Moving on from the St. Albert Public Library Board: an occasion for bittersweet reflection

Your blogger with some of his fellow library trustees at last night’s farewell performance as chair of the St. Albert Public Library Board. Hasta la vista! Below: St. Albert Place. There’s no sign, but the library’s in there somewhere.


Last night I attended my last meeting as chair, and as a member, of the St. Albert Public Library Board. After six years as a volunteer on the library board, and two years as chair, a city policy says my time is up.

From now on, I’m just another library patron. So be it.

But as a strong believer in public libraries – and public services – it seems appropriate to call this a bittersweet occasion.

Certainly, during my tenure on the board, we have accomplished some great things for the people of St. Albert. Our library is clearly the most popular public facility in the city – heavily used, usually crowded, a community centre for citizens of all ages and interests.

It always gave me great satisfaction to join the crowd of 30 to 50 people that gathers almost every Sunday before the library opens at 1 p.m., standing, as Shakespeare said in another context, like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start.

If our public library doesn’t hit the landmark of a million items loaned in 2014, it will surely do so the year after that.

The appointment of Peter Bailey as director, a decision that I am proud to have played a small role in making, has revitalized library services in St. Albert. Today, we couldn’t have more well-attended programs at the library – and I mean that literally, since the facility doesn’t have the activity space to accommodate them.

And last fall, public libraries in St. Albert, Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan and Sherwood Park introduced the Me Card – a program that makes it easy for you to use your local library card at any of the region’s major libraries.

I’d be a liar if I said I enjoyed every minute of every single library board meeting I’ve attended, but I have certainly gotten a lot of satisfaction from the experience of contributing to the operations of this essential, widely appreciated and constantly improving public service.

That said – and I suppose it’s impolitic of me to say this, but what the heck – I’ve also found being a library trustee in St. Albert a frustrating and sometimes troubling experience.

Issues have arisen that I believe should concern any citizen of St. Albert who values literacy, free access to information and the other hallmarks of a truly democratic society to which public libraries make such a vast contribution.

My greatest frustration has been the lack of commitment – or even connection – by our elected city councillors to St. Albert’s public library or library services generally.

Oh, councillors will always say something nice about the library – it would be risky for elected officials to say anything else about such a popular facility. But while they talk the talk, they seldom walk the walk or even lift a finger to do anything practical to help solve the library’s increasing space needs.

As a library user, you might not see this – but I can tell you that almost all the space in the library is now in use by the public, leaving very little room for such essential behind-the-scenes tasks as cataloguing new books. There can’t be many more programs because there are no more program rooms. Last year, the library had to discard close to 27,000 books because a lack of shelf space means that for every new book that comes in, an old one must go out.

But in my time on the board, library trustees were constantly sent conflicting signals by Mayor Nolan Crouse and council about what kind of a project might succeed in getting meaningful new space.

If the board tried to go along with what the Mr. Crouse and council seemed to signal one day might be an acceptable approach, the signals quickly changed. One year we were encouraged to back a large new facility on the edge of town. Another it was a floor of a new building downtown. The next it was more rooms in St. Albert Place. Next maybe it’ll be something compatible with the Downtown Area Redevelopment Plan.

It was all smoke. Nothing ever happened. I couldn’t shake the feeling we were just being kept busy.

Toward the end of my term, I concluded that trying to support any of these ideas was a waste of time, because no sooner did the board do that, than the mayor and council moved on to some other bright shiny idea.

What this really says is that there was little interest in, and less commitment to, doing anything to improve library services by the last council – and, sorry, but I very much doubt this will change much with the current one.

There are some new councillors there who have voiced some support for library services, and they’ll be thinking about their priorities next month, but I wouldn’t advise holding your breath waiting for positive developments. Leastways, not unless the library can figure out a way to include a new sheet of ice or a multi-storey parking lot in its plans.

Part of this has to do with the interests and enthusiasms of key council members.

Part also has to do with council’s legitimate fear of the disproportionate influence wielded by the various public and anonymous anti-public-service groups in this city – which as far as I can tell are made up of the same two dozen or so noisy and well-funded individuals who speak through a variety of real and imaginary on-line identities.

Since this tiny group apparently views library services as a “special interest,” and seems to think everything libraries do can be jammed into a thumb drive anyway, we shouldn’t look for much support from the people who now seem to be driving the policy train in St. Albert. I suppose we should be thankful they haven’t also concluded that since we have running water we can cut taxes by eliminating the fire service!

