The Changing Library

Libraries have existed for centuries as receptacles of human knowledge and history – ordering it, preserving it, disseminating it. As that knowledge and history has evolved, so too has the nature of the library. Roman libraries, for instance, were often housed in public baths, where it was common practice for people to read aloud. In monastic libraries of the early middle ages, valuable texts painstakingly hand copied by monks were typically chained to the shelves, and loaning, if it occurred at all, involved a large security deposit. In the academic libraries of the 1600s, when students were groomed for church positions, shelves were almost exclusively stocked with sermons and other religiously-themed or philosophical texts.

Readers too have changed. Once an elitist skill, by the mid-19th century reading had reached the commons and the public library movement had introduced the idea that open access to information would benefit society as a whole. Yet despite free public libraries and the increasing number of books pumped out by the steam-powered press and electrotype printing plates, readers did not yet have direct access to reading materials. Antonio Panizzi, an Italian revolutionary who created the first catalogue for the Library of the British Museum wanted “to make the library transparent to readers” by creating easy access to its works. Until then, it was librarians – not patrons – who retrieved books. Panizzi may have been impressed to know that in the future, people wouldn’t need to go anywhere to retrieve information; instead, the digital age has enabled the information to come to them.

“Google is great for finding pub trivia,” says Meyers, “but it can’t put on a toddler story time, or provide personalized assistance with your research paper.”

Card Catalogue area of Main Library in the 1970s. (Image courtesy of UBC Archives)

“Libraries have never been static entities,” according to Eric Meyers, an assistant professor in UBC’s School of Library, Archival & Information Studies. “New technologies, new media resources, and new user needs and behaviours refine the library’s mission.” But the digital age and the readily available resources on the Internet, along with the advent of search engines like Google, have made many wonder whether or not the library as a physical entity is even relevant today. Have libraries become museums for books? In a time of economic contraction, this perception has translated into extensive cuts to library funding and programs.

“If information is (mostly) free and readily available, what,” asks Meyers and many others, “is the library’s edge?” In response to his own question, Meyers says that libraries add value to information. Librarians, services and programs make information not only accessible but understandable, meaningful and enriching. In addition, the library is becoming a hub for social interaction, as well as learning. “Google is great for finding pub trivia,” says Meyers, “but it can’t put on a toddler story time, or provide personalized assistance with your research paper.”

The automated storage and retrieval system was introduced at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre in 2009. (Image courtesy of UBC Library)

According to Ingrid Parent, UBC’s University Librarian, “the purpose of the library is to make connections between people and information and between people and people.” To make these connections, libraries are giving priority to the services they provide, turning resources to what Meyers calls the social aspects of information provision. To this end, shortly after her appointment in 2009, Parent initiated UBC Library’s Strategic Plan, the key themes of which focus on community engagement, the enhancement of learning and managing materials in a digital context. The Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, constructed around the core of UBC’s original Main Library built in the 1920s, hosts in-house art exhibitions and free public lectures. The centre also provides learning services such as technology support, tutoring and peer academic coaching, as well as open access online resources such as the Small Business Accelerator which makes secondary market research, education, and business support services available to BC business owners and entrepreneurs. “These are the kinds of activities that add value to information,” says Meyers. “It’s what libraries do best and what will continue to bring people back.”

A one-stop example of the multiple ways libraries add value to information services through innovative community programming appears on the homepage of the American Library Association as a list called 60 Ways to use Your Library Card. A sampling includes: #6. Learn how to edit your family vacation video, #16. Build a young reader’s self-esteem by letting her read to a dog at the library and #57. Check out seeds to plant in your backyard or family garden. Similar endeavours are sprouting up at libraries worldwide. One example cited by Parent is a library in Nigeria that taught its patrons how to use fertilizer to increase crop yield. These programs illustrate the core value of the free public library system: the lending of information resources and the empowerment of information literacy. “We do not define ourselves by the materials we provide,” says Meyers, “but by what we do with and around our materials to make our communities better places.” Promoting access to and understanding of information is critical to civic participation and it is this role that libraries serve best. As such, libraries are a force for change. This is the theme Parent has chosen for her term as the first Canadian president of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, the leading body representing the interests of libraries and their users.

