Library News

There was—even cynical old me has to admit it—good news on the CBRM Central Library file during last night’s CBRM council meeting.

In a memo to Council and staff, Mayor Amanda McDougall explained that the old Cape Breton County Courthouse in Sydney’s Wentworth Park (otherwise known as 70 Crescent Street) has been evaluated by McKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects of Halifax (the firm behind Truro’s new library, the new Charlottetown library and CBU’s Tartan Downs project) who have confirmed that the Courthouse “is, in fact, a viable and suitable option to be considered for a public library and there is opportunity to increase [the] square footage of the site.”

Moreover, the CBRM has also received “positive feedback” from the Kwilmu’kw Maw-Klusuaqn Negotiation Office, advising that:

…a motion from the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs (ANSMC) was passed, releasing their interest in this property and offering the support of Eskasoni and Membertou to work in partnership with CBRM on a new library.

The Mayor asked Council to approve a motion instructing the CBRM’s community outreach officer to undertake a month-long public consultation to determine next steps.

The Mayor, as she’s said previously, wants to put two options before CBRM residents—renovating the existing McConnell Library in Sydney or renovating the Courthouse—but she is also open to other suggestions from the public.

I find it very difficult to remain neutral on this subject; as I’ve already confessed, I find the courthouse option really attractive, as I wrote when I first heard about it:

I really like the idea of bookending our downtown with creatively repurposed buildings—the convent at one end and the courthouse at the other. I like that (provided the boardwalk is restored in front of the Marconi) you could walk from one to the other via the boardwalk (taking the tunnel from the boardwalk into the park). I like that the courthouse, even were it expanded, would still be surrounded by open space (so different from the Marconi Campus which looks like 10 pounds of potatoes shoved into a five-pound bag). And I like that having the central library there would undoubtedly mean more people using Wentworth Park.

But I also recognize that there are practical considerations to be addressed; namely, that while the 33,000 square foot Courthouse is significantly bigger than the 22,000-square foot McConnell, it is significantly smaller than the 40,000- to 45,000-square foot facility called for in the February 2021 Service, Program and Operational Plan for the new library.

I understand why Regional Librarian Lisa Mulak didn’t jump for joy at the thought of renovating the McConnell when she spoke to Council last night. She said she didn’t think it was possible, based on a 2011 study—moreover, that it would entail moving library services elsewhere during construction which would be highly disruptive.

But I will admit I was disappointed to hear her pour cold water on the Courthouse option, saying they needed 45,000 square feet and “adding a new addition to an old building is where we are now.” She hoped there would be a third option—a new building.

Other councilors questioned whether the CBRM is sure it “has” the Courthouse, which is owned by ACOA. The Mayor didn’t address this question directly but said the idea of putting the library in the Courthouse had begun with ACOA asking if the CBRM wanted the building.

I know we have to take staff concerns and needs seriously, but I feel there are other considerations at play here, like, the value of preserving an “old” building and the beauty of Wentworth Park as a setting. The Normal College in Truro, which has become the town’s library, was initially considered too small to house both a central library and the regional headquarters (which our new Central Library must also do) but solutions were found, so I’m going to remain hopeful.

McDougall made it clear the CBRM has to pick a site before it can expect the province and the feds to fund the project (she said they’ve been turned down twice for library funding because they hadn’t nailed down a location).

In the end, Council approved the Mayor’s motion last night, so public consultation on a new Central Library will be coming your way soon.