McGregor Park Gets the Blogger’s Eye Treatment

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A striking building located on Lawrence Avenue East, McGregor Park Library is the second-closest library to my home. I have visited it many times as a regular patron, but in 2010 I returned to view it anew with a blogger’s eye, which is like having a large plastic eyeball on a stick to wave about in a technical manner. This approach to experiencing a library requires activation of detail-noticing antennae and the use of a small notebook. (In 2012, I supplemented my blogger’s toolkit with a digital camera).

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Before I entered the building, I spent a few minutes under the “cantilevered pedestrian canopy.” I really like this syllable-rich phrase, which I found in a website devoted to the City of Toronto’s Architecture and Urban Design Awards. In 2005, McGregor Park won Honourable Mention in the category of Building in Context for helping to “heal and mend a heavily stressed swatch of suburban fabric in Scarborough.” Even though I had not realized my sample of suburban fabric was so stressed, I was nevertheless glad for the successful 2004 reconstruction project which fused McGregor Park Library to a local community centre.

Moving from canopy cover into the lobby, I studied a display case to the right of the entrance. A colourful tapestry shouted SPRING in large quilted letters, and a purple and yellow butterfly hovered near some gardening books and a purple bucket. In 2013, inventive artwork by Hunter Glen Junior School children filled the case with ecologically-themed pieces, including a necklace made from soda can tabs.

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The seasonal theme continued in the children’s part of the library, where a librarian was helping a group of kids decorate small flowerpots and fill them with real soil and seeds. It was a popular activity, and some kids waited more patiently than others for their gardening materials.

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One of the participants even went so far as to abandon the gardening group altogether in favour of running and dancing on the wide window bench that wrapped itself around half of the large room. When I saw the windowseat, I understood the child’s choice. After all, the urge to jump on the bench was not a reflection of the merits of the flowerpot activity but rather a testimony to the irresistible appeal of high wooden expanses.

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The adult library patrons lacked flowerpots, but they were equally happy to be in the library. Every last chair was spoken for, and many of the softer ones had been pulled up to the sunny window bench for optimal reading conditions.

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The community room was also full on the day of my 2010 visit. A film was in progress there as a supplement to the afternoon’s program: “The Aftermath of the Philippine Elections: Fiesta or Blues.” The Filipino connection to the local demographic was also reflected in the multilingual section, which offered Taglog as well as Tamil and Chinese.

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IMG_8899IMG_8907IMG_8897After studying the beautiful scripts on the multilingual shelves, I looked up at the ceiling. I liked how it was higher and wider on the west side of the building, taking advantage of all the light pouring in from the walls of windows.

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The overhead space narrowed and lowered on the east side, sheltering the bookcases and tables there. The effect of the tapered ceiling was like being in the back of a scholarly cave, away from the wide sunny mouth of the opening. (For better or worse, this is the kind of analogy that flourishes under the blogger’s eye treatment).

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As I advanced to the exit after my detail-finding mission, I silently thanked McGregor Park for its provision of shelter, seeds, sunlight, and ecological awareness.

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Thoroughly-Carpeted Albert Campbell (1971): The Second Visit

IMG_9501It was raining heavily when I drove into Albert Campbell’s lot on a Saturday morning in 2010. I paused to listen to the rain on the car roof for several minutes while enjoying the view of an empty field bordered by trees. Then I made a mad wet scurry to the lower back entrance and briefly investigated the basement level. There, I discovered an auditorium humming in dimly-lit calm and a yoga teacher demonstrating a series of shoulder stretches.IMG_9507

Lowering my shoulders in sympathy, I returned to the lobby, which was papered with community information leaflets. Services included a team of Library Settlement Workers sponsored by CICS who offered assistance in Bengali, Chinese, Tamil, and Urdu. These four languages were also represented in the multilingual collection, in addition to Greek, Italian, Kurdish, Persian, Spanish, Hindi, and Tagalog.

IMG_9503When I walked upstairs to the main lobby, a treasure trove of used books greeted me on two tables. By the time I finished my eager rummaging, I’d scored fourteen ESL and Adult Literacy books to give to my students. What a jackpot!

Toting my selections, I spent about ten minutes admiring them on a  wonderfully fuzzy window bench. I liked how my latest reading perch was covered in tan carpet and enlivened by four potted plants.

As I further reacquainted myself with this branch, I remembered why I had been so taken with it the first time. Albert Campbell is like a giant educational 1970’s rumpus room with plenty of barrel and square shapes to add visual interest.

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Increasing the playfulness, a Lego effect was created by two sets of exposed staircases leading to the children’s section on an upper level platform. The east and west sides of the platform had rounded tan carpeted ledges from which to observe the activity on the main floor. Too bad there weren’t any massive carpeted slides!

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Unable to slide back down to the main level, I contented myself with looking over the west side of the platform. From this vantage point, I beheld a pod of silent study carrels, tall shelves, and the crowns of patrons working at a double row of computers. I couldn’t see the Learning Centre, but I knew it was there directly below the platform.

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Then I crossed to the east side and noted the coat-hooks considerately placed at child-height on the inner side of the ledge. As I leaned against it, the check-out desk and newspaper lounge with its carpeted window perch came into view.

I found the decorations at Albert Campbell folksy and fun, from a random triceratops on a shelf to the fanciful paper creations by Nan Unsworth. Five of Unsworth’s paper renditions of characters from The Wizard of Oz stood tall on top of a long bookshelf in the children’s section.

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Paper sculptures by Nan Unsworth. Photo taken in 2013.
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Paper sculptures by Nan Unsworth. Photo taken in 2013.

On the north wall hung an enormous zodiac tapestry with paper images of fish, a ram, a crab, scales, and other symbols. (The archer looked a little dusty, but he was quite high up and difficult to reach with a cloth).

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Artwork by Nan Unsworth. Photo taken in 2013.
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Artwork by Nan Unsworth

Not far from the Wizard of Oz party, someone had propped four paper masks on top of individual high shelves. Their stern expressions seemed to say, “You’d better behave or I’ll rustle my papery beak at you!”

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Mask by Nan Unsworth. Photo taken in 2013.

