A cooling station in summer, a warm nook in winter, an inspiration in spring, a multi-media/multi-language reservoir, a learning incubator, a quiet space to work and research, a child’s imagination central, a bibliophile’s paradise, a meeting place — What are we talking about? The TPL (Toronto Public Library), of course.
Now, apparently there are some people at city hall, Deputy Mayor Dough Holyday, for one, among others in the mayor’s inner circle, who aren’t aware of who uses the library or how well used they are, so I’d like to share my recent experience there, so they might have some idea.
On my last lengthy TPL visit, Toronto was bubbling and boiling over. The weather report said, factoring in humidity, it felt like 50 degrees Celsius in some areas of the city, which is right around the heatstroke level. So even my 10-minute walk to the library was torturous — I felt like a burger on a grill the entire time.
The library opened at 12:30 PM, but by the time I arrived an hour later, it was already a busy place; But then, as the TPL web site notes, we have the “world’s busiest urban public library system,” so, duh! However, add a heat dome over the city, and a normally busy library could become chaotic, especially if it attracts people who need it as a cooling station as well job search locale, etc. Fortunately, it wasn’t. I say it performed well under the heat, as has been required since 3 PM Thursday, March 6, 1884 when the first Toronto Public Library opened near Church and Adelaide streets, with a little government funding, and as the Globe at the time revealed, great expectations for improving adult literacy.
Since then, Toronto’s population has grown and diversified; buildings, like mayors, have come and gone, or been repurposed; the number of TPL branches went from 1 to 99; paper books are being digitized, and libraries are adjusting to serve the public, to the point that nowadays the library offers free downloadable content, remote database access, WIFI access on location, and Internet ready, Microsoft Office outfitted workstations; Yet some things haven’t changed: Libraries remain relevant equalizers because free access to educational materials elevates the tenacious out of poverty and ignorance.
My local branch and the TPL system as a whole is important to me, but I began to see what it meant to others shortly after arriving there.
I didn’t know there was a special kids program planned, but as I witnessed parents pooling into the small branch with their children in tow, I flashed back to signs I’ve seen about the place and I understood their pilgrimage.
The children boisterously joined the greying program leader (who was dressed in scuba gear) in a chorus of animal sounds. They roared for yes and arfed for no, in accordance with his instructions, filling the quiet space with pint-sized animals.
While this was going on, some parents hovered attentively nearby; others wandered to the magazine racks and settled into a reading chair, waiting for the social and learning activities to exhaust their kids. Some, in turn, bonded with other adults who milled about.
As I sat cooling off to the library’s classical music selection, trying to drip words from my brain onto a page, one child happily bounced from one parent to another, showing off his squatting blue-eyed, green-skinned frog cut-out. “Oh, that’s very good,” the father said. Then it was the mother’s turn. “What’s that?” she asked in accented english. “A frog,” the child replied. “Where does he live?” mother wanted to know; but the child, wriggling out of her embrace, escaped any further her questions, and went skipping back to join the other kids, as she stared after him, thwarted.
Another lady, her arms loaded with books, reviewed the wall of chinese language DVDs and magazines, her teenage daughter following close behind, clutching to her heart, her own set of books.
Most aggrieved was the man whose American magazine was unavailable. He even brought over the librarian, to whom he complained that every time he visits, the most current issue is out. The librarian checked the shelves, and surveyed what everyone was reading, but conceded it wasn’t there. Pointing to the new automated check-out system, he said they simply cannot prevent people from checking out the latest periodicals. Gone are the days when it might be “new” for several months, and staff could prevent a borrower taking it home early.
Happier campers came with laptops and chargers, ready to stay a while and enjoy the free WIFI and whatnot.
Several older men, from various backgrounds, came in and read a few newspapers before leaving, as they might’ve in the reading rooms of old, except that back then, they would’ve been separated from the womenfolk, whereas today we sit side-by-side.
I worked comfortably amidst all this for several hours, and in the end it seemed to me that the community, in all its diversity, was happy with its little branch. They were intently making the most of their free public library — Ahem! Tax-supported public library, for surely they understand that it’s not free — nothing ever is.
And to the councillors who are unaware of what goes on in their neighbourhood libraries, I would encourage them to spend a day working from the library — any of the 99 branches would do, but preferably putting eyes and ears to the ground in their own riding. After a few visits (mixing long and short on various days of the week) they might have a better idea of how useful libraries are. They might even find a new love, maybe something by Canadian novelist, poet, critic, and short-story writer Margaret Atwood.
In my next post, I’d like to focus on how to keep that illusion of a free library, since it makes some of us so happy.