A Walk Through the Vancouver Public Library

I’m in Vancouver, British Columbia, for the Access 2011 meeting which starts tomorrow. Coming across from the eastern timezone I had to come a day early, so — being a self-confessed library nerd — I checked out the Vancouver Public Library. I’m impressed with not only the physical structure but also the obvious degree of community engagement. The Central Library was very busy on a Tuesday afternoon, and first impressions are that it is beloved by its patrons. Included below are some pictures and some notes; some of the pictures have annotations — you can mouse over the boxes to see them. You can also click on the pictures to go to larger versions on Flickr.

Outdoor Entrance to Library Atrium

Outdoor Entrance to Library Atrium

The central library is a huge building with a unique atrium feature. The main entrance to the library itself isn’t open to the outside. To get to the library, you have to first enter these side doors to an atrium. Inside the atrium are a number of commercial businesses and open seating in addition to the library entrance itself.

View of Library Floors from Inside the Atrium

View of Library Floors from Inside the Atrium

The atrium goes down a level from the ground floor and up an additional five floors. Lots of glass lets in plenty of light. The entrance level also has a friends-of-the-library bookstore. The most impressive architectural detail, though, (from my admittedly nerdy perspective) is that each floor of the building has a raised floor above the concrete. The annotations on this picture point them out, and you can see a closer example in the next picture. The glass extends below the raised floor, in places you can see the infrastructure under the raised floor.

Raised Floor Under Shelves

Raised Floor Under Shelves

This picture was taken on the steps between the main floor (level 2) and the children’s library (level 1). It more clearly shows the support braces holding up the raised floor and the heating and air conditioning ductwork. This infrastructure is exposed in many parts of the building, and in some locations you can also see power and networking installations as well.

Compact Shelving

Compact Shelving

The Central Library has lots of compact shelving. Some of it is open to patron use and other sections are locked down to staff password entry on a keypad at each shelving range. The last place I encountered this much compact storage in open shelving spaces was in the Kelvin Smith Library at Case Western Reserve University. The only part of the collection that wasn’t in compact shelving when I worked there (in the late 1990s) was current periodicals. The use of compact shelving isn’t quite so extensive here, but it is quite pervasive throughout the building.

Compact Shelving over Raised Floor

Compact Shelving over Raised Floor

Kelvin Smith Library also made use of raised flooring as a way to flexibly reconfigure space as needed, but the Central Library is the only place that I’ve seen where the compact shelving was put on raised flooring. (At Kelvin Smith Library, the concrete floor platform was raised to the raised floor level where the compact shelving was installed.) This picture shows, though, that the same heating and air conditioning ductwork exists in the compact shelving ranges. The floors under the compact shelving sounded a lot more solid — less “give” when you walked on them — but there was still a bit of an echo. The subfloor bracing must be significant to hold not only the shelving units but also the weight of the books.

Community Information and Library Guides

Community information and library guides

I don’t remember encountering a library before that had so much signage for the library as well as places for the community to post information. There are 8.5″x11″ pieces of paper mounted everywhere in the public spaces of the building. (I didn’t get a picture of the elevator, but the sides of the elevator car were covered with plexiglas sign hangers announcing library programs, services, and policies. This picture has a community information bulletin board and a rack of library guides.

Community Newspapers

Community Newspapers

Another point of community engagement is this location on the fifth level that is a distribution point for many community newspapers.

“Zine” Shelving

The main entrance floor of the library has two sections of shelves dedicated to displaying “zine” publications. A “zine” is “most commonly a small circulation publication of original or appropriated texts and images. More broadly, the term encompasses any self-published work of minority interest usually reproduced via photocopier. A popular definition includes that circulation must be 5,000 or less, although in practice the significant majority are produced in editions of less than 1,000, and profit is not the primary intent of publication.” (Thanks Wikipedia!) There are several hundred on display here. Each has been cataloged with a barcode, a spine label and an RFID tag. The Vancouver Public Library Zine brochure even describes an effort by its special collections department to collect zines of significant local interest. This is serious stuff!

Barcode-to-RFID Conversion Stations

Barcode-to-RFID Conversion Stations

Clearly the Vancouver Public Library is in the process of migrating its collections to RFID tags. These two stations were parked on the third level at what looked like a charging point. The self-checkout stations were still using barcode readers, so the process must not be complete yet. And yes — that is a 3M logo on the bottom of the cabinets.

Overall Impressions


This is a very busy library. People wore moving around all of the collections, almost all of the computers were in use, and lots of people reading in comfy chairs. They have an impressive children’s library area (no pictures because I didn’t want to creep out any of the parents) with games and computers and a nice story room. I don’t know when it was built, but the building is showing signs of heavy use. Perhaps it was the pervasiveness of mismatched signage, but the building had a run-down feeling. Run-down in a comfortable, not off-putting way. More comfortable, and obviously well-loved.

My first impressions are very positive. I hope Vancouver citizens realize what kind of treasure they have.

(This post was updated on 25-Sep-2013.)