After taking a few photos of the masks, I trotted down the east stairs. Then I settled into a private study carrel and constructed a personal study island with my bag of books, DVD’s, phone, and bottle of correction fluid. As I wrote in my journal, I could hear the tapping of keyboards, pages rustling, and the patient voice of a nearby math tutor three carrels to my right. It was the perfect place to be on a rainy Saturday morning.

This permed owl was present at Albert Campbell in 2010 but not in 2013.

When I finally left Albert Campbell several hours after arrival, the rain had stopped. The sloping garden outside the main entrance looked refreshed from its shower, and I returned to the car with visions of dewy irises dancing in my head.

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Bendale Library (1961) on a Blustery Afternoon

Bendale Library sits by itself on a little grassy rise from which it serves residents near the intersection of Danforth Road and Lawrence Avenue East. Upon arrival, I noticed how the library’s trees and lawn resembled those of the suburban houses across the road.

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I liked the multilingual welcome sign in the lobby, and I felt extra welcome when the branch head, Sandra Cox sprang up to greet me after I gave my name at the front desk. She said, “It’s you!” (It made me happy that she had read my blog).

Located to the right of the hospitable main desk, the children’s section contained a reading bench tucked into an unobtrusive spot. One mother was asking a librarian about good children’s books, and she received some suggestions as well as sincere encouragement to read to her child every day.

A few steps away from the children’s area, multiple reading opportunities presented themselves in Tamil, Gujurati, Polish, Tagalog, and Chinese. (Hindi DVD’s were available, too).

Walking towards the opposite end of the room, I saw shelves of fiction, a circle of armchairs, teen materials, large CD carrels, computers, and non-fiction. I also noticed a lady sitting at a card table covered by an Indian paisley textile and a sign that advertised free settlement services. The woman had a cup of tea, a laptop, and a friendly expression.

Two lively sisters were playing hide and seek among the shelves beside the settlement table. When they caught glimpses of each other between gaps in the books, some shrieks came out.

After my survey of Bendale’s main floor, I happily seated myself in its most northwesterly corner. As dusk dimmed a blustery grey afternoon, it was fun to inhabit a table with a view of swaying trees outside.

From my corner, I could hear the hum of activity coming from the entire branch: receipts chugging out of the printer, a mom trying to catch her exuberant toddler, the light thud of books being re-shelved, and the murmur of librarians. As the sky darkened, the tables behind me started filling up.

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Leaving my peaceful corner, I bought a couple of old Architectural Digest magazines and went into the lobby. I heard voices downstairs, so I descended a curving staircase and discovered a huge meeting room below. Several groups of young patrons were doing their schoolwork, and I silently applauded them with “That’s the spirit!”

Their hardworking example continued to cheer me as I exchanged Bendale Library’s scholarly warmth for the chilly November twilight outside.

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Weighty Fairview Library (1976): Humming with Life

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Fairview Library resembles other concrete-heavy TPL branches built in the 1970’s, such as York Woods (1970), Albert Campbell (1971), and Albion (1973). While some people might shy away from Brutalist architecture, I really enjoy the solid unpretentiousness of Fairview’s interior. Being in this branch felt like sailing on the deck of a freighter ship, its hold packed with international literary cargo.

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It could be my Midwestern sensibility that finds beauty in Fairview’s jolie laide building. If Carl Sandburg were alive, I think he would write a poem about it. And if he didn’t feel like doing that, he could marvel at the range of languages represented at the library: Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, French, Gujarati, Korean, Persian, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Tamil, Turkish, and Urdu.

On my first trip to Fairview, its vibrancy was apparent right away. Every chair was taken, every table space utilized, its two levels humming with life — study groups, individuals in private study rooms, newspaper readers, and family groups. I felt inspired by so many patrons acting upon their dreams.

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When I returned to the branch in 2012 to take pictures, I was lucky to find one of the ten individual study rooms free. I loved these pockets of serenity in an older district branch under pressure from so much enthusiastic use.

As I walked by the occupied study rooms, I noticed how each inhabitant took full physical ownership of his or her haven. Positive possessiveness radiated in the air inside the glass doors (and a few feet outside of them). Bent over their work, the scholars’ body language declared: “This quiet cell is mine and I’ve earned it!” There was no need for Do Not Disturb signs, for such private intensity deserves automatic respect.

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After admiring the work ethic of the study booth residents, I raised my eyes to Fairview’s immense ceiling. I liked how the exposed ducts added active interest and grubby industrial chic to the library’s atmosphere. They presided over the plants, patrons, and shelves with matter-of-fact grandeur.

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Sheltering in the northeast corner of the building was Noah’s Ark II. As I approached the ark to take its picture, I could hear some voices coming from the interior of the boat. I couldn’t see anybody at first, but when I got close to the animal portraits, I discovered two teenagers scrunched up together against the hull working on a school assignment. (It was really clever of Noah to stock his ark with flirtatious teens).

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Not far from the ark, I spied some colourful books about Chinese New Year and hurried to check them out so I wouldn’t be late for my class. The disembodied hand on the Express Check-Out screen helpfully pointed me towards the world outside this weighty fortress of learning.

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Adaptable Richview Library (1966)

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Upon first glimpse of Richview Library, I noticed stone benches among the greenery and and some tiled columns near the entrance. While the tall trees outside grew damper and damper, library patrons kept pouring into Richview branch. The long straight lines of the interior design provided contrast to the soggy swirl of rain outside.

On the main level, earnest study groups had taken ownership of the big tables, loading them down with heavy textbooks. The students conversed in many different languages, reflecting the diversity of the Islington and Eglinton area. Fortunately, Richview’s multilingual resources were large and varied, with French, Polish, Korean, Italian, and Chinese most heavily represented. There was even a Chinese “Best Bets” shelf, something I hadn’t seen before at other branches. Urdu, Ukrainian, Spanish, Russian, and Croatian were also contenders, accompanied by a huge ESL section.

Not to be outdone by so much linguistic abundance, the Romance collection was burgeoning with charming cads and swooning heroines. My two favourite titles were Sheikh Boss, Hot Desert Nights and The Tycoon’s Very Personal Assistant. (I imagined imperilled paperweights and staples soon to be swept from the tycoon’s desktop).

