At the end of this month, Calgary will break ground on a $245-million, 240,000-sq-ft. library in the East Village, a former industrial neighbourhood being groomed for revitalization. It’s the city’s most expensive, largest-scale undertaking in decades: Its glassy blue-grey facade, resembling a canoe-cum-spaceship, careens over a curving light-rail track, luring in pedestrians with an outdoor café and transparent theatre space. It will house 600,000 books, a technology commons, an innovation lab and $2 million in public art initiatives.

“It’s not just a building to hold books or a building to hold technology,” says Rob Adamson, a principal at Dialog, the local firm developing the project with Norwegian designers Snøhetta. “It’s really a building for people‚ because any building filled with books is just a warehouse of books.”

Photograph by Carla Antonio

Among Canadian cities, Calgary isn’t alone. While a glorified warehouse of books—which also sells housewares, electronics, clothes and toys, and promises to deliver all by drone—has turned on its head the bookselling business, we are seeing something of a renaissance in library design. The ebook has not staunched libraries’ innovation; it’s paved the way for it. The public library in Orillia, Ont., opened in 2011, combines double-height windows with Spanish terracotta tiles to match the nearby Victorian-era opera house, in what’s fast becoming a warm and inviting cultural neighbourhood. Surrey, B.C.’s LEED Gold–certified city-centre library boasts a green roof, a meditation area and a gaming room with a flat-screen TV. The Halifax Central Library is a stunning, $57.6-million building with a looming glass cantilever hanging over a stack of glass boxes; Edmonton has hired a “robot handler” to teach hacking and host robo-battles; and, in a Quebec City suburb, the Bibliothèque Monique-Corriveau rents out pedometers as part of a public walking initiative.

“Libraries are no longer these temples or repositories of books; they’re much more community centres, really—the urban living room,” says Shirley Blumberg, a founding partner of KPMB Architects, which designed downtown Toronto’s sleek new Fort York branch. Like branches across Canada, Fort York boasts a free-for-use 3D printer and makers’ space; visitors have created jewellery and toys, and one couple made tiny cake-topper replicas of themselves for their upcoming wedding—all for free.

The Halifax library was shortlisted for the 2015 World Building of the Year Award / Photograph by Carla Antonio

These phrases—“urban living room,” “makers’ space”—are among a flurry of modern buzzwords being thrust into public vernacular by architects, urban designers and city planners. They describe libraries as an ideal “third place” (as opposed to the first two, home and work), no longer “temples of knowledge,” but rather “innovation labs” and “community spaces” with “digital literary librarians.” The message is clear: Libraries are no longer just for books. Libraries are part of the future.

Few exemplify this new vision better than the Halifax Central Library, which sees 6,000 daily visitors and is primed to help the city revitalize its struggling downtown. Visitors are led up a maze of thick, off-kilter white staircases to state-of-the-art kids’ toys, gaming computers and lounge furniture that pops with lime green and pale orange, from which anyone can glimpse a uniquely panoramic city view. “We tried to come up with a scheme, proposal and interior that would be very different from the civic buildings that you’re used to,” says Morten Schmidt, a senior partner at the Danish firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen, which designed the building with local architects Fowler, Bauld & Mitchell.

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Schmidt’s firm has made a global name for its radical libraries, and Halifax’s—shortlisted for the 2015 World Building of the Year Award—is no exception. City officials are crossing their fingers that the building’s international profile will boost economic and tourism numbers—a Bilbao effect, swapping the museum for a library.

In fact, librarians across Canada are hoping for a similar pull—with or without a new building. Administrators in Cambridge, Ont., have rebranded their system completely, ditching the stuffy “Cambridge Libraries and Galleries” moniker for a new title altogether—“Cambridge Idea Exchange.” Not everyone is buying it. “If it smells like crap, that’s probably what it is,” wrote one reader of the Cambridge Times. “I haven’t been in a library in probably 20 years, and I’m not likely to go to one just because you change the name of it.”

