Vancouver Public Library embarks on next chapter of physical and technological change

Library Square’s rooftop garden expansion set to open in September, as chief librarian eyes video-conference rooms, virtual reality

Vancouver Public Library chief librarian Christina de Castell is helping steer the institution through a period of rapid change | Photo: Rob Kruyt

Imagine listening to an audiobook on a rooftop garden in downtown Vancouver before heading down into your office for a video call and a virtual reality demo.

While it might seem like a luxurious daydream, that digital reality isn’t far off for library visitors under the vision of the Vancouver Public Library (VPL)’s new chief librarian, Christina de Castell.

De Castell is responsible for meeting the needs of the large community of library users – it had more than 6.8 million visits across 21 locations last year – and for steering the organization as it adapts to change. Currently, that chiefly means overseeing the two-floor expansion of the VPL’s main branch at 350 West Georgia Street.

Speaking with Business in Vancouver at the Georgia Street location about on what’s to come for the organization and its main branch, de Castell said the central library’s expansion should be open in mid-September and will include a 77-seat theatre for talks and movie events, additional meeting spaces, the branch’s first dedicated quiet reading space and an eagerly anticipated roof garden that was part of the original library’s plans.

“Most people see these rooftop gardens on tops of hotels or condo buildings and never get to visit them,” said de Castell. “Everyone will get to experience this space.”

Once the expansion is finished, the entry and third levels will get updates, with the third level turning into a technology-centered space for the many Vancouverites using the central library as an office.

“If you walked around this library, you’d discover architects and writers and all kinds who are using this as an office space,” de Castell said. “A lot of the time, a desk plug and WiFi are enough. But there are times when someone needs a little more technology support and we’ll be looking to provide more of that, both here and in new branches.”

De Castell said the central library’s third level, and the Oakridge branch now being redeveloped, could include rooms for video calls or conference meetings after their initial overhauls. Other than a potential new branch in the East Fraser Lands area, the VPL’s focus is on the organization’s digital tools and the need for growth at its 20 branches.

“Computers get used incredibly well in branches, to the point that the seats are always full,” de Castell said. “They’re not big spaces … we’re aiming to make our branches a little bigger.”

While technological trends may have harmed book publishers and retailers like Indigo Books & Music Inc. (TSX:IDG) with cheaper pricing and direct shipping, de Castell said an unexpected reason for the struggles of traditional stores is the rise of self-publishing in the adult market, something that hasn’t affected the library.

“Authors now have a direct route to consumers,” said de Castell. “That isn’t a threat for libraries; our business model is about sharing content, not buying and selling.”

In fact, digital trends are boosting the VPL’s community engagement, as the library finds itself dealing with an increasing number of tech-savvy visitors.

We have more digital visits than physical visits, and physical visits have stayed stable,” said de Castell.

As the library’s former director of collections and technology, de Castell helped it adapt to the growing use of audiobooks. Now that she’s heading the organization, she’s eyeing more complex digital trends.

“There’s a lot of potential in areas like artificial intelligence and augmented and virtual reality,” said de Castell, “But they’re things that we won’t all be able to experience in our homes or our own work environments.

“Some staff have VR headsets and they’re starting to think about what that means in a library space,” said de Castell. “[We’ll have them] within the next 10 years, absolutely.”