None of the romance novels had “Local History Room” in their titles, and the no-nonsense research room upstairs seemed to confirm an unromantic vibe. However, a self-portrait by Norval Morrisseau beside the Local History Room’s door really enlivened this quiet corner of the library. I was fascinated by the red circles connected by dark lines to Morrisseau’s shoulders and a multicoloured hat.

Norval Morrisseau

The upstairs level also contained an art gallery lined with low wooden benches. Most of the exhibited paintings were the work of artist Wain Fun Ku, a man who had returned to his passion thirty years after leaving art school. (Richview’s gallery has even more layers of significance for me now because it was the site of my first public art exhibit, Maps of Loss: Rivers, Ruins, and Grief).

Near the gallery was a large computer lab next to an enclosed Quiet Study Area (both completely full on my 2009 visit). I felt uplifted by Ku’s story as well as by the concentrated Saturday studiousness in the three rooms. The gallery, lab, and study area all embodied the hard work, the hours devoted, the incremental steps taken towards fulfilling cherished personal dreams.

Taking leave of the inspiring scene upstairs, I took the elevator down two levels and emerged into a spacious lobby where a row of empty trolleys waited to be filled with books for re-shelving. The hallway leading to the Children’s Department had a row of small desks lining one wall, creating a Quiet Study Area for this floor as well.

The main room of the Children’s section was a lovely wooden den of a place with some bricks for extra sturdiness. An alcove devoted to picture books and two red sofas contributed to the warm atmosphere, but the best detail of all was a carpeted amphitheatre in a corner. Perfect for storytelling performances, three tiers of steps provided the audience with carpeted perches. From Rome to Richview is not so far, especially when we have libraries to transport us through the vehicle of stories!

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In 2012, I returned to Richview Library to take some photographs and discovered a very different branch thanks to a 2010 renovation that brightened the main level considerably.

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The 2012 visit yielded another new discovery, a blissful expanse of sun-drenched windowsills on the second floor. Even though a patron blocked my view of the sill at first, I really liked how he rested his newspaper in a pool of sunlight as he read from a standing position, converting this warm ledge into a desk.

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When I concluded my second trip to Richview, I left the branch with even more admiration for its artistic encouragement, adaptability, and most of all its rich new perspectives!

Enchanting Weston Library (1914)

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Constructed with $10,000 magical dollars from a Carnegie grant, Weston Library belongs in a fairy tale from the last century. Flower boxes, stones, and vines on a trellis set the stage for enchantment, and the spell remained once I ventured inside the old section of the library. Its simple elegance gave me a spiritual lift.

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I loved how the dignified plainness of the original brick walls allowed the stained-glass windows to shine all the more brightly. Reflecting a less inclusive canon of literature than today’s, the windowpanes bore shields with the names of dead white British male writers: Johnson, Ruskin, Shakespeare, Moore, Wordsworth, Dickens, Scott, Tennyson, Stevenson, Lamb, Burns, Chaucer, and Milton (among others).

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One window’s shield didn’t have a name underneath it, which gives me hope that it’s reserved for a contemporary feminist of colour such as Nalo Hopkinson, bell hooks, or Alice Walker. This would considerably improve the quality of after-hours debates between the windows’ representatives, especially on the topics of gendered language, the male gaze, and colonial oppression.

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While most of the panes offered unobstructed views of the streets outside, one window gave patrons a glimpse of the library’s private office instead. The office was part of an addition to the south side of the building.

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Regrettably, this tacked-on addition spoiled the fairy-tale effect for me. After spending exalted moments contemplating the classic (if overly patriarchal) giants of literature, I suddenly fell to earth with a thud at the sight of filing cabinets, piles of paper, and a plastic snack tray.

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The grapes, doughnuts, and Cadbury fingers on the other side of the glass were arranged in a reasonably artistic manner. However, I didn’t want to disconcert librarians by taking pictures of their snacks, so I moved away from the window to check out the other wing on the main level.

IMG_1128Added in 1981, the newer wing of Weston Library held the ESL, Teens, Spanish, and French collections. After noting the striking architectural contrast between the 1914 and 1981 sections, I went downstairs to the basement level, which contained a spacious Children’s department with murals that covered three walls.

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While Shakespeare, Lamb, and Milton kept it old-school upstairs, the pantheon of the downstairs mural included a Wild Thing, Babar the Elephant, Curious George, Peter Rabbit, The Cat in the Hat, and Paddington Bear with a jar of marmalade.

As a way to integrate the early and late 20th century elements of the library, I wished the muralist had been encouraged to match the writers on the windows with the characters in the basement. For example, Chaucer and Burns could be Wild Things, Dickens would make a fine Curious George, and Ruskin could serve as Peter Rabbit.

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IMG_0944 Mural by Irene Jorasz, 1984

A second mural showed a variety of outdoor activities in progress that frogs occasionally joined. One frog, however, questioned the merits of hockey.

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Mural by Irene Jorasz, 1984

From murals to stained-glass windows, Weston Library was a delight to visit. It also helped me feel connected to a historical era on the precipice of the first World War. Weston’s square simplicity and window-proclaimed faith in an unchanging British literary canon reminded me of a quotation from L. M. Montgomery‘s journal.

In Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, Montgomery’s biographer, Mary Rubio, cites a 1932 journal entry that compares  Montgomery’s generation that of her grandparents. The latter inhabited an “apparently changeless world. Nothing was questioned — religion — politics — society . . . And my generation! . . . Everything we once thought immovable wrenched from its pedestal and hurled to ruins . . . (with) nothing (left) but a welter of doubt and confusion and uncertainty” (422-23).

Gazing through windows that have endured for a century, I hope Lucy Maud would be comforted to know they are still here, even though the view is different.

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Two Visits to Roomy Downsview (1962)

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Back in 2008, Downsview branch was my 50th library, a large and self-contained building with an enormous main floor and smaller basement level. As I entered the library, my head tilted back in appreciation of the wealth of light and space above the shelves. I felt like I was in an extraordinarily spacious white tent.

