When Surrey libraries reopened following closures due to the pandemic, demand was so great at the Semiahmoo branch in South Surrey that staff had to be reallocated from other sites.
“We couldn’t keep up,” Surinder Bhogal, the city’s chief librarian, recalled in a recent interview.
“The South Surrey community are very active library users and really love reading.”
The anecdote wasn’t in a report recently presented to Surrey council detailing the state of libraries in the city and recommendations for the next 20 years, Bhogal noted.
But it’s a clear sign that libraries – despite developments over the years that have been seen as signalling the beginning of their end – continue to hold an important place in the lives of the residents they serve.
The pandemic only highlighted that fact.
“When we closed for six months, it was horrible to have to do that during the pandemic, but it was actually very heartwarming to hear from the residents how much they’re missing us,” Bhogal said. “The isolation that people felt and how public libraries today really do bring people together.
“They’re kind of the last community living room, where you can come in, and you don’t have to buy anything, no one’s going to ask you to leave, you can be any social class and you can feel that you belong,” she continued.
“Your local public library is still very much a reflection of its neighbouring community, and Surrey’s like that.”
According to the Surrey Libraries Facilities Master Plan that was presented to council on July 12, nearly all of Surrey’s neighbourhoods need an increase in library space over the next two decades. Currently, despite being Canada’s 11th most populous city, its per capita square footage library space is 0.35, substantially lower than the national average of 0.5.
Surrey’s library space totals 208,400 sq.ft. across its 10 branches. But while the figure sounds impressive, to meet the per capita average within the next 20 years, it essentially needs to almost double.
In South Surrey, a 161 per cent bump in space is needed in the years ahead, according to the plan.
“Although its immediate need is not as high as Fleetwood and Newton, South Surrey’s demand for new library space will increase significantly and will need the second biggest addition over the next 20 years,” the plan states.
“Developments on South Surrey’s east side, such as Grandview Heights, are major emerging population areas where high demand for library space will be centralized.”
Bhogal said if development in the Grandview area continues to largely consist of townhouses and smaller condos rather than single-family homes – “it’s one of the fastest-growing areas in the city,” she said – “people will need other space.”
“A library would facilitate that, would provide that third space for people in that community.”
South Surrey is currently home to two of the city’s libraries: the 22,100-sq.-ft. Semiahmoo branch, co-located with the South Surrey RCMP detachment, at 1815 152 St., and the 6,300-sq.-ft. Ocean Park Library, at 12854 17 Ave.
Further evidence of the role the two sites play can be seen in response to a recent public survey on the city’s libraries; including regarding the hours of operation and services offered. The majority of 1,402 respondents – 368 (27 per cent) – hailed from this community. Twelve per cent of respondents said they use the Semiahmoo branch the most, while 10 per cent gravitate to Ocean Park.
In terms of visits compared to space available, the Ocean Park branch is one of the city’s busiest, Bhogal noted.
According to the master plan – which Bhogal noted is “fluid” – recommended additions to the South Surrey area over the next two decades amount to 45,700 sq.ft of new library space. Ways to get there, the plan suggests, include looking at improvements to the Semiahmoo branch, which a site assessment notes is essentially indiscernible as a library from the outside; and investigating sites for a new 20,000-25,000 sq.ft. branch in the Grandview area, with the latter eyed for 10-15 years down the road.
Bhogal acknowledged that creating such new space in any neighbourhood is “an expensive exercise,” and that other city priorities must also be considered. At the same time, such new space can be a catalyst for increased investment. She pointed to the 77,000-sq.-ft. City Centre Library, which opened in 2011, as example. Prior to its construction, “there was nothing” in that downtown area, but since, there’s been a new city hall, a new hotel and Kwantlen Polytechnic University, she said.
In making the case for more space, “we always have to make sure that we are communicating that value,” Bhogal said.
“At the end of the day, it’s the will of the people to decide what they want to invest in.”
And while timing for adding a Grandview library to the mix hasn’t quite arrived, when the city is ready, “we’re ready,” she said.
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