It’s the year 1885 in Galt and the Post Office is complete. Distribution of paper mail is all the rage and electric lights have yet to be installed. The building, which is situated on Water Street, in the heart of downtown Galt stands tall — a hallmark for progress and innovation, a landmark that didn’t know then that it would be a landmark.

Now, fast-forward to July 6, 2018 and the former Post Office no longer serves the purpose of exchanging mail. The building still stands as a hallmark for progress and innovation, but now as  a fully integrated space for developing digital literacy in a modern age.

Crowds gathered for the official opening of the $14.9 million Idea Exchange Old Galt Post Office in Cambridge. 

It was a six-year long project that resurrected the historic 19th century Old Post Office in downtown Galt as Idea Exchange’s newest location for their first ever digital library. 

“This particular digital library is unique in Canada — if not North America — in terms of its complete dedication to the digital world. And it’s wired that way from the basement to the attic,” Mayor of Cambridge Doug Craig explained.

“[The community has] something now that’s very unique and special …We’ve taken a 19th century building and we married it to a 21st century architecture.”

There are four floors to the building, each offering something different for public use.

You’ll find access to tools and services like 3D printing, laser-cutting, audio recording, a kid’s Discovery Centre, a café and more. 

Certain floors are geared more towards certain age groups, but ultimately, the facility is fully open to the general public and people of any age are encouraged to explore.

Infographic by Andreas Patsiaouros

Helen Kelly, CEO of Idea Exchange, the organization that runs Cambridge’s libraries and galleries, elaborated on the nature of what the digital library has in store.

“I would say it’s an extension of what we’re doing as a library already. The signal of the name change from Cambridge Public Libraries to Idea Exchange was really looking at how libraries are in a renaissance period right now,” Kelly explained.

Although still in its early stages of operation, the facility is slowly beginning to come to life as more people peer inside the rabbit hole to see just what sort of toys they can tinker around with.

“When you go into a library now, you’ll find that there’s 3D printers and you’ll find that there’s lots of hands-on technology. It’s about hands-on learning and skill development as opposed to our more traditional passive activity planning,” Kelly said.

The weekly programs provided will aim at teaching those who sign-up the skills necessary for using the technology effectively.

“Once they’ve got a basis in print literacy then you’re ready to springboard into digital literacy. Because, you actually need to know how to read and write before you can get comfortable with software and learn how to program,” she continued.

Following its opening earlier this month, group tours have taken place to highlight the facility’s offerings and history. 

Light-shows are also displayed on the building’s exterior every Thursday, Friday and Saturday throughout the summer, telling the story of the building’s many lives.

Along with being unique in its function, the building itself holds a certain amount of historical value in the community. 

The original structure was built by Thomas Fuller, chief dominion architect of Canada at the time. His work spanned from more than 140 buildings across Canada, including the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.

“When you build a building, especially a public building, it’s not only got to be practical, realistic and come within budget — which it did — it also has to be an inspiring building,” Craig said.

“The whole repurposing of the Old Post Office is to signify the importance of heritage in our community and saving our heritage and repurposing it for other uses for the future.”

This meant the building had to undergo a rigorous process of construction to achieve the intended goal.

“There were a lot of structural pieces that needed to be enhanced, partly because the original building, which has been preserved, was made in 1885. In 1885, the building code wasn’t nearly as robust as it is now,” Kelly said.

The original entrance still looms overhead with decorative archways, but in order to raise the building up to today’s standards of accessibility, a new entrance was made and elevators were added, too. 

The building was also expanded in order to create more space. 

By the end of the construction process, the outcome was the merging of two worlds, both old and new. And the memories of its many lives has been preserved in a seemingly timeless space.

“There are people who remember when this was a restaurant, they’ll remember when it was a club, they’ll remember when they came here and they were dancing,” Kelly said. 

“They’re excited to come back and to see that it’s been completely restored.”

Craig also remains hopeful that this old-meets-new addition to downtown Galt will help to revitalize the core. 

“It becomes really not just a digital library, it is a meeting place to bring the community together and it will be transformative in terms of its effect on the downtown,” he said.