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After almost a decade in Ottawa, Tina Thomas and her young family moved back to Edmonton to be closer to their extended family. Looking for a change from the private sector, Tina took on the position of Director of Marketing with the Edmonton Public Library (EPL), and during her time with the organization, the EPL has reinvented its role within the city. It’s become a place for people, not just to read books, but to connect, explore ideas and even create concepts and prototypes. And their work is being noticed. In 2014, the EPL became the first Canadian library to win the prestigious Gale/Library Journal Library of the Year award.

In 2013, they launched the EPL Makerspace at Stanley A. Milner Library in downtown Edmonton, complete with 3D printers, an Espresso Book Machine, creative workstations, digital conversion hardware, gaming consoles and a green screen. For Tina, this initiative is key to her vision of the library’s future: creating space for people to explore new ideas together. For Edmonton, the EPL is a great example of our city’s welcoming attitude and innovative spirit.

When you started working for the EPL, what were some of the objectives that you had in terms of shifting the public’s perception of the library — from a brand perspective, but also the EPL’s role in the city?

When I started my position at the EPL a few years back, I was new to working in the public service. I personally didn’t really have a good idea of what the EPL really was. I certainly had the view that libraries are quiet and stuffy. Part of our rebranding process has been my own education of coming in and seeing how different libraries really are, and really figuring out how we communicate that with people.

Part of what we were trying to do was really take hold of our story and accurately reflect who we are. For me, meeting our librarians and seeing how diverse and interesting they are — they are in bands, they are artists, musicians, or authors — total geeks in all sorts of different areas… I could see we’ve got this environment of people that have their own creative lives, but also are invested in helping people pursue their passions. That’s where the light bulb went on for me — we need to get that personality out there.

What do you think the spirit of the library is? Is there one idea or theme?

The EPL has spearheaded all sorts of projects and developed some great leaders, and I think it’s because we’re willing to take risks. An example of that is our early adoption of technology. We’ve recently launched a digitally-focused makerspace in Canada, but it’s much more than that. We were the first library in Canada to have RFID technology to allow you to check out stuff by yourself. We did that even before grocery stores did it.

Having ideas and taking chances is part of our organization’s DNA. We connect, we innovate and we build. However, I don’t think that is just unique to the library. The idea of this organization fits so well with the ‘make something’ concept in the city because we really do make stuff here.

Tell us more about the EPL Makerspace. How do you make sense of having a makerspace in a library?

I’m really proud of our makerspace. It’s the largest in Canada and probably one of the largest in North America. The space has a completely digital focus, and is intended to be a place where people can come and try stuff out that they couldn’t try at home. For example you can conceptualize something in your brain, and then see it in 3D format with our 3D printer. Someone can walk into our space with some files or even just an idea and walk out with a prototype that same day. It sort of blows my mind when I think about what’s possible.

To me, the makerspace is really about the idea of taking manufacturing back to the home. I like the idea that we’re enabling people to invent and create stuff on their own terms. It’s allowing people to make their own discoveries and creations. That’s something that many have never been able to do before.This is just a start to a new way of thinking about who we are and what we can do for ourselves.

I think the idea that libraries are about books where people just come in, get stuff, consume it and leave is gone.

In a sense, the library has always been about the reception of other people’s ideas and creations. Collecting and making art, music and literature accessible is the starting point to engaging people and encouraging them to create for themselves. It’s awesome to enjoy the amazing things that have been created by others — the amazing works of fiction or music or what have you. But to engage in the making of things yourself as well, that’s what it means to be human. That’s what it says to me, or why I think a makerspace in a library makes so much sense.

What do you think the Edmonton Public Library will be in the future?

I think the idea that libraries are about books where people just come in, get stuff, consume it and leave is gone. The library really is a place for people and a place for conversations and a place for experimentation. People can come into the library and find a book nowadays, but what’s the next step? It’s the consumption and creation together. The album you might listen to in 2015 might have been recorded in the EPL’s studio. The next bestselling novel you might read might be printed in a library.

[Former Mayor of Edmonton] Stephen Mandel has a great quote that I love and I use all the time which is “The Edmonton Public Library isn’t a place for books, it’s a place for people.” It’s for people to do a whole bunch of things together — whether that is having English language conversation circles, or early literacy programs for your wife and new baby. It could be taking out books, or it could be playing video games like the guys behind us are doing. You could watch a film here and then have a discussion with other people about it afterwards.

People want to experience so many things and do projects in collaboration with other people. All those people are from different backgrounds, and different experiences. There are just so many things that can happen here, and we want to do more of that in the future. That’s the sort of thing that makes the library a truly public space.

- as told to, November 2014