When you can buy books for cheap on Amazon and research anything online from the comfort of your home, it's easy to dismiss public libraries as dying institutions, crumbling museums for dusty old texts.
But libraries have never been about the books — not really. They're about knowledge, and that's never been in greater supply. Gone are the days when public libraries were book warehouses where stern librarians would shush you if you spoke above a whisper.
Walk into your local library today, and you'll probably find a bustling community space as likely to have a digital gaming station as it is to house ceiling-high stacks of books. "We want to get away from the old stereotypes of shushing in the library. We want it to be a vibrant and interactive place," Kathryn Goodhue, CEO of the Brantford Public Library said. "It's exciting time in libraries."
Her southwestern Ontario library features a green screen, a 3D printer, "makers' spaces" where people create personal projects, and a help desk where librarians will help with any digital task.
Got a new smartphone and not sure how to use it? Bring it to the library.
We're really talking about helping to build digital literacy in our communities," Goodhue said.
The Pickering Public Library just outside Toronto is buzzing over its new 3D printer.
"As soon as we put it out, the kids were just watching it and they figured out how to use it in just seconds. And then they were teaching each other, and then they started teaching older people how to use it," the library's CEO, Cathy Grant, said.
"Libraries have always been about learning, and this is the type of learning that's pervasive now ... Learning is done through books, and we're good at that, but learning is also collaborative."
The transformation from book museum to thriving, tech-savvy community space is happening across the country, as many communities ponder what to do with their aging library buildings.
The long-time connection with communities has given libraries the clout to innovate through public support.
"They have a keen sense of what's happening at the grassroots and are very responsive in trying to meet those needs," Marie DeYoung, president of the Canadian Library Association, said. "Qualified, of course, by funding, which is always a challenge."
In Ontario, library funding was cut almost in half in the mid-'90s, and it hasn't returned.
At the federal level, the Conservatives cut 20% of the workforce at Library and Archives Canada in 2012.
That's forced libraries to find creative ways to raise funds, whether through donations or partnerships.
"We get it. Taxpayers are strapped ... and if we can figure a way to do something without having to ask for more money, why wouldn't we?" Goodhue said.
But more often than not, people will go to bat for their libraries.
The new $57.6-million Halifax Central library is set to open in the fall of 2014. (Handout)
Halifax is slated to open its new state-of-the-art $57.6-million central library, funded by all three levels of government, this fall.
The five-floor behemoth will be home to two music studios, two coffee shops, two gaming centres, patios overlooking the ocean and a 300-seat auditorium. "Nobody says, 'Wow, this not a good use of our money,' because we did this community consultation and the community told us, 'This is what we want,'" Bruce Gorman, director of central library and regional services for Halifax Public Libaries, said.
And the new space will even have books. In fact, it plans to double its collection.
Despite the changes, librarians everywhere seem to agree — there will always be a place for books at the library.
"I don't think you're going to see books disappear in the near future," Goodhue said. "My 14-year-old daughter -- she doesn't want an e-book; she wants a real book."
School libraries at risk of extinction
While public libraries have adapted to retain their status as thriving community hubs, school libraries have been undergoing a long, slow death by a thousand cuts.
School libraries rely on school budgets, which rely on provincial education funding. When money gets tight, libraries are among the first on the chopping block.
As of 2013, 56% of Ontario elementary schools had a teacher-librarian, down from 80% in 1997, and 11% have no staff at all, according to the Ontario Library Association.
B.C. saw its teacher-librarians decrease 35% between 2001 and 2010, according to the National Reading Campaign. Nova Scotia has no teacher-librarians at all since its controversial 2012 cuts. New Brunswick has just three.
"It's a concern that we have within our library community — the struggle school libraries are facing pretty much across Canada for funding and for simply presence in schools," Marie DeYoung, president of the Canadian Library Association, said.