By the books

We check out a new library, as an old theatre gets new life as the Woodlawn branch.

For those of us who still love the crackling sound of a book spine, there wasn't any bigger local news in 2010 than the announcement of the new downtown Halifax Central Library. For the past year library staff and the co-architectural teams, Fowler Bauld & Mitchell and schmidt hammer lassen, have listened to Haligonians' dreams for the library in a series of public consultations, which concludes tonight with a design presentation, 6:30pm-9pm at Pier 21.

There's been plenty of talk about mixed-use space, combining traditional library values (quiet areas, books) with new demands (technological advancements, community and performing spaces). But if you're still not convinced that a library is anything more than a bunch of shushing old ladies in buns, we took a long overdue tour to the new Woodlawn Library.

Officially opened on April 24, the Woodlawn Library moved from the old Woodlawn Staples Plaza location into a new, airy, modern 16,656 square-foot space on Eisener Boulevard, four times the size of the old branch. An ingenious reuse of an old Cineplex movie theatre, branch manager Charby Slemin says it took "cement truck after cement truck" to initially level out the floors of each individual theatre space. The old outdoor marquee sign is up, which Slemin says has been "terrific for promotion." On this day it advertises a free screening of a Wallace & Gromit film---the library kept one of the old theatres, so now they can offer a 100-seater accessible auditorium with an ample stage, a green room for performers and a screen that drops from the ceiling. A Criterion license means that the library staff can show films regularly---anywhere from 50 to 60 people show up for Wednesday matinees---but it's also proven popular as a performance venue. Slemin says about 110 people attended a flamenco guitar concert with Bob Sutherby and Daniel MacNeil.

Screens aren't limited to the theatre. In the middle of the library, behind the self-checkout stations and customer service desks, there's a comfortable lounge-style seating area, and, surprisingly, a flat-screen television. During the public consultation sessions the library uses the TV to broadcast a live feed, and those at Woodlawn can tweet back their comments or questions using one of the sleek new 36 public use computers.

For those who still love their library in an old-school way and think that a television borders on heresy, Slemin says you have nothing to worry about---the branch retains its original values. "While libraries have become more and more about shared community space and are more social and intimate, some people still need quiet and reflection space," she explains. So, even though there are PlayStations in the teen area, styled like a cafe with high stools and beanbag-like seats, there are still private study and meeting rooms, and a blissfully quiet adult fiction section, painted a calming ocean blue.

Colours play a big role in defining these spaces, too. The knee-high elementary area is crayon-red, with wee chairs and seating areas ideal for private storytime sessions. Even the little computers look good enough to eat, with colourful keyboards and headphones. The purple and chartreuse teen section is located near the front of the building.

All the design in the world doesn't matter if no one is using the space. Since April, Slemin says they've had 131,200 visitors check out over 3,000 items, which averages about 230 books, music and DVDs an hour. Apparently if you build it, they will read.

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