Another troubling recent development has been the unexplained and unjustified decision by Mayor Crouse and City Manager Patrick Draper that the library’s administration and staff should be separated from the city’s other employees.

Library staff are no longer invited to the city’s annual staff long-service banquet. Unlike his Edmonton counterpart, the library director doesn’t get to attend meetings of the city’s senior managers. Library staff phone numbers are no longer listed in the city’s internal directory. And, on one occasion, while city staff sheltered in the containment-vessel-like council chamber, library staff and patrons weren’t informed Environment Canada had issued a tornado warning! I kid you not. You can’t make up stuff like this!

The reason? Well, Mr. Crouse and Mr. Draper can speak for themselves, but I’m guessing it’s connected to the fact that under the Alberta Libraries Act the city administration doesn’t get to tell the library director what to do. That’s the job of trustees – who, yes, have been jealous of their legal authority. Council, of course, gets to appoint those trustees – which in my opinion ought to be enough.

What this portends, if anything, I am not certain, but it should concern anyone who thinks about the future public library services here in St. Albert.

Finally, a personal gripe, after six years of talking, I could never even make a little headway on the modest idea of getting a permanent sign for the library – despite the fact I am sure there are still many St. Albertans who don’t know where the library is located, inside St. Albert Place at 5 St. Anne Street, or even if there is one.

So, with my term now at an end, my effectiveness as a library trustee must surely be described as mixed, at best.

I’ll look back on the job with fondness, but with frustration.

I doubt we’ll ever see the needs of the St. Albert Public Library addressed until our community’s real taxpayers send an unequivocal message to their council representatives stating that’s what they expect.

4 Comments on "Moving on from the St. Albert Public Library Board: an occasion for bittersweet reflection"

  1. jerrymacgp says:

    Is St Albert Place a Douglas Cardinal building? It sure has the curvilinear design characteristic of his work.

    Have you ever been in the (fairly) new Grande Prairie Public Library, in the Montrose Cultural Centre, on 103 Ave at 98 Street? Bright and airy, it has two levels, with Adults and Teens section on the main floor, and the Children’s Library on the upper level. There is plenty of programme space, as well as two public meeting rooms for community users. The lobby also includes a gourmet coffee shop (not the 800-kb gorilla from Seattle, either) and access to the newly rebuilt Art Gallery of Grande Prairie.

    I hope the St Albert Public Library appreciates what it is losing with your retirement from your role there: a strong advocate for public services such as libraries.

    • Yes, Jerry, St. Albert Place is a Douglas Cardinal building. In that there is more good than bad – it is a beautiful and inspiring structure – but there ARE problems that inevitably come with such a location. While the building is not a provincially designated historical site, it ought to be, and probably eventually will be, and so there are bound to be restrictions beyond the architect’s own very strict caveats on what may be done with the building. (That’s part of the problem with the sign – it can’t be part of the structure.) An expansion of the existing portion of the building dedicated to the library, while possible, is bound to be controversial – anathema to politicians looking to be re-elected – as well as more expensive than a conventional building. Moreover, as I once read of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, great architecture can be a challenge to live with. The curving lines of SAP are beautiful, but not ideal for stacks of books, which, guess what, best line up in ranks and files. In other words, when form fails to follow function, function is impaired. St. Albert Public Library, in my opinion, needs a functional building.

  2. Don Sampson says:

    Well now I suppose I can get out my “Don’t blame me I voted Climenhaga” bumper sticker. All joking is it really a good investment to pump millions of dollars into a building that likely will see shrinking demand over the coming decades? In a world of ebooks and the internet in 5 years we will likely find that we have too much space allocated to the library.

  3. K. Larsen says:

    Thank you for pitching in to keep building a decent Alberta for the rest of us by serving on the Public Library Board. Here in the south I often order books from my public library which come from your library and others across Alberta – which shows we are all stronger when we work together.

    In most pioneer Alberta communities the first order of business was building a public school which doubled as a public library and a community legislature. A public library was usually included in the town hall as the next major construction.

    But hey, these were just farmers working together to establish a decent civilization in a not so hospitable place. It is a pity the obviously too soft and entitled yappy business creeps sabotaging public services in your city and across the country are ignorant of a history the vast majority of Albertans treasure.

    However, they are following the lead of the book burners in the Harper Conservatives who have just destroyed one the world’s leading university research libraries dealing with fresh water located at the University of Manitoba.

    To paraphrase an old friend, most of our ancestors came here to escape these destructive creeps and parasites but it looks like they have found us.