What can a library offer that most people don’t have already with smartphones and tablets?

Mayor Don Iveson and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi addressed a paying crowd of over 800 on Dec. 7 to defend the library’s continued relevance and explain why they believe it is worth the millions each city is putting into redeveloping its downtown libraries.

“Libraries are the last great public institution in which everyone is welcome,” said Iveson. “They are the most welcoming, inclusive place that we have. They reflect the value we put on citizenship, community and education.”

Libraries continue as the cornerstone of community, even in this digital age and especially in lower income communities.

“Coming together in shared community space is more important now than ever,” said Nenshi. “Questions around how we live together, share space, land, and water in a way that serves us all are even more important today as cities grow larger and forces that separate us seem to grow stronger than the forces that hold us together.”

Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons (left) moderated the forum with Mayor Naheed Nenshi (middle) and Mayor Don Iveson (right). | EPL

Nenshi discussed the increase of intolerance, racism, and xenophobia and how it’s important for people to combat it. He added, “At the same time, Canada is a beacon for the world. We are a country that holds the values of safety, optimism, tolerance, pluralism, multiculturalism.”

Both mayors have contributed a lot to civic life. The World Mayor Project awarded Nenshi the 2014 World Mayor Prize for his vision of urban living. Iveson served on the Edmonton Public Library (EPL) board for many years and continues to champion its civic importance.

“As Edmonton and urban centres across Canada continue to grow, we are in need of neighbourhood gathering places. Over 80 per cent of our population now live in cities. We are continually challenged to find ways to create community. This is more easily done on a neighbourhood scale and libraries are one of the gathering places for neighbourhoods,” said Iveson.

This need for community meeting spaces is especially relevant to integrating new immigrants. When asked how he felt the settlement of the Syrian immigrants was progressing, Nenshi expressed disappointment that more attention was not given to English language instruction. “Every library should have an ESL program,” he suggested.

The discussion, directed by pre-submitted questions from the audience, referenced other visions that the mayors have for the development of their respective cities. Both mayors underlined the importance of developing the downtown core, increasing higher density residences and accessibility by walking or cycling, and increasing transit to bring people from the fringes to the city centre.

“Anything we can do to encourage people to meet their neighbour face-to-face and say ‘hi, how are you?’ builds community,” said Nenshi. “New development must be diverse with all ages, all cultures, all incomes. When we put a face to different nationalities and cultures, we go a long way to dispelling the fear and prejudice.”

Iveson referenced the development of recreation centres, river valley walkways, cycling lanes and higher density housing such as secondary suites as ways to meet these objectives.

It is exciting to reflect, in these days of heightened cynicism about politics and government, that so many people would pay to come out on a very cold night to listen to two mayors talk about libraries and their vision for community living. We are blessed to have two mayors of vision who understand what is involved in creating nurturing and integrated communities that include citizens of all nationalities, races, and cultures.

Header image: Mayor Don Iveson discussed the importance of community and libraries during the Mayors’ Forum on Dec. 7. | EPL