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As I paced the aisles, I noticed large Spanish, Italian, and French collections, as well as smaller ones in Gujurati, Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, Vietnamese, Bengali, and Chinese. A group of teenage boys were playing cards in the magazine section while a much more sedate stuffed parrot supervised a display of books about the outdoors.

In the southwest corner of the main level was the children’s zone. It was defined by a low wall with a special entrance in the form of a tall red cylinder with a circular opening for a gate. Inside the gate, a librarian had posted lots of chicken jokes high on the walls: “Why did the turkey cross the road? Answer: To show he wasn’t chicken.”

When I finally returned to Downsview with my camera four years later, the wall and portal had been removed during a mini-renovation. The chicken jokes were also absent, but the windows shimmered with a springtime scene that had been painted by the library’s youth group.

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On my 2008 visit, I had to finish looking at the library quickly because it was almost four o’clock, and there was another branch to see before the Saturday closing time of five o’clock. Picking up the pace, I strode over to the staircase that led to the basement.

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Just at the point where the landing curved to meet the first flight of steps, there was an open space between the landing and the set of windows spanning both floors. Two blue butterflies hung from the ceiling of the main floor in this open space, supporting strings that dangled all the way to the basement level. Paper cranes in red, pink, yellow, blue, and green clung to the two long strings, creating an origami cascade down to a book display of summer reading below. (Alas, the cranes were absent in 2012).

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The basement level communicated a businesslike tone with its careers section, shelves of adult non-fiction, and extensive ESL and literacy collection. I selected a pronunciation book for one of my classes and scooted past long rows of dark green bookcases for a quick check-out. Thus endeth my fiftieth library encounter!

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Malvern Library (2005): Scarborough at Its Best!

The first time I visited this beautiful branch, it was in wintertime. Maybe that’s why the flanks of Malvern Library reminded me of  old-fashioned silver ice-cube trays turned on their sides to drain.

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Ice-tray simile notwithstanding, the triangle above the entrance and the straight lines of the side porticoes made a strong geometrical impression. In fact, the exterior lines seemed so formal that I was totally unprepared for the warmth and organic spaciousness of the interior. When I walked into the library on my 2009 visit, I felt like I’d just taken off my parka and stepped into a scholarly wooden chalet.

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To support the high central ceiling, long planks fanned out from stone pillars, creating a strong overhead structure with artistic flair. As I admired the ceiling, creating an obstacle to browsers, I imagined it as the skeleton of an upended ark-in-progress.

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Below the ark, a fleet of windows summoned sunlight to nourish patrons and tall potted palms alike. I also loved the flowing patterns of light that draped the interior by the windows.

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As I wove between the aisles, I noticed shelves of books in Urdu, Tamil, Hindi, Tagalog, Punjabi, Gujurati, and Chinese. In addition, I saw a three-dimensional castle puzzle (fully completed) on top of a bookshelf in the children’s section

Near the castle puzzle was a much larger one — a fort for young readers to defend themselves against boredom — that contained seats in turrets and large portals for studious knights and ladies to crawl through. A long carpeted reading bench was the perfect place to recharge for the next joust.

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The final details of Malvern that gladdened my heart were  the extensive windowseats in the southeast corner and a black armchair with cat ears and green eyes. No wonder children were literally running into this fun branch!

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All in all, Malvern Library impressed me as an outstanding example of public resources well-spent. I love how it challenges stereotypes of crime-ridden, stigmatized Scarborough.

The next person who teases me about living in Scartown or declares that Pape Station is their easternmost limit is going to get a firm invitation to visit Malvern Library. If they could expand their narrow  map of Toronto and spend time at Malvern, Cedarbrae, and Kennedy/Eglinton Libraries (and many others), they would experience the beautiful way these branches serve communities under pressure. And they would better understand why I’m proud to live in Scarborough.

Saint Lawrence Branch (1982): Number 52 on my Library Pilgrimage

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On a 2012 outing to Saint Lawrence Library, I found the entrance after navigating two veiled scaffolds. The labyrinthine construction path ultimately led to a cool marble sanctuary that seemed far removed from the traffic and crowds on Front Street East.

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Five gray pillars on beige marble bases held up the ceiling of the library’s one long room. Four of the pillars were bare, but the fifth one was partly covered with flip-chart paper on which someone had drawn Egyptian hieroglyphics: owls, snakes, herons, and ankh symbols. (The hieroglyphics were present on my first visit in 2008 but not in 2012).

In addition to a decorative column, Saint Lawrence offered a small collection of children’s books in French and a local history section. A framed 1867 map showed that nearby streets were present at the birth of Toronto.

Another special feature of Saint Lawrence Library was a puppet theatre set into the wall. In 2008, paper flowers and clouds decorated the space around the square opening, along with a smiling sun and a castle (both in felt). In readiness for potential Jack and the Beanstalk dramas, a felt vine dangled in the air of the performance space. However, four years later, the puppet decor was noticeably more minimalist.

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Opposite the puppet theatre was a large cardboard castle-structure that had three arches and was plastered with notices about summer reading. I didn’t see the castle on my second visit, but I appreciated the cheerful new rug and an interesting puzzle.

Thank you, Saint Lawrence, for your puppets, pillars, puzzles, and public service!

Armour Heights (1982): Home Away from Home at Avenue and Wilson

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Consisting of one square room in a community centre near Avenue and Wilson, Armour Heights had a warm domestic vibe thanks to its humble size and a brick fireplace on the east wall. (On my second visit in 2012, I noticed the fireplace had been papered over, but it was reassuring to know it still existed).

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A low reading bench spanning the length of the fireplace was covered with cushions, teddy bears, and other assorted animals, including Minnie Mouse. Completing the cozy scene was a wooden chest with Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig decals topped by sleeping tigers.

Not far from the tigers, intense sunlight warmed a padded seat set into the middle of the north wall. The opening hours etched on the glass were hyper-illuminated, inviting a chorus of celestial music to celebrate the library. Ah-ah!

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The wooden table in front of the window was the perfect place to study a book about cats from the small French collection. Other patrons nearby contentedly tapped on their laptop keyboards.After photographing several French books, I discovered a reading lounge that made for a calm northwest corner, and soon I had travelled the length and width of Armour Height’s compact dimensions.

