If you were to distill the myriad of reasons behind the proposed Library-Gallery project down to a word, this would be it.
Speaking to The Interior News, Smithers Public Library (SPL) director Wendy Wright explained the proposal was born out of a collective desire by the two existing entities — the SPL and Smithers Art Gallery (SAG) — for more multi-purpose space.
“Both organizations have grown immensely in terms of the number and variety of programs and events that we offer,” said Wright.
“The library isn’t simply a place to go and borrow things to learn and the art gallery isn’t simply a place to go look at things. We’re offering more and more workshops and lessons and experiences where people can come together.”
Here’s another word: community.
Based on the community-centric, fluid nature of the various programs and events the two organizations currently offer, Wright explained part of what they are looking for in a new building isn’t just more space, but more versatile and multipurpose space that can be set up in a way to accommodate wildly varied kinds of events.
Wright said the proposal for the Library-Gallery does just that and offers users a unique experience, essentially synthesizing the cultural aspects of both under one roof.
“The plan is that you will be able to enjoy … art when you are in the library,” she said.
“There are swinging walls so that when you’re sitting in the reading area you’re looking into the gallery.”
The project would be built right next to the SPL, with slight renovations to the surrounding area including the repositioning of the cenotaph from Veterans Peace Park so it is more visible from Alfred Avenue.
Wright said the new building will also make hosting the wide range of events the two organizations put on easier to manage.
“You can have a place where you can do something messy with kids … and then the very next day have to do something more formal like an art opening or an author reading,” she said.
One of the biggest problems the SPL currently faces is users have a range of needs the library wants to meet, but which are not necessarily all compatible with each other within the current space as it exists.
“A perfect example is we really want children to come to the library and get excited about coming to the library and make it a familiar welcoming place and get excited about books through programs and fun spaces and all of that — but it really doesn’t help someone who is writing an exam a few feet away.”
With this in mind, the proposed space would also feature dedicated study areas and a reservable multi-purpose meeting room that includes access to washrooms and would be accessible even when the rest of the building is closed.
Currently, the Library-Gallery fundraising committee is waiting for approval of a $12.8 million grant application the Town made to the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program, a joint provincial-federal grant program that funds up to 90 per cent of projected costs for towns between 5,000 and 25,000 people.
That announcement is expected in early 2020. If approved and if the required referendum passes, they expect to complete final design and construction tendering in 2020 with a projected completion date of 2022.
Originally the Town had looked at combining a number of community organizations under one roof at Central Park, including the SPL, SAG, community radio station, tourism centre and (on weekends) the farmers market.
“Council realized a number of organizations desperately needed a new space but that putting them all under one roof would be too expensive and really leave no park at Central Park,” explained Wright.
Despite the idea not coming to fruition, the SPL and SAG did like the idea of collaborating on a space, and this aspect of the proposal moved forward.
“It was decided to come up with an arts and culture plan for Smithers rather than an arts and culture building,” said Wright.
“It was decided that the Art Gallery and Library would fit well together because of their needs for multipurpose spaces and that that would be the first phase … of that plan.”
Now, some two-and-a-half-years later, the seeds of that plan are starting to sprout.
A fundraising campaign started by Harvey and Corry Tremblay in Fall 2018 pledged to match funds raised for the project up to $1 million.
It has currently raised over $733,000.
Most recently, a musical fundraiser at the Della Herman Theatre raised just over $1,200 for the project.
“It’s a real strong reflection on Smithers and how supportive the community is,” said Wally Bergen, chair of the library board and co-chair of the Library-Gallery fundraising committee.
“I think it’s a very strong recognition how the people of the Bulkley Valley realize that there are essential services of a social nature that make a difference for our community.”
Wright said on top of being able to have quicker turnaround on converting one area to a potential other usage, extra space means the Library will be able to offer more selection on their shelves, with the SPL asking architects to build in up to 30 per cent more shelf space for select collections in the proposed building.
She said it will be a nice change of pace from having to take books off the shelves to make way for new stock.
“I ran a report on our adult fiction section a few weeks ago and [we] probably got rid of … about 15 or 20 boxes of adult fiction just so that we could put in new books.”
In terms of space issues, it isn’t just books the SPL has to manage. Wright said most of the craft supplies and similar items they use for community events live under the building itself, in one of multiple crawlspaces only accessible by moving wheeled shelving units out from on top of them and climbing down concealed trap doors.
But beyond the logistical reasons for wanting more space, she also expressed a desire for the new Library-Gallery to be a synthesization of the two organizations, which she characterized as unique in their own right, but having many complementary elements, especially within the context of an ideal communal space for the town.
“So many people come to the library, so many adults, just to be in a social place … they choose to come read their newspaper or their magazine or do their crossword at the library because they’re surrounded by people and they feel part of the community.
“The plan is that you will be able to enjoy this art when you are in the library and when we look at the plans we can see that there are swinging walls so that when you’re sitting in the reading area you’re looking into the gallery and art from the gallery will be hung throughout the library as well.”
The building would also offer a more accessible library to its users, with extra space meaning they won’t have to have books prohibitively high or low on their shelves, which Wright and Bergen said can be challenging for children or people with mobility issues to access.
“Not only are we increasing the books but we’re going to increase the availability of the books so for people who are short in height and for people who have some sort of a disability then that access is there,” said Bergen.
Another aspect of the new space is it would allow for more physical space between Library sections, with Wright noting they would like to increase space between the organization’s aisles in the new building.
The above changes are done with the overarching theme of making the SPL more accessible in mind.
Wright said she is feeling very optimistic about the prospect of funding for the project under the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program.
“It’s hard to wait, we’ve had so much support from the community.”
Bergen echoed Wright’s response and added he feels people in the Bulkley Valley recognize the importance of a robust arts scene as evidenced by their support for the project in terms of both donations and vocal support.
“We talk about essential services and we think in terms of fire, hospital, police, water, sewer — things of that nature. But another bank of essential services for any good community are the delivery of social services,” said Bergen.
“Communities that have faltering libraries or poor libraries are not very dynamic, progressive communities and communities on a whole that have a really dynamic library tend to be really creative, supportive accepting, tolerant communities and it’s kind of like a circle: one builds the other and one feeds upon the other, but it’s a very valuable circle to have.”
“These are the things that feed our soul.”