The Westmount Public Library (WPL) sits tucked away from Rue Sherbrooke in Westmount with a red brick façade and green-trimmed windows across its exterior. Attached to its right wing is a white-lined greenhouse with frosted windows, and a hint of foliage peeking out from within. The building seamlessly transitions from antique to modern as new windows and streamlined construction give away the library’s grand addition, which allowed it to add more items and more space for the public’s enjoyment. Behind this library’s façade is an institution that holds an intriguing architectural history and serves as an important place for locals, students, and tourists.
The original building of the Westmount Public Library was constructed in 1899—the first public library in Quebec. Designed by Robert Findlay, McGill University librarian Charles Gould, and a library committee made up of three counselors, three elected trustees, and the town mayor, the Westmount Public Library was built in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Because librarians—who prioritize efficiency—and architects—who prioritize style—often clash over building layout, the library was built with the library committee’s ideas on hand to compromise between the two parties. What resulted was a public library with a beautiful and efficient space.
“[WPL] is the library that we often see cited in books [and] articles. People do refer to the library, just [because of] the aesthetics of the building,” WPL Director Julie-Ann Cardella said. “The aesthetics of the building constantly draws people in.”
The architecture implied is mesmerizing to outsiders. The inspiration for the architecture was heavily influenced by American libraries, especially those in New England, according to scholar Elizabeth Hanson’s historical article “Architecture and Public Librarianship in the Early Nineteenth Century: The Westmount Public Library.” Gould used an inspector from the New York public libraries to help find library blueprints from Connecticut, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Originally made to hold about 30,000 books, the library has since been expanded to hold over 170,000 items, including books, audiobooks, newspapers, and more. The additions to the library, completed in 1995, are not apparent from the front, but venturing around the building through the park, one can see how the faded red brick merges into a new painted one. The building becomes more straight-edged and modern.
A library, however, is so much more than its architecture or layout. The age of technology and its allowance for users to read books online has threatened to make books and libraries obsolete. An article in Time Magazine, titled “Study: The Number of Teens Reading for Fun Keeps Declining,” attributed decreasing reading rates among teens to the growing prevalence of technology. It also found that an increasing number of younger children were reading from ebooks over paper books. Yet, the Westmount Public Library chose to integrate technology into its operations, refusing to let changing times negatively affect them.
“Technology we actually use to our advantage. We made sure that we didn’t fight it. We didn’t ignore it, we embraced it,” Cardella said. “People are commenting now more and more about their eyes [with technology….] We still have our readers, eh? They’re not going anywhere. In fact, it has increased the readers.”
Perhaps it’s the incorporation of technology, or maybe it’s the yearning for print, but the library, according to Cardella, is more popular than ever. On Friday nights it’s often full of people, and on the weekends it’s busy until closing. The library is open 69 hours a week; it is open every day without fail, hosting over 1,000 people per day on average.
Catering to this many people a day is not easy, which is why Cardella makes service a priority.
“We’re more and more popular because we’re very welcoming [….] The staff here is so helpful, always with a smile,” Cardella said.
The Westmount Public Library is like a grand paradox: The old, unique architecture of the outside merges into the updated addition seamlessly; the inside juxtaposes antique and ornate features with modern windows. The never-ending rows of books are just the beginning of a large collection—a lot of which is in a database. The welcoming atmosphere makes the library feel extraordinary, as if the past and present married and welcomed everyone to grab a book, take a seat, and feel at home.