On the Friday morning of my visit, I was heartened to see large numbers of patrons making themselves at home at this small branch with a big commitment to service. In the corridor outside the library, the notice board was overflowing with news of local events, and a couple of friends swung badminton rackets in anticipation of their next game.

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At this community-oriented hub, even the back entrance was animated. Cars drove up and parked momentarily to let passengers scurry in to return their library books. Squirrels rushed around the tree trunks. And the sun continued to bless and brighten this welcoming branch.

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A Second Trip to North York Central (1987): Introduction and Sixth Floor

Due to its immense scale, I found North York Central Library (1987) to be an entire universe unto itself. Located in the mall next to Mel Lastman Square, the sheer size, complexity, and scope of this branch blew me away. In fact, I felt so overwhelmed by the task of adequately describing all of its 168,022 square feet that I decided to write one post per floor, beginning with the sixth floor and working my way down.IMG_8092

The top floor, also known as the Gladys Allison Canadiana Room, was smaller than the lower levels, creating an aeyrie-like effect as I leaned against a low carpeted wall overlooking the atrium below. Straight in front of me was a mural of a Northern sky that pressed down on mountains of ice. A maple leaf carved into a wooden disk proudly upheld the Canadian theme.

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The lofty sixth floor may have represented the firmament of North York Central, but the sky mural wasn’t its absolute limit. A milky-purple galaxy alive with stars glimmered further overhead. I caught my breath when I casually looked up, for I hadn’t been expecting to see anything more infinite than the sky!

Tilting my head towards the galaxy intensified the minor vertigo I was experiencing from my bird’s-eye perch. It made me appreciate the solidness of the structure I was leaning against; the sturdy upholstered wall minimized the sense of floating in the giddy expanse of the atrium.

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Dividing North York Central branch into its east and west sides, the central atrium was like a canyon. From my eastern perspective, I could see over the atrium and the open staircases on both sides.

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From so high up, the vast complexity of this urban beehive was showcased in a dramatic fashion. Reduced-sized patrons scurried about their scholarly business on multiple floors. A lone man worked at his laptop in the fourth floor’s observation pod. Another person squatted against the carpeted ledge of another tower to answer a cellular summons. And on the first floor of the west side, a round table with radial dividers looked like a package of cheese wedges with miniature lactose-tolerant readers in attendance.

As I gazed for several more minutes, the scene below began to remind me of a massive 1980’s pinball machine. For example, the round observation circles at the edges of the east floors looked like a series of obstacles for a pinball to ricochet around. A thick red column vertically pierced all the circles from the fifth to the second floors, increasing the challenge of the game. Even the staircase on the west side resembled a chute with a round basin at the end to collect lost pinballs.

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Wondering what it might be like to rappel from the highest floor to the lobby, I tore myself away from the hypnotic view and walked over to the darkened microfilm room on the north side of the sixth floor. With lights suitably dimmed for the pursuit of past mysteries, this research area featured glossy scanners next to large black computer screens. Genealogical microfilms and old newspapers waited patiently in cabinets.

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The remaining section of the Canadiana Room received extra light from east and south-facing windows that offered views of North York’s skyline and Mel Lastman Square respectively. Potted plants soaked up the plentiful rays and made the room a home-like place to pore over documents contained in the North York History Collection.

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Painting by Mayc Setchell. I really like the deep blue of the space behind the sitter’s left shoulder.

On a nearby wall was a portrait of Gladys Allison (1901-1979), who served on the North York Library Board from 1951 to 1967. The painting depicted a woman with short silver hair set in gentle waves who was typing in front of well-stocked bookshelves. The majority of the books’ spines were blank, but the portrait-painter did provide some titles, including Tomorrow Will Be Better, Lorna Doon, Miracle of the Breakfast Table, Short History of the English People, and The Works of Shakespeare.

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Painting by Mayc Setchell

Not far from Gladys’ painting was a gilded oak lion with a pompadour mane and slightly protruding eyes. According to the display information, The Golden Lion of North York was carved by Paul Sheppard, and it used to stand guard over the entrance to a nineteenth-century inn near Sheppard and Yonge, The Golden Lion Hotel.

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Paying my respects to the historic lion and its academic pride, I stepped into the elevator and pressed 5, Science and Technology.

North York Central’s Fifth Floor: Science and Technology

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On the fifth floor of North York Central, the restful reading space in the side nodule by the red column was the first feature to capture my attention. I especially liked the low spool-shaped coffee tables in this reading area. Their quirkiness contrasted with the sober study booths that lined the north wall, all four of which were inhabited by scholars absorbed in their work.

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As I walked around the rest of this floor, I became aware of the eclectic range of topics that fall under the umbrella of Science and Technology. Its magazine collection had everything from Tropical Fish Hobbyist to Spaceflight and Weightwatchers. Interested readers could also opt for books about quantum mechanics, spotted owls, boatbuilding, and tin toys, all without leaving the fifth floor.

IMG_8065A Legal Aid Clinic awaited clients in the southwest corner and a nearby open cabinet contained a CD collection of sound effects. Patrons could choose from the following audio experiences: bullfrog croak, lion roar, echo canyon, sexy laugh, and a “right to remain silent” admonition. For the poetic types, there were steam railway sound effects, terror/mystery noises, and rainshowers.

The last notable item on the fifth level of North York Central Library was a “Beauty and Style” display. In this tall glass cabinet, a variety of beauty aids had been arranged next to book covers propped on stands. An old-fashioned perfume atomizer with a pink tassel rested on the middle shelf near a mousse bottle and a delicate jar of Fendi Eau de Toilette.

I’m not sure what the serious engineering students at nearby tables made of the display of grooming items, but on a more recent visit I noticed that the display’s theme had changed to Canada’s space program.

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Leaving the beautifully cosmic environment of Science and Technology for the day, I headed downstairs to Business and Urban Affairs.

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North York Central’s Fourth Floor: Business and Urban Affairs

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A popular floor at North York Central, Business and Urban Affairs was crowded with goal-oriented readers during my 2010 visit. All five private study booths were occupied and each available table was taken.

