What is a library?
In the 1920s, the Houston “library” was actually a pair of book pools: one gathered by Clara Davies, wife of a hotelier, and the other by Rev. Allan Brayside, an Anglican minister. Together, they boasted having “readers in a distance of 20 miles.”
By the late 1950s, postmistress Nora Newgard had made a library out of a few shelves in the post office, where people could easily pick up a book with their daily mail.
Until 1984, when it finally settled into a 10,000 book collection housed in a former medical clinic on 13th Avenue, the Houston library bounced between a private home, a bank office, a doctor’s office, the village office, even a safe spot tucked by the fire hall.
Today, librarian Toni McKilligan says she loves where she works.
“It’s very open, very inviting,” McKilligan says, sitting on a couch with program director Marlee Johnson and speaking well above a “Shh!” voice. Behind them stand brightly coloured picture books, new releases, DVDs, a checkers table, and several bright windows looking onto Jamie Baxter Park.
But just because it’s finally rooted in one spot doesn’t mean the Houston library is no longer on the move.
One big shift came in December 2010.
“No one was prepared for it, but everybody and their dog got e-readers for Christmas,” said McKilligan. Two weeks later, she said the library’s online readership flipped from a trickle of audiobook listeners to a steady stream of e-book downloaders.
“Ninety per cent of our electronic services is now in e-books,” she said.
It’s a sign of a growing trend. In Surrey, a brand-new library holds books on just a third of its floor space: the rest is set up with meeting rooms, computer tables, even a video-game centre. Some university libraries already run online without books or a building, McKilligan says.
“I think we’ll always need a building,” she says. “But libraries are not going to be places where you mainly pick up material to read.”
Johnson says the idea of a book-less library is “a bit scary.”
As a girl growing up in the remote forest ranger stations around Prince George, Johnson says she never had a library to go to.
“I had Nancy Drew and those kinds of books,” she said. “But we mainly played outside, morning to night.”
McKilligan, on the hand, is excited to go digital, even if the shape of future libraries is slightly uncertain.
“I hope I hang in there long enough to see it,” she says, laughing. “Don’t get me wrong. I love books. I love the feel of them, the turn of the pages, everything about them.”
“But honestly, it’s inevitable. And I’m all for it.”
As a book buyer, McKilligan says that for the price of one print book, she can now buy three digital editions. And that kind of purchasing power takes on extra importance given how B.C.’s libraries budgets are dwindling.
“My operating grant that I get from the province is the same today as it was in 1987,” she said. “It has hasn’t changed, but the cost of books has tripled.”
What goes for books is also true for other materials, like magazines. Rather than pay $1,200 a year for the small set of print magazines the library subscribes to now, McKilligan says she could narrow those titles and pay just $400 to give readers access to some 35,000 magazines online.
“From my perspective as a librarian, going digital would make everyone’s life so much easier,” she adds.
“The books would never be overdue. People can’t drop them in the bathtub. They’re not going to get left on airplanes.”
“And you don’t need to worry about how to dispose of them after they leave your shelf—it’s just ‘delete,’ and they’re gone.”
But if libraries are becoming less about books, they are also becoming more and more about people.
As program coordinator, Johnson sees that first hand. A former daycare owner, Johnson has run three children’s programs so far this year, and has plans for more.
“Now I’m planning programs for kids to seniors, which I’ve never done before, and it’s fun” she says. “I love it.”
This week, Johnson is organizing is community art show co-hosted by the Bulkley Valley Community Arts Council. Anyone who drops by the library before the artist’s reception on Friday night will see a show of paintings, photography and other works by Houston artists.
“We’re hoping the public comes to see the art and vote, because they’re the ones who will decide who wins in each category,” she says.
And with the school year winding down, McKilligan and Johnson are getting set to welcome some 60 kids into the library’s summer reading club.
Guided by the curious theme of “Strange… But True?” Johnson said this year’s reading club will lead kids through seven weeks of games, crafts and story time. before wrapping up with a BBQ for the young readers and their parents.
Not to be left out, adults will be treated to a reading by author Diana Philips on June 7, and can join a library book club of their own.
After a few years reading with the book club, McKilligan says it’s been a great success.
“We read a lot of books that I’d never read myself. Some of them turn out to be really, really good.”
As for the duds, McKilligan says she’s learned a trick to a successful book club is knowing you can say, “That sucked!”
“The first year I diligently read every page of every book, and did a little background on the author to make sure I understood it. Now, if I don’t like it, I ain’t gonna finish it,” she said, smiling.
“There’s way too many cool books out there to read.”