Wendy Wright, director of the Smithers Public Library, sees libraries as “the great levellers;” a force for democracy and life-long learning.
“Libraries are a place where anyone — no matter what their income, what their background, whether they are new to Canada, whether they are a senior, a teen, whatever their political or religious leanings are — they can come to the library and they can all access the exact same services and materials,” Wright said to me as I sat down with her in December of 2018. “They are one of the very last places where you can come and use the space and the services for free.”
“Some people who don’t use libraries think all we have are books. That is absolutely not true. Not only do we have all the technology that people borrow and use here, but we also have these rich opportunities for people in the community to share what they know with each other. It also makes all these personal connections between the people in our community.”
In the year 2018, the Smithers Public Library had lent out over 110,000 items, be it book, e-book, audiobook, DVD, or other form of media publication — approximately 38,000 of which were children’s books.
“Think of a town this size. Think of how much money local families would have to pay if they were buying 38,000 children’s books,” Wright said. “This is the value of libraries for your tax dollars. Even if you don’t use them yourself, think of your relatives or your neighbours. I challenge anyone to look down their street or through their family and find anybody who doesn’t benefit from their public library.”
According to Wright, the current library building suffers from space limitations that negatively impact their ability to serve the people of the town.
“It’s like when someone has come to write an exam, but they have to be put next to someone having a tutoring session. Or someone has come to do quiet study and research, and we’re having a children’s program. So you got 80 kids running around yelling and singing and having a great time, which is what we want, but it doesn’t work for the person doing quiet study,” said Wright. “Our children’s programs are so successful and so popular and important, but we don’t have anywhere near enough room for them. It’s so crowded and it happens all the time.”
Because of this, Wright sees and wants others to know the necessity of the upcoming cultural center: a building that will house the town library, art gallery, and other educational resources for people to access free of charge.
Nicole Chernish, manager of the Smithers Art Gallery, agrees. Both Chernish and Wright see the new cultural center as a way for both the library and the art gallery to offer more to the community.
“When you have a purpose-built space, it allows for creativity, flexibility, and ownership of a space for the community that you don’t necessarily have when you move into an existing space. [Our current building] is not a purpose-built space,” said Chernish, referring to how the current art gallery was once a pottery studio. “It suited us very well and allowed us to grow to the stage where we are at, but having a purpose-built space allows us to really make that space accessible to everyone. Kind of exciting.”
“In the current design [of the new building] … there’s a lot of flexibility built into the space so that we can open up to the library. We can open up the workshop spaces and we can do those kinds of things. It allows us to really invite the public in,” said Chernish. “The flexibility that working with the library and having the new space provides for, not only the gallery and the library, but also for the community. There are always going to be those things that aren’t perfect. But for sure we can work through those things to make the space as great as it could be.”
With the new building will come an added focus on information technology and programs aimed at teenagers and young adults, a demographic both Wright and Chernish feel have been overlooked by both the library and the gallery in the past.
“Teens really need a free place to come hang out and spend time, either alone or with friends. and this is one of the only places you can go where you don’t have to buy something.”
Wright brought out a layout of the new building as we spoke.
“In this current building there is no teen area. But in this new building, you can see this whole section here,” she pointed towards an area in the plans. “It’s for teens. It will have some beanbags, a small couch, and a worktable for groups.”
“We don’t have a youth center here in town. And that’s an area we are excited about, is creating a place where youth can come and do programming, and that they feel comfortable being at the library,” said Chernish. “It’s kind of a transitional stage where technology can become the most important thing in a teenager’s life. But access to the library and visual arts through programming and just being in the space can really be an exciting place to look at, at how we are going to do that.”
Senior citizens will also be able to benefit from the library’s information technology programs.
“A lot of people think that everybody has a cellphone, everyone has internet at home, everyone has an iPad and everyone knows how to use those things. But the truth is that is not the case,” said Wright. “The library not only provides free computer and internet wifi sessions, we also teach people how to use the internet. We have a service where you can book a free, half-hour appointment with a computer tutor and they will teach you how to use your phone or laptop or tablet to do anything from setting up an email account to Skyping with your grandchildren.”
“We don’t want to have barriers to accessibility,” said Chernish. “I would absolutely invite anybody who has questions or input that they should definitely be talking to either people at the library, or to me at the gallery, so we can find out what exactly the community wants from the gallery as well.”