One group of three patrons was making a day of it in the library. Camped out around a low table in the northwest corner, their writing surface was obscured by water bottles, fruit, croissants, papers, and cell-phones.

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None of the window seats at the large tables along the south wall were available, for readers are solar, warmth-seeking creatures like cats and sunflowers. The view of Mel Lastman Square and its skating rink provided additional motivation to secure chairs by the windows.

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Notices in both English and Mandarin warned us to “watch our belongings.” The warning wasn’t unnecessarily alarmist; one time I actually heard an intercom announce that a wallet had just been reported stolen.

Focusing on the acquisition of wealth in more legitimate ways, a display on debt management suggested the following books: Tame the Debt Monster, Release from Debtor’s Prison, and Green with Envy: Why Keeping Up with the Joneses is Keeping Us in Debt. I also noticed a catchy title that stood out among other recommended books: How Come THAT Idiot’s Rich and I’m Not?

Wondering if the thief had been caught and then sent home with moral fables to study, I walked to down to the third floor, Society and Recreation.

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North York Central’s Third Floor: Society and Recreation

IMG_7997When I arrived on the third floor, I was immediately drawn to the artwork on the walls near the large Native People’s collection. I especially liked a print by Jamasie near the first study booth on the north wall. My favourite detail of “Camp at Kangiak” was a face peering from the entrance to a tent.

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“Camp at Kangiak” by Jamasie (Print of stone-cut)

As I walked beside the study cells, booth #5 suddenly became free, and I lit inside without thinking.  My primal scholarly instincts had kicked into high gear, for I didn’t want to miss this rare chance to occupy one of the most coveted study spaces in the library.IMG_7991

Settling in more deeply, I placed my backpack and canvas bag on a high wooden shelf. Then I breathed in the pleasure of briefly owning this quiet, private room designed for concentration and productivity.

I reflected that the very name “Study Booth” was an ideal to live up to. If I played games on my phone or painted my nails, it would disrespect a cell devoted to cramming, brainstorming, or crafting compositions. And with the door and its wall made of glass, my study behaviour was also on display as an example to passersby.

After I reluctantly emerged from my booth, I headed over to the large newspaper collection. Over the racks was a prominent sign that showed a pair of scissors imprisoned by a thick red circle and a diagonal slash mark. Brazen article-clippers, Be Ye Warned!

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On the alert for naughty scissor-wielders, I descended to the second level, Language and Literature, taking some time to admire the overhead and underfoot views of the library.

North York Central’s Second Floor: Language and Literature

When I landed on the second floor, I gravitated towards a display cabinet filled with altered books. Located near the elevators, the exhibit had been created by OCAD students who had taken withdrawn library books (for sale at Book Ends on the Concourse level) and transformed them into art. The display’s centerpiece was a shredded-paper nest from which sprang some colourful paper birds.

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My other favourite altered book was “Flipping War” by Christopher Wong. He had chosen a battered paperback copy of The Boat and painted the pages in swashes of blue. Then he had drawn a series of pictures to create an animated story. As I flipped through the pages, I saw a ship and a shark with a saucy smile, a lurking submarine, and a small fish getting chomped by a bigger fish. Some rising jellyfish provided the final act before the words “The End” appeared on the last pages.

"Totemic Tribute to Pauline Johnson" by Karen Stoskopf Harding
“Totemic Tribute to Pauline Johnson” by Karen Stoskopf Harding

In addition to the creatively recycled books, I was also intrigued by two Karen Stoskopf Harding sculptures with their backs to the elevator doors. One was called “Totemic Tribute to Pauline Johnson” (also known as Tekahionwake) and the other “Totemic Tribute to Emily Carr” (or Klee Wyck, “One Who Laughs).

Refreshed by art, I began orbiting the second floor’s outer parameters. In my travels. I came across a language learning lab and a piano practice room ($1 per half hour). The music lesson in progress added a textured dimension of sound that made the space come even more alive.

Note: This book and the examples of multilingual books which follow are actually from the first floor (childrens). I find that the children's books usually have more interesting covers.
Note: This book and the examples of multilingual books which follow are actually from the first floor of North York Central (Children’s Section). I find that the children’s books usually have more interesting covers.

With piano scales galloping in the background, I investigated the central shelves and their astonishing range and quantity of multilingual materials. For example, the French collection, which included a great number of Livres de Poche, was vast.

IMG_8153North York Central also provided large collections in German, Hindi, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Serbian, Polish, and Persian. Languages with more modest representation included Japanese, Urdu, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Romanian. However, they had been at least been spared the fate of collections transferred to other TPL branches (Arabic, Tamil, Bengali, Greek, Gujurati, Hebrew, and Italian).

IMG_8157IMG_8156IMG_8155Despite sharing a floor with so many glamorous scripts and characters, practical ESL materials had not been neglected. A generous section of the west wall contained plenty of grammar, reading, and test-preparation resources. And a large cabinet was entirely filled with abridged ESL readers, graded by difficulty-level.

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IMG_8279IMG_8278Enlivened by art, music, and languages, I let gravity draw me to level one, Circulation, Browsery, and Children’s.

 

North York Central’s First Floor (East Side): Circulation, Browsery, and Children’s

Intense movement and activity characterized North York Central Library‘s circulation area when I visited in 2010. Long lines of borrowers resembled busy supermarket queues, and library staff were doing their best to hustle them through the check-out process. At least there were no price checks! (Self-service stations have since reduced the crowding in the entryway).

The restless pace of book borrowing was rendered more frenetic by the overstimulating decor. Bright colours and geometric shapes competed with the press of people and objects, leaving the eye with few places to rest. However, one structure provided a clear visual boundary in a disorienting space. It was a waist-high wall with red tiles.

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Shaped like a letter “s” that just kept on curving at the top and bottom, the red wall demarcated where the browsery ended and the Children’s Section began. Continuing the curve where the wall stopped was a red bookcase that also managed to undulate.

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Behind the red wall was a yellow castle tower with green eaves and a semi-open roof made of green boards arranged in a radial pattern. A gold ball capped the centre of the castle roof, which was approximately eight feet high.

