It can’t be every year a beloved cultural institution in Fort Frances turns 10 years old, and as excited as everyone involved with the Fort Frances Public Library Technology Centre is to wish it a happy birthday, the occasion was marked with some disappointment as well.
The library hit its 10-year milestone last month on June 21, and looking back on photos of the grand opening celebration today is an exercise in “spot the difference.” This year there were no grand line-ups of dignitaries, no rows of seats filled with appreciative library patrons, no speeches or cake or bagpipes. This year the library was quiet, not quite closed but not entirely open, and in the days surrounding the anniversary only a small number of people would have been inside the building, working to facilitate the curbside pick-up process for hungry bibliophiles.
Sitting in the darkened library on one such day, a distance of at least six feet between her and anyone else, library CEO Joan Maclean explained that the committee that was planning the library’s celebration had begun to pick up some momentum before everything came grinding to a halt.
“We had a committee all formed and we had just begun meeting and then it was all over,” Maclean said.
“It was a few weeks later that we finally said ‘ok, this is not going to happen.’ We originally, when it first happened of course, we thought March Break was cancelled and maybe a week or two afterwards and then normal life would return. Unfortunately we’re still where we are.”
COVID has made a mockery of normality, with countless events postponed –if not cancelled outright– as the world waits for the virus to pass. It’s sad to see annual events sit out the year, but there’s an added impact when it interferes with something that will happen only one time, like a class graduating from high school or the 10-year anniversary of a well-loved building.
“It is a significant milestone,” Maclean said.
“Especially with the love and attention that was put into this building by the community. I’ve always known about the special place in everyone’s heart that the library has here, which is one of the reasons I wanted to come here.”
But the spirit of celebration is still there, as Maclean and other members of staff and library board have dedicated themselves to throwing a party at some point in the future, when it’s safe to do so with all the pomp and circumstance the event deserves.
“I’ve said to certain staff members I’m in for an Eleventh Anniversary,” Maclean said.
“Everyone would understand why we’re having an eleventh anniversary, because I think outdoor celebrations are much more fun when we do them in the nice weather.”
Fort Frances Library board chair Robin Dennis echoed Maclean’s comments, saying that even though there would be no celebration this summer, the anniversary wouldn’t be abandoned.
“We’re not taking it off the table at this time, we’re just delaying it, hoping that something can happen in the fall,” Dennis said.
“We’re all really pumped for it, but on the other hand disappointed we couldn’t bring it to fruition and have a nice celebration and give speeches and have cake and all that fun stuff.”
But what is it about a building that elevates it to the point where so many are so excited to celebrate it? At 10 years old, what makes the library such an important organization and so cherished by its patrons?
“It’s not just the physical plan –which is gorgeous, it’s a jewel of Fort Frances, it’s something that a lot of people, when they have visitors from out of town, they bring them by the library,” said Andrew Hallikas, a town councillor and long-time library board member.
“It’s the staff, the library CEOs that we’ve been fortunate to have over the years, the board members that I’ve worked with over the years, everybody has been so dedicated and so motivated to provide a really superior library service, and they have, and because of the wonderful staff and CEOs and board members that we’ve had, we really punch above our weight in Ontario library systems.”
In addition to its staff, admins and board members over the years, former CEO and chief librarian Margaret Sedgwick, who was instrumental in realizing the dream of the new library building along with Joyce Cunningham, Mark Kowalchuk, Brian Avis, George Bell and others, said one of the reasons the library is so beloved is because the public was invested in it from the start.
“I think it resonates strongly with people because the people in Fort Frances had a part in building the library,” Sedgwick explained.
“We had this tremendous fundraising campaign where we had a goal of $750,000 and we raised over $870,000, which speaks to the support we had from the town, and then when we moved in to the library we involved the community and we had a great moving week –actually we had a week planned and it took three days– where people would adopt a shelf and then their family would move the books to the library and put them on the shelf. That was lots of fun and it gave people a sneak preview of the library before we actually opened.”
Sedgwick also shared a treasured memory of a former library patron that demonstrated the kind of dedication the people of Fort Frances had and have for the library as an institution, not just a new or old building.
“Hubert Medhurst, who was over 100 at the time, was our oldest patron,” she recalled.
“We had invited him to be part of the opening day celebrations. On the very first day we opened, which was before the grand opening, he was standing at the door long before we opened, because he wanted to be the first person into the new library.”
The role of the library in society has changed over the past ten years as more and more of our lives have gone digital, and many of those who spoke to the Times for this article credited the foresight of CEOs and boards past, right back to the individuals who fought to have the new library built, for ensuring they kept an eye on developing trends in order to expand on what the library was able to offer.
“When I was fundraising for the library and trying to get people excited for the library I would always say ‘it ain’t your mamma’s library,’” Hallikas said.
“Libraries are different, there’s no bespectacled librarian with hair in a tight bun going ‘shh’ at you. It’s a welcome place where you’re given a cheery greeting by someone at the circulation desk. People go there not just for a book, they go there to meet friends, they go to read newspapers or magazines, they go there for music or videos and they go there for really cool programming. We’ve done things from knitting to ballroom dancing, we’ve sponsored all sorts of events such as Trunk or Treat, the Teddy Bear picnic that are really well attended by the public, so I think that there’s something offered for every single age group.”
“We are a technology centre and we’re promoting that more and more,” Dennis said.
“With COVID now, even moreso. We’ve done a lot of online programming, so we’re excited about that, that we’re able to have that as a service to our patrons that use the library.”
Indeed, people visiting the library can hop on a computer to file taxes, apply for jobs or look up family history, and they can walk across to the MakerSpace lab where they can learn about virtual reality or 3D printing. Programming allows new parents to connect with other moms and dads, teens to have a creative after school outlet and seniors to get together with like-minded individuals to spin yarn –literally and figuratively. The library as a space has grown beyond books, and that has only helped it to become the cultural touchstone of Fort Frances, something Maclean says she doesn’t see changing.
“We will always remain a hub of the community,” she said.
“I was only here a month when we had Trunk or Treat, which was insane and fun and a night that I’ll never forget and it just really showed me the fun side of what libraries can mean to the community. It’s not about shushing people and making sure that they read their books and a very serious side, it’s how a library is an asset to a community that brings the community together.”
Alternate celebration plans are in the works to properly celebrate this milestone for the library, but what form and when those celebrations might take remains to be seen. In the meantime, wish a happy birthday to your local library, and dare to dream about what services it will offer by the time another decade rolls by.