Before SkyLab could be launched at the Prince George Public Library, chief librarian Alan Wilson first had to consult the experts at NASA.
It's one thing to embrace technology and give library customers improved access to computers for research and teaching purposes, but Wilson wanted to make sure the project did not infringe on copyright laws when it was given the name of the planet's first orbiting space station.
The last thing Wilson wanted was to see the city's SkyLab come crashing down to earth. But NASA authorities granted approval and on Saturday the public will get its first close look at what almost certainly will become one of the most popular features of the library's Bob Harkins branch downtown.
SkyLab designers took advantage of existing pillars to create a 1,000 square foot mezzanine halfway up to the second-floor ceiling. It gives library users the ability to look out a row of angled windows that were originally installed for lighting purposes, not to provide sightlines. Now, people can relax in big comfy chairs peering through windows that offer westerly views of Connaught Hill, downtown, and the UNBC campus on Cranbrook Hill.
"Nobody has ever seen UNBC from inside the library, and now if they go up on the second floor they've got a brand new way of looking at the library," said Wilson.
SkyLab is wired with high-speed Internet connections on its 23 thin client computer stations, a significant improvement on the slow-speed infrastructure that bogged down users of the 10-terminal computer lab it replaces. The new setup also eliminates the need for a two-hour time limit on wireless Internet connections. Laptop users can plug into hard-wired Category 6 Ethernet jacks at 26 stations on the mezzanine floor. Padded chairs are equipped with electrical plugins and have swing-out tables for laptops.
"I had to fix the Internet anyway, and we had a building study that talked about needing extra social and technical space and I had to find a way to get more bang for my buck," said Wilson. "So by raising the floor to create a brand-new floor I could lift people up to the existing windows rather than create new windows, which is expensive."
Courses on computer literacy have proven quite popular, especially for seniors, and those courses will continue to be offered at the library, but with a much more open approach. The teaching area is set up below the mezzanine on the second floor and includes peripheral seating areas so people can come and go as they please and not be made to feel that movement is interrupting the class in session. The former lab it replaces was in an enclosed room, separate from the rest of the library.
"It's a library without walls," said Wilson. "A lot of people don't like formal instruction, particularly seniors, but also youth. If it doesn't interest them they don't have to leave a classroom and shut a door and disturb people, they can just drift away, or sit in the vicinity and overhear the learning."
Computer-savvy youths called Teen Tech Tutors will be volunteering to teach adults the ways of computers. They will be on hand to help people find their way through the sometimes confusing worlds of government websites to renew their driver's licenses, apply for a passport, or get help looking for a job posting. Guest speakers will offer tips on financial planning, how to protect your privacy, or how to get involved in social networks.
The main floor of SkyLab also includes a big-screen TV for teaching purposes or for showing popular sporting or news events. Printers are located near the computers to serve users at a cost of 20 cents per page.
Prince George is hosting the 2015 Canada Winter Games and that will highlight the library's role as an information centre.
"It looks gorgeous and it gives people more access to the Internet that they didn't have before," said library board chair Anne George. "At no cost to the city we've got this beautiful new space. It's way more inviting."
The $260,000 project was funded with money the library raised itself or through private donations, as well as a small provincial government grant. One woman who admitted she's not a library user dropped by with a $5,000 cheque after she heard about SkyLab through her grandchildren. Telus has offered to donate $25 for each customer it signs up for its Optik cable TV service between now and October.
The library was unable to bring in a Canadian astronaut for Saturday's grand opening but space will remain the theme to introduce the public to SkyLab.
From 11:30 a.m. to noon, staff will sit kids down for a storytelling session, then lead them in a space walk to SkyLab. From noon to 1 p.m., Teen Tech Tutors will get behind the keyboards to showcase their computer skills, followed at 2 p.m. by a demonstration of some of the best in technology the library has to offer, including e-books and demonstrations of online databases. Space cookies will be served.