At 115 years old, Edmonton is, by global standards, a young city. Back in 1904, it was a bustling borough of just over 8,000, but, despite achieving city status, it was still more trading post than metropolis. Saloons and shops get things started, but a city isn’t really a city until it has some roots and gives residents reasons to stay. The University of Alberta was founded in 1908 and the Alberta Legislature Building went up in 1912, the same year the first curling rink was built — an impressive start.
Scholastics, civics, athletics and arts all build a base for a city to stand on, but that base would be shaky without a central library. As Todd Babiak wrote in Just Getting Started, Edmonton Public Library’s First Hundred Years, “Here was a growing city with a university and three colleges, 24 public schools, four theatres, 40 places of worship and, so far, no finished library.”
That changed in 1913, with the opening of the Old Strathcona library, which still stands to this day. But, by the late ’60s, Edmonton’s population was well on its way to 400,000, which meant something bigger and more central was needed.
The Centennial Library filled that need in 1967, bordering Churchill Square’s south side and providing an overdue literary post to prop up the city. In 1996, it was renamed after library champion Stanley A. Milner, whose name remains after its most recent $84.5 million extensive renovation, which will be open to the public later this year. If you’ve seen the new building in person, or one of the renderings released during the two-year construction, you probably have an opinion on how it looks. You may have even shared that opinion online.
“Oh, I remember when it blew up on Twitter,” says Pilar Martinez, with a chuckle and sigh. She’s the Edmonton Public Library’s (EPL) chief executive officer, and her EPL career has spanned 19 years. Library people aren’t loud by nature, but they know how to have a laugh. Recognizing that renderings receive backlash regardless of quality (Twitter also “blew up” over Rogers Place looking like a golf club), Martinez’s staff replied with the “Sad Dawson Creek” meme, captioned with “We’ve read all of your tweets,” and Martinez lovingly refers to it as the Think Tank, with a wink, to make light of the backlash. Making light was actually a big reason the renovation went from a façade upgrade to a complete over-haul, inside and out — along with being an energy hog, the initial construction purposefully had fewer windows from fear the light would degrade the books. With eco-friendly building materials, over 600 windows and a third public floor, the 227,732 square foot library is aiming for LEED Silver certification and loaded with light and sightlines to every newly opened space. And if you think the original boxy build has been stretched out like an object in Photoshop, architect Stephen Teeple agrees. “You had a very introverted box to begin with, and we wanted to stretch that box out into the city,” he says. “On the south side, it kind of clings on to the original box, but it reaches out toward the front entrance, and the atrium really stretches off the original volume. It’s a completely different, more inter- connected experience.”
That experience starts outside, with the Valley Line LRT set to stop in front of the building. Upon entering — at ground level or through the underground pedway — visitors can stop in the coffee shop or stroll right through to south side Centennial Plaza, without going through the scanners and into the library itself. The goal is to make it a communal meeting place where people can hang out, whether they need the library’s resources or not. “A downtown library is the first point of contact for many people, especially new Canadians,” Martinez says. “We want it to be open and welcoming to all.”
As for resources, Milner is stocked. With 3D printing, sound and video production studios, robotics and fabrication space, a culinary centre complete with demo kitchen and over 70 public computers, an ambitious person could attain a learn-by-doing education equivalent to a trade school degree all within the library’s stretched out walls. The Shelley Milner Children’s Library is almost triple the size of the original and has tools for kids to create and code, and there’s a gaming area with current consoles and retro games for people of all ages. The EPL continues to consult with Indigenous communities about the 2,000-square-foot Indigenous gathering space on the main floor, where people can connect, share and smudge. There are also over 170,000 books and plenty of quiet space to curl up and enjoy them, if that’s what you’re looking for in a library.
Before closing for renovation, the Milner library was visited over one million times per year, making it the city’s most visited building that isn’t a giant mall. And a 2016 Nordcity Economic Impact Report found that as a free, safe space for students, children, the elderly, immigrants and at-risk Edmontonians, every dollar invested in EPL generates $3.11 of value, saving Edmontonians $131.5 million per year. It is, in a very real sense, the city’s most valuable building.
As Edmonton ages, buildings will rise and fall, new developments will emerge, and the cityscape will change. But it’s hard to see the Stanley A. Milner library ever going away, because it’s more than a building. Even calling it an “Edmonton institution” seems cliché. It’s a fundamental part of Edmonton — the part where people meet, learn, explore, and go on to make this formerly bustling borough what it is and what it will be. Because while buildings make a city’s base, the people make it grow.
This article appears in the January 2020 issue of Avenue Edmonton.