The Wellington County Library system in rural southwestern Ontario is working hard to ensure Andrew Carnegie’s assertion that “a library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people” is as valid today as it was at the turn of the 20th century, when the Scottish-American philanthropist funded more than 2,500 libraries worldwide.
The county is set to begin construction on a $4-million branch, located on a millpond in the heart of the village of Hillsburgh. The proposal features modern amenities while safeguarding the heritage value of the site, says chief librarian Murray McCabe. The design will incorporate the 1892 heritage home located on the property while maintaining the existing streetscape. “The library will wrap around the back of the building and provide views of the water,” McCabe says.
After being located in a strip mall for 20 years, McCabe is excited about how the branch’s new location – which includes a children’s area, community kitchen, and public meeting-room space – will serve as a local hub. The millpond property, which had previously been in private hands, will be accessible to the public for the first time. The property has a long history with ties to the Toronto distillery Gooderham & Worts. According to a report by Elysia DeLaurentis at the Wellington County Museum and Archives, Gooderham & Worts built a flourmill on the Hillsburgh site in 1852. Later, it built a cooperage beside the mill and the barrels made there were shipped by rail for use at its Toronto distillery. The mill burned down in 1870.
The new Hillsburgh Library, which will house a 30,000-item collection, is the final project in an approximately $30-million investment to modernize, renovate, or build new branches for the 14 rural communities the library system serves. Funded by the county from its tax levy and capital reserves, the initiative includes five Carnegie libraries that were updated to meet modern accessibility standards and outfitted with new digital services. This past spring, the Palmerston branch, built in 1903, reopened after a $3.5-million renovation, which enhanced the building’s heritage features while creating barrier-free access and space for a digital media lab.
“It’s really an amazing story to see a smaller system invest so much money in modernizing libraries,” says McCabe. “The library board and council have made libraries a priority.”
In addition to investing in bricks and mortar, the library also strives to provide the latest in technology and training. For many residents in rural Ontario, high-speed Internet is either non-existent or unaffordable. Wellington County is one of the first rural library systems to make high-speed Internet hotspots available for its patrons to borrow. Across the 14 branches, 70 Wi-Fi hotspots are available to be checked out for up to seven days at a time, providing unlimited Internet access for as many as 15 devices at once. The hotspots have been a boon to local students, job seekers, and small-business owners who don’t have high-speed access.
According to McCabe, rural libraries play a key role in keeping people connected and reducing the digital divide between rural and urban kids. Chromebooks and iPads, some supplied by the local school board, ensure online access for the broader community. The library also allows patrons to experiment with new technologies such as green screens and maker kits, with four 3-D printers rotating through the 14 branches. Cubelets – individual robot blocks that act as sensors, motors, or lights – are teaching kids how to write code. “They help kids understand what instructions are needed to make something work,” says McCabe. “They’ve been a huge hit.” Programs that teach users how to operate various technologies are also offered – tech camps have proven popular with both teenagers and seniors.
Yet, while investment in facilities and technology is necessary, McCabe also believes in the importance of human interaction. “The staff makes the difference,” he says. “They have a real connection to the local communities and know what people need.” It’s through innovation and anticipating the needs of their patrons, McCabe suggests, that libraries continue to be important economic drivers. Back when the Carnegie libraries were built, the railroad was essential – now rural libraries can provide that connection, he says. “In some ways history repeats itself.”