On the floor near the entrance to the story-castle was a stone sculpture titled “Mother Bear and Cub” by E. B. Cox. This small but solid art object had inspired many young expressive artists, judging by the wild streaks of green, red, burgundy, pink, and turquoise crayon that decorated the stone bears. In my view, the colourful dialogue between sculptor and viewers validated the sculpture and further enhanced its appeal.

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When I went to look inside the castle, I was delighted to discover four aquariums on the shelves. These fish tanks had been placed at mid-level on the castle wall, and underneath the shelves were two reading cupboards without doors. With cushions at floor level, the cubby-holes were the perfect size for a parent and child to crawl into and share a story. At the back of the reading nooks were wooden bars that created a non-threatening dungeon effect.

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The fanciful tower wasn’t the only story venue at North York Central’s Children’s Section; it also boasted a separate story-room. On the day I visited in 2010, the room was packed with youngsters and their caregivers listening to an animated educator. After she finished her story, she led the audience in a rousing rendition of “I’m a Little Teapot.” Nearby shelves contained more serious fare, such as The House that Crack Built.

IMG_7851On the east wall near the story-room was a striking piece of art carved in the shape of an abstract tree with branches that arched up and out. Created by K. and L. Rix, the sculpture’s branches and leaves contained a vast range of figures from the animal kingdom, fairy-tales, myths, and First Nations and Inuit culture.

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IMG_7878IMG_7892It took me at least ten minutes to absorb the riot of images, for they were packed together in such close proximity that they competed for attention. Inhabiting the tree were the following entities: a winged mouse, a dinosaur, a jester, Pegasus, a giant beaver next to a longhouse, a Viking ship, Pan, a snake wearing a hat, a fairy godmother, a canoe, a peacock, a frog, a woodcutter, a yam-child, a warrior, a goddess, some bulls, a cat, and a queen (among others).

IMG_7889IMG_7876IMG_7917If I needed to learn more about frog kings or jesters, I could step right over to the large Children’s Literature Reference Section on the west wall, a category which I hadn’t seen at any other TPL branch (although Lillian H. Smith branch has a Children’s Literature Resource Collection). Equally impressive was a large collection of children’s books in French, German, Hindi, Chinese, Korean, and Russian. A smaller number of materials was also available in Arabic, Persian, Serbian, Japanese, and Spanish.

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The final interesting feature on the first floor was a Kid’s Help Desk that combined whimsicality with informativeness. The curved desk was framed by claw-shaped side columns topped by teddy bears. A  moose head loomed over the librarians’ heads, a creature with so much natural authority that no patron would ever venture to comment on his dangle antler-rings or sparkly wreath.

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Bidding good-bye to the moose and a monkey clutching a library program guide, I directed my steps to the Concourse Level.

North York Central (Concourse Level and Atrium)

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The two major attractions of North York Central’s basement level are Book Ends (a second-hand bookstore) and a spacious Study Hall with a view of Mel Lastman Square’s reflecting pool. The bookstore was closed on my first visit, so I focused my attention on the Study Hall.

Five long tables worthy of feasting Vikings occupied the majority of the hall, and almost every chair was taken. It was fascinating how each student had created a miniature encampment to maintain personal space in a crowded area. For table-territory definition, the scholars had carefully piled up laptops, highlighter pens, bags of crisps, water bottles, dictionaries marked with fluttering sticky tabs, calculators, hefty textbooks, Starbucks cups, take-out boxes, and bottles of skin-cream. The study-forts proclaimed, “Breach these ramparts at your peril!”

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More tables lined the tall windows on the south side of the study hall. In addition, individual study carrels, a stage, and a few potted trees dotted the studyscape. One of the plants had been coaxed to sprout a post-it note.

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Capping off the room’s amenities, the Marget Canning and Jean Orpwood Adult Literacy Centre and the Talking Books Mobile Outreach Service beamed helpfully from the north wall and east walls respectively. I admired the calligraphy etched on the glass of the Literacy Centre’s windows so much that I was tempted to move some study carrels that were obstructing part of the artwork. However, I contented myself with photographing the visible lettering.

IMG_8432IMG_8414After exiting the east side of North York Central from the first level, I stood in the liminal space of the cavernous atrium. When I looked up, I saw a giant mural on the north wall over the main entrance from the mall. Three horizontal rows of five characters each repeated the letters and characters in different patterns. I recognized a couple of the scripts, but the meaning remained mysterious.

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Thanks to the library’s manager, Kim Huntley, I recently learned that calligraphy mural’s design was the work of a distinguished twentieth-century Canadian artist, Harold Town. According to a library information handout, Town “designed it for the exterior of the old Willowdale Library . . . (and) moved to the new Central library in 1987.” The frieze’s panels feature a Scandanavian rune, a Roman A, a Cree letter that resembles a plough, “the Chinese symbol for man, an L from the state of Assam in India, and a Semitic A turned on its side.”

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As I gazed at floors one to six in their entirety, I was struck by the layered complexity of the floors with their circular crow’s-nest nodules in the northwest corners, all stacked on top of each other and connected by a thick red column. From my vantage point, I could also see the carpeted sides of the many staircases, all in oatmeal pink. In contrast to the view from the sixth floor looking down, which reminded me of a pin-ball machine, the upward-from-the-concourse perspective felt more seriously grand.

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Pushing open the south doors that opened onto the square, I reflected that North York Central Library had just my secured my vote for one of the Seven Wonders of the Greater Toronto Area. I looked forward to returning again to explore the remaining six floors in more depth.

West Side North York Central: Teen Zone (2013 Visit)

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Due to a renovation in 2012, the Teen Zone looked radically different than it did on my 2010 visit. In fact, the difference was so striking that it called for a new blog post to describe it. Take, for example, the way the post-renovation zone resembled a cross-section of a luxury cruise ship when seen from above.

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Nautical comparisons aside, the new Teen Zone has done North York Central proud, creating a sleeker and more modern space. I don’t miss the indoor gazebo, irritating mural in a fake graffiti font, or overall jukebox theme (a throwback to late 1970’s nostalgia of the 1950’s via Grease and Happy Days)

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With the space less cluttered with jukeboxes and gazebos, it was soothing to see a long stretch of wooden flooring. I also appreciated the way the domino-like lounges invited the presence of both unstructured groups of sprawlers and quiet individual readers.

