The old post office
From the sidewalk on Water Street, the newly restored facade of the historic post office in Cambridge, Ontario might look exactly as it did when it was brand new. Situated on the Grand River, the former Galt Post Office—with its majestic clock tower—was built in 1885 and designated a National Heritage Site almost a century later. Today, after a bold city-led initiative, the iconic building, now referred to as the Old Post Office, has been transformed. When visitors step through the new glass entrance, they find themselves in a digital library—a new facility that reimagines spaces that would be traditionally lined with books.
As part of a local library network called the “Idea Exchange”, the Old Post Office is among a new wave of adaptive revitalized buildings. Through an extensive renovation process, the floor area was doubled, and the innovative design wove together old and new materials to create interesting interior spaces. Part of the all-glass addition cantilevers over the Grand River provide awe-inspiring views of the city and beyond. The state-of-the-art facility is fully accessible, and has achieved top-rated green building certification. It is a striking addition to Cambridge’s downtown revitalization and fulfils the city’s desire to preserve its heritage and strengthen its connections with the river.
As a digital library, the Old Post Office offers a range of programs for life-long learning organized over four floors. It is meeting the growing needs of the community in the digital age by providing a space full of innovative technologies that would not otherwise be accessible or affordable for individuals. While the main floor is a gathering space with a reading room and café, the other levels cater to specific activities. The basement includes a theatre with soundproofed creative studios; the children’s discovery centre on the second floor is a hub of interactive learning; and the top floor is called a makerspace—providing equipment for projects from sewing to 3D-printing. This type of creative programming provides a stimulating environment of curiosity and discovery for a diverse group of patrons
A new gathering place
Five years ago, the Cambridge City Council seized an opportunity to embrace change, and the result has been overwhelmingly positive. While there are few books in the digital library, the Idea Exchange network has a circulating collection—ensuring access to literacy of every kind. The new initiative is connecting citizens in a time of increasing isolation, sometimes because of technology. The facility’s librarians and tech-savvy volunteers are interacting with people of all ages and backgrounds as they share new experiences in their own community. And the new Old Post Office is now a popular downtown destination—it has become this century’s gathering place by the river.
Libraries have traditionally been a place for people to come together and learn. Revitalizing an historic building like the Old Post Office, and making it an innovative digital library and creative hub, shows the vision of a community that honours the past while looking forward to the future.
As I saw firsthand at the opening in 2018, the Idea Exchange connects Cambridge with the new digital age, and neighbours of all backgrounds and beliefs with one another. It is encouraging the innovation and social inclusion needed to build a more sustainable future. And with its focus on the arts, it will surely foster the kind of storytelling and context-building that helps us understand how our world is changing. Its unique location on the Grand River connects people with the natural environment. Just as the Galt Post Office used to do, this new space nurtures the communication that allows us to share our stories and connect with others.