Big Idea: How Iconic Can a Library Be in the 21st Century?

Construction on Calgary’s new Central Library is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2015, with a prospective finish date in 2018. Teams of architects have been battling to design the new building, with the final architectural team to be unveiled in October. All this competition to design the new library begs a few questions: What does a library mean in the digital age? Can a library still be considered an iconic building despite rampant digitization?

The Race to Design Calgary's New Library

The competition to design the Central Library opened in May, and if the number of submissions means anything, designing a library is still a big deal. The Calgary Municipal Land Corporation received 38 submissions by the end of June, from local architects as well as architects based as far as New York, Copenhagen and Tokyo. With a selection committee judging the submissions, the competitive search will ensure that the winning architect is highly qualified, creative and more than ready to take on a project of this size.

The fierce competition to be the architect for the new Calgary library illustrates that a library can still be an iconic building, despite our move toward digitization. The birth of the e-book doesn’t have to mean the death of the public library. Constant change and upgrading means that a library is no longer a cultural institution that simply houses books: now, it is an accessible, affordable hub of learning.

Why the Excitement over a Library?

Consider the four New York public libraries: a 2013 report found that the number of people visiting libraries has increased by 40 per cent in the last decade. Additionally, attendance at library programs has seen a 50 per cent increase. The success of New York’s libraries can largely be attributed to these programs, meaning this success is not unique to this city. Calgary’s new Central Library will offer, in addition to over 600,000 books, children’s and teen programs, technology commons and labs, and inclusive community programs teaching skill advancement.

Why the competition to build the new Calgary Central Library? Despite the move toward e-books and Internet learning, libraries still have an important role in society because of their willingness to adapt to change and to adopt new programs. They are a place of innovation and opportunity, where the programs on offer can improve job prospects. They help adults, immigrants and children gain essential skills. Libraries are resources that benefit a city, simply because they benefit the people who make use of their numerous resources.

Located in the newly gentrified East Village, Calgary’s new library will be in the heart of the city. And what better place to build a building representative of change and growth than in the heart of Calgary?

For more news on plans for the new Central Library, visit

Each year Avenue chooses one topic as its Big Idea to delve a little deeper in. It is explored through blog posts and discussions that show successes and challenges in our city. The Big Idea is also the theme of the October print issue. This year Avenue is studying education, health care and design as the three cornerstones of a successful city. If you have ideas or stories that you would like us to follow up on, email them to

Avenue's 2013 Big Idea is sponsored by University of Calgary Faculty of Environmental Design

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