Danish partner Schmidt Hammer Lassen has designed similar structures in Europe / Photograph by Carla Antonio

New-generation librarians are walking a delicate line. They must draw technophiles, tourists and families with young children without alienating their core audience: passionate readers. But by emphasizing digital-only spaces, 3D printers, ebooks and multimedia rentals over printed-page loans, some forward-thinking administrators have become targets for zealous library purists.

The loudest example was the proposed $300-million New York Public Library redesign in 2012. In response to a 41 per cent plunge in collection use over the previous 15 years, staff wanted to redo the library’s iconic 42nd Street branch interior by shipping millions of hard copies to a warehouse in New Jersey, simultaneously transforming its little-used offices and reading rooms into public space, thereby opening up a third of the building previously inaccessible to the public. But the public was not pleased. One critic derided the plan as creating “a glorified Internet café,” while three separate lawsuits were launched expressly to prevent the revamp. The library scrapped its plans in May 2014.

Photograph by Carla Antonio

The problem of how to renew public interest is not new. “The library buildings of the future must be a total departure from the buildings of the past,” Joseph Wheeler wrote prophetically in his 1941 book, The American Public Library Building. “With a few exceptions, they have given the people of America the false impression that libraries are aloof, unaware of what is going on in the world, unresponsive to current problems and demands . . . The new generation of librarians and architects must rise up with a mighty resolution to crush this evil tradition in design.”

It took six decades and the invention of the Internet for Wheeler’s ideas to come true, but the fight for libraries’ human-scaled shelves and meditation rooms has been brewing for well over a century. Starting in 1880, steel baron and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie began commissioning what would become 2,509 libraries across the world, including 125 in Canada, all with the express purpose of tearing down libraries’ daunting image: no more bookshelves so high, you needed a ladder to reach them, or entrance staircases so huge, you’d be out of breath by the time you opened the massive front doors. Carnegie dreamed of libraries with auditoriums, separated children’s rooms and even swimming pools. But perhaps his most enduring innovation was the concept of open stacks, whereby anyone could find and grab a book on their own, dispelling the perception of librarians as knowledge gatekeepers.

Architecturally, however, his buildings didn’t match his ideas. With air conditioning and electricity suddenly ubiquitous, these 20th-century structures shifted toward artificial light and deeper floor plans, retaining stately and reserved facades with towering columns, arched doors and flat roofs.

For the next several decades, libraries more or less stagnated in a sea of grey-scale carpets, bland beige walls and stiff metal stacks, even as their purposes skewed more utilitarian. Teenagers, moms with kids and recent immigrants began appropriating the spaces; many libraries adapted, allowing in food, expanding non-English sections and offering ESL classes.

Art Installation by artist Cliff Eyland, born and raised in Halifax / Photograph by Carla Antonio

Morten Schmidt noticed how we Canadians have clutched this people-first concept in one key way when it comes to design plans: We hold more public consultations than anywhere else. In Europe, he says, architects are trusted artists, given free reign to run with ideas; here, taxpayers demand to know where their money is going.

When it comes to public buildings, that isn’t such a bad idea. “Libraries are one of the few real public places where everyone is welcome,” says Brock James, a senior partner at LGA Architectural Partners, which recently completed Toronto’s 100th branch in Scarborough with a comparatively modest budget of $9 million. James points out how the library was built—as all libraries are now—specifically for its neighbourhood. With clear glass walls revealing sturdy wooden beams that lean together like chopsticks, the structure looks almost camouflaged among the surrounding trees of the modest Civic Centre Park, while a green roof helps to control rainfall and adds to the view for the growing number of nearby highrise condo-dwellers.

The cards in Eyland's installation are 3x5, the size of a traditional library index card / Photograph by Carla Antonio

Inside, the library is pin-drop quiet. A man splays out near the front, newspaper in one hand and coffee in the other, while others sit around communal tables with laptops and food. A gaggle of children runs in and gets lost among the stacks, which are equipped with wheels; in case budget cuts force the library’s book collection to shrink, staff can rearrange the entire floor plan in a few hours. This is future-proofing, James explains. Libraries, after all, have to be ready for anything.