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Finding The True Public Voice

Halifax Public Libraries, NS
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Innovation Summary

Building a Central Library requires planning for a future that cannot be clearly seen. To be sure that we were on the right track , Halifax initiated an extensive public consultation , engaging a broad and diverse demographic, to determine the true wants, needs and aspirations of the community.

Problem Statement

While building support for the Central Library, we needed to capture the community's imagination and build understanding of what a modern library can be and do. Many had never seen a Central Library, or still had old stereotypes in mind when thinking about a library. Also to overcome was skepticism about public consultations since many such meetings are really presentations when all the decisions have already been made. The consultations tested staff assumptions about public needs and our commitment to community-led service by applying the concept to design of an iconic building . The consultations also put an end to the idea that the Library should stay in its old cramped and out-dated building.


To build excitement and interest, we reached out to people in unexpected ways and unexpected places to generate an audience. Yarn bombing, sidewalk chalk painting, social media, radio ads and graffiti walls were used. A series of consultations at 6 week intervals built on each other with the architects designing in the intervals . The world cafe method was used with all comments captured and work made visible. Focus groups were added as needed to explore issues in depth for special intersts and community segments such as First Nations and persons with disabilities. Consultations attracted an audience of 200 on average in person with up to 500 participating via twitter and facebook. Sessions were live streamed and video-taped. Everything was posted to the website. To create a welcoming atmosphere, there was always a band, slam poet and/or displays and models every time, along with child care for families. Every comment received via the website afterwards was answered and posted.


Instead of comment from a handful of vocal individuals, we feel that we reached true consensus of opinion from a very diverse audience. We learned that the Library can continue to lead while giving up control of all decisions, and that the architects and staff can inform discussion without dominating. It is important to be up-front and honest about things that are not negotiable and if you ask for public input, that input cannot be dismissed if it differs from staff perceptions. The success of public spaces will be measured by the quality of the experience created. The consultations have given us confidence in our directions and the public good-will and buy-in to the project is invaluable. We will have a better Library than we would have if we had done the planning in isolation of the community.