 years of age, he will see the legacy that bears his name transform into an institution that will continue to benefit the region for countless future generations.
“People contribute through tax dollars but are unaware of the power and access to knowledge that a library card can give you,” concludes Martinez. Indeed, if it’s been awhile since you’ve been to the library, go now and be pleasantly surprised.
“EPL is very proud of the space and service plans developed for the revitalized Milner Library, particularly given our conservative budget compared with other large urban central libraries that have recently opened in Canada and across the world. What people will experience are the innovative and improved services amongst a much more efficient, beautiful and welcoming layout.”
EPL is active on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Learn more about EPL at epl.ca, where you can also access the award-winning podcast, Overdue Fines.