Andrew Carnegie understood that libraries were a force for change when he decided to fund free public libraries such as the Carnegie Library in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, established in 1901. Here, in the lowest income neighbourhood in Canada, UBC has offered university-level courses for the past 14 years. The Humanities 101 program boasts more than 600 graduates and includes courses on cultural studies, philosophy and library skills, as well as reading and writing groups, lectures, discussions, workshops and a weekly documentary film series. It is this human intermediation that sets the library apart from the steady onslaught of information tidbits available on the Internet. Information literacy programs support skills to find and use digital information effectively. This is the missing link that libraries provide. To facilitate these services though, the space the library inhabits continues to evolve.

As you move through the bright modern space, other oddities arise. Interactive children’s toys adorn the ends of book stacks, engaging new readers in play.

Designed by UBC Alumnus Bing Thom, the Surrey Library’s city centre branch is a place where people connect.

Now retired, Beth Barlow was chief librarian at the City Centre branch when Surrey decided to construct its new library. “We envisioned a place for people to connect with each other, with technology, with the global world of information, and with a few books,” she says. Architect Bing Thom, a UBC alumnus, was chosen to design the space and he focused on the sociability of the library, not on the books. “Only a third of the library is devoted to book stacks,” says Barlow. Years ago, that number would have been at least half, but at City Centre instead of books, the first thing you see when you enter is a cafe and floor-to-ceiling painting by Gordon Smith. As you move through the bright modern space, other oddities arise. Interactive children’s toys adorn the ends of book stacks, engaging new readers in play. Bright green moon chairs with built-in speakers invite teens to listen to audio books. Technology has been used to enhance the library experience, making it more accessible and user-friendly. Here, technology drives the connections that link people and ideas.

“For the last 500 years information was held in books and so we collected books,” says Parent, who stewards 19 branches and divisions at UBC that include more than six million volumes, more than 846,000 maps, audio, video and graphics materials and almost 100,000 serial titles. “Now people say with the digital age libraries are irrelevant but we are not.” In order to adapt to the evolving needs of both faculty and staff, efforts have been made to digitize existing UBC collections and research. Not only are these resources made universally available, digitization helps to “safeguard knowledge legacies of the past while ensuring accessibility for the future.” Initiatives such as the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre’s Digitization Project provide funds to help libraries, archives and museums digitize historical items including First Nation’s material, oral histories, and BC’s earliest newspapers and trial transcripts. “There is an enormous amount of invisible work that the library does behind the scenes to secure license agreements, copyright and access policies, seamless integration of search systems and scholarly materials,” says Meyers. “Students often don’t realize that clicking the UBC link in Google Scholar and pulling up the full-text PDF of a journal article was made possible by the library.”

The UBC Library has expanded its physical fiefdom into the virtual arena and plays a leading role in interpreting copyright and access issues of research materials during what Meyers calls “a time of uncertainty in the Canadian academic context.” Transferring to digital platforms requires changes in scholarly communication, including how information is created and disseminated in university environments. “We have to find new models for opening up the process of doing research, publishing it and then putting it into libraries,” says Parent. “The current model is not working so we are looking at that.”

In an article that ran in the Washington Post in 2001, Linton Weeks wrote: “In the nonstop tsunami of global information, librarians provide us with floaties and teach us how to swim.” This is the edge that libraries offer in the digital age. “We are not waiters who serve information hors d’oeuvres,” says Meyers, “but rather an educative facility that helps people find their own information and make sense of it.” Rather than maintaining themselves as book repositories, libraries worldwide are evolving into hubs of social interaction and knowledge transfer to meet the needs of the 21st century. “Many people think of libraries as a safe place, like a comfort blanket,” says Parent, “but libraries change people’s lives by ensuring the development of a knowledge society.” As Walter Cronkite once said, whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.

Alumni ACard

UBC alumni can pick up an ACard free of charge, which entitles them to a UBC Community Borrower’s Library Card (value $120/year) and gives them discounts on a number of other partner services, including University Golf Club, The Globe & Mail, and UBC Continuing Studies. See for details on how to obtain and activate your ACard.

Irving K. Barber Learning Centre Initiatives

The British Columbia History Digitization Program provides matching funds to undertake digitization projects that will result in free online access to our unique provincial historical material. The program is currently accepting applications for 2013. The deadline is 5pm on December 14, 2012. Find out more on the website:

Curated by professional business librarians, the Small Business Accelerator is a trustworthy point of access to diverse sources of quality online business planning information, education and assistance for BC entrepreneurs. See for more information.



  1. Anita Galanopoulos says:

    Please note the correct spelling of one of broadcasting’s most iconic individuals is CRONKITE not Kronkite.


    Please correct this on the online version of the article at least.

    1. Elizabeth Powell says:

      Oops! Thank you for the correction.

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