Libraries Are Community Hubs

One evening, years ago, I had had it after a day of argumentative and wailing kids and decided I was heading out as soon as supper was over. The bus arrived and I was aboard before I suddenly thought, “Where will I go?” After a few minutes, it hit me. “The library!” I would sit and read for an hour, then take the bus back home. But, lo and behold, when I arrived, the library was in darkness. My addled brain slowly registered that it wasn’t open on Mondays.

It was fine. I walked a couple of blocks to the home of an aunt who welcomed me in and asked no questions. We had a great visit and a cup of tea and my uncle drove me home.

James McConnell Memorial Library, Sydney. (Source: DSRA)

James McConnell Memorial Library, Sydney. (Source: DSRA)

But if this had happened today, I just might have found the library open. That’s because Sydney’s McConnell Library has been open from 9 AM to 5 PM on Mondays since late 2020, when the board of the Cape Breton Regional Library (which oversees the McConnell and 11 other branches) accepted a recommendation in the Sydney Central Library Study: Service, Programs and Operational Plans. to extend its operating hours. And it’s not the only recommendation that’s been implemented: a self-checkout has been installed and out-of-date and little-used materials have been disposed of. Meanwhile, a separate decision to eliminate overdue fees has made it easier for delinquent borrowers to return and once again be active library members.

The well-written study, conducted by TCI Management Consultants in association with Beth Ross & Associates and Trifos Design Consultants, was also accepted by the Cape Breton Regional Municipality and may have helped light a fire under said municipality about the need for a new central library, one more suited to the library’s “increasingly important role as a ‘community hub,'” as the study puts it.


As had two earlier library reports (from 2012 and 2016), the “Service, Programs and Operational Plans” study makes no bones about the state of the McConnell, which serves as both a branch library and the headquarters of the CBRL, describing it as “old, small, crowded, inefficient and inaccessible and therefore unable to fulfill the current and anticipated social, economic and educational needs of the population it serves,” a population “expected to increase to 40,000″ by the year 2031. Meeting the needs of the community while complying with “accessibility standards for public shelving of books and materials” will require a 45,000-square foot facility, whether a new build or a repurposed existing building.

CBRL events

Just a small sample of what goes on at CBRL branches (Source: Facebook)

Some of the interested groups and individuals interviewed as part of the study favored a new build on the waterfront, but that option is no longer on the table, given CBRM Council’s October 2021 refusal to entertain another proposal from developer Marty Chernin, whose Harbour Royal Development Ltd had been given three years to develop the library as part of a larger waterfront development scheme. During recent budget talks, it was made clear that the waterfront option, with an estimated cost of $34 million, was considered too expensive.

Now, it seems the former Cape Breton County Courthouse, overlooking Wentworth Park in Sydney, is being considered as perhaps the ideal building to repurpose as a Central Library. I don’t know when it became a possibility, although it seems to have been discussed in high places before coming up during those recent CBRM council budget talks. That it is owned by the federal government could (and even should) make it available for a reasonable figure, if not a freebie!

At 33,000 square feet, the Courthouse is larger than the 22,000-square foot McConnell Library, but short of the 40 to 45,000-square feet the report says is necessary — in part to comply with new provincial standards on accessibility. Regional Librarian Lisa Mulak told the Cape Breton Post that she felt it might be possible to add on to the Courthouse in a way that doesn’t seem possible with the existing McConnell.

The CBRM, which expects its share of the new library to be $7 million, set aside $2 million towards it in the 2022-23 budget and will raise the rest by borrowing and possibly by selling the waterfront property on which Chernin had hoped to situate the library, thus allowing some other frantic entrepreneur to be part of the waterfront development designed, it would seem, to reserve views of our harbor for cruise passengers, apartment dwellers and Marconi students. But I digress.


The authors of the “Service, Programs and Operational Plans” study note that their “interviews and surveys” “overwhelmingly validated” the need for a new central library branch in Sydney.

Those interviewed included CBRL staff who expressed “enthusiasm” about the possibility of a “new space,” especially a larger space “with far fewer building deficiencies that would unlock a lot of potential when it came to the programs and services that the library could offer its patrons.”

According to the study, libraries are places where people —”families, seniors, students and newcomers” — can learn together, where “all members of the community are welcome and feel safe,” “where vulnerable people are supported” and “where all cultures are welcome and recognized.” And in fact, you don’t need the study to see this, you just need to look at the photos in the CBRL’s most recent annual reports.

CBRL events

Just a small sample of what goes on at CBRL branches (Source: Facebook)

In addition to these social benefits, the authors note, “experience elsewhere has shown that a new library can be a key component of municipal infrastructure” and a catalyst for economic development.

While there was, at the time the report was written, “considerable interest on the part of several potential partner organizations, including First Nations communities, Cape Breton University and potentially a tourism information function,” none was, at that time, able to “commit either capital or operating funds to the project.” However, the study (rightly, I think) recommends that rather than waiting on other entities to buy in, the “new Central Library should proceed on its own timetable and not be dependent upon the schedules of potential partners” which could result in “the project’s momentum” being “stalled.”

The fact that the former County Courthouse is in play as a possible library will, I hope, encourage interested groups and individuals to come on board with money-raising ideas that could finally bring this project to fruition.

If there are still citizens who haven’t been exposed to the many ways in which our library, despite its financial and physical constraints, has been carrying out its stated mission to “strengthen and inspire our community by providing quality collections, cultural resources, programs, and services in a welcoming environment where we all can enjoy reading and learning,” they should get a peek at those Annual Reports I mentioned earlier. They are full of beautiful pictures of happy groups, ranging from the very young to the very old, in all 12 libraries serving Cape Breton and Victoria counties. They offer a true indication of all the CBRL does — and a hint of what it could accomplish in a brand new facility.


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.