On my 2013 visit, I arrived just after nine on a Wednesday morning, but I had to photograph the area quickly because people were already pouring into the venue. (For privacy reasons, I avoid taking any photos of patrons). By 9:30, two out of three small study rooms were occupied, and the large study area and computer labs were filling up fast as well.

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I wasn’t surprised by the Teen Zone’s popularity, for not a hint of stuffiness could be detected in the interior design. There was only a sense of spaciousness and freedom, a manifestation of limitless learning.

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Indeed, it is a place where you can contemplate infinity while perching on a glowing custard-tart. And whether you are studying the techno-trippy carpet or gazing up at the pods above, the Teen Zone provides an imaginative setting for dreamers and scholars alike.

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The Dignified Branch Formerly Known as Dovercourt: Bloor/Gladstone

IMG_0181 Debuting in 1913, dignified Bloor/Gladstone Library was the first Toronto library built without relying on fancy Carnegie grants. With $60,000 of city money, architects Robert Chapman and Alfred McGiffin didn’t hold back when it came to classical arches, cornices, and elegant mouldings.IMG_0139IMG_0149 On my second visit in 2013, I entered Bloor/Gladstone with a sense of anticipation, adding my enthusiasm to that of a century of eager fellow patrons. I loved how the lobby was sparse and white, with nothing to distract me from the generous atrium and a host of large windows above and beyond.IMG_0195 To my right was a Learning Centre with a south wall that reminded me of an aquarium-themed screensaver. The blue screen’s opposite side cooled the north wall of the Children’s section, which was half a level below the lobby.IMG_0137I liked how the designer of the kid’s zone had honored a reader’s need to perch and nestle. In a gap between two tall shelves was a long green cushion, perfect for sinking into a literary reverie or dialing a story. Another green cushion rested on the floor against a side wall near comprehensive windows overlooking an outdoor reading garden. Beside the cushion was a thoughtfully-placed table, so a reader could lean against the wall and place a stack of picture books or a silver thermos of hot chocolate on it.IMG_0037IMG_0047On my 2013 visit, I saw a new KidsStop‘s wonder-wall which added considerable educational dynamism to the scene. When I sat on the floor to take some lower shots, I glanced under the table and discovered toggles that lower and raise a wooden turtle and a fish. IMG_0104 With so many aquatic images in the lower level, flying origami fish adapted to the atmosphere with ease. I also appreciated the opportunity to see where the old and new sections of the building came together in a four-square of architectural fusion.IMG_0016Two flights of steps to the top level brought me to the east wing first, home of the Teens section. There, a historic stone hearth with protruding cherub heads shared a corner of the room with a big screen TV. I loved the tall arched mullioned windows whose sills were wide enough for teenagers to place their laptops on while resting their feet on a heater.IMG_0186As I walked over to the middle section of the upper floor, I enjoyed looking over the atrium from above. Lining two sides of the ledge were rows of squat orange swivel chairs, decorous versions of spinning teacups at an amusement park. They even had clever side panels from which a desk could be pulled out like the trays airplane chairs provide for cups of soda and pretzel sticks.IMG_0229Before I crossed over into the 2009 cube-shaped addition, I noticed a matching hearth to the one in the Teens area, complete with attendant cherubs. Many readers had gathered there, so I didn’t want to disturb them by taking a picture.IMG_0018I found yet more readers in swivel chairs in the west wing, although this time they were green and placed in front of the north windows overlooking Bloor Street. The newest wing of Bloor/Gladstone also contained an impressive variety of language materials, including French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese, and Spanish. IMG_0340 Finally, along the west wall were three engaging study rooms with green interiors and round air ducts (also painted green).  I made a vow to reserve Room B one day and revel in the studious atmosphere, alive with creative possibilities.IMG_0317Until we meet again, Bloor/Gladstone, please stay as elegant, dignified, and self-sufficient as you have for a solid hundred years. Thank you for representing the best of the last century and embodying the promise of the present.IMG_0357

Black Creek: A Pocket of Non-Commercialism in North York Sheridan Mall

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To enrich your Sheridan Mall shopping experience, check out Black Creek Library on the lower level between a denture clinic and a dry cleaners. A resident of the mall since 2002, Black Creek branch shares its architect, G. Bruce Stratton, with fellow mall-libraries Woodside Square and Bayview.

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When I visited Black Creek for the first time, I found its cream and brown colours very inviting, drawing me into a comfortable mall-cave. Stratton’s website had not been exaggerating when it described the library’s design concept as “bright and warm with flowing lines.”

Responding to the coziness, the patrons looked at home in the newspaper lounge and the branch as a whole. Every computer was taken, including one screen that was surrounded by a spirited group of kids hooting at You-tube videos.

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Liveliness was further supported by a dragon with flame-shaped eyebrows, a nearby pink rocket, and a series of wooden cutouts on the north wall that depicted happy kids with their arms up in the air. Two grey cardboard castles provided slightly more subdued decoration, but a closer look revealed a courtyard that sparkled with glitter.

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The most distinctive feature of Black Creek was a magical reading zone whose borders were defined by a semi-circular wall about four feet high and a tiled pillar. This shiny pillar supported a round structure overhead that resembled a tiled shower-head. Hanging from the structure were delicate lights enclosed in purple and dark-red glass. Shelves built into the inside curve of the wall completed the stylish nook.

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My husband was getting library-weary after visiting three in one afternoon, so before leaving I just took a quick glance at the ESL collection (meaty) and the multilingual shelves (diverse). Languages on offer were Spanish, Italian, Chinese, French, and Vietnamese.

IMG_1371IMG_1369IMG_1373As we left Black Creek, I reflected on how its presence at North York Sheridan Mall influences the overall atmosphere. When I saw my first mall library in Canada eight years ago, I considered the idea somewhat odd. Borrowing books seemed out of place in a zone where everything else was for sale.

However, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that mall branches like Black Creek, Bridlewood, Eglinton Square, Bayview, Woodside Square, and Maryvale provide welcome patches of public space in a larger establishment devoted to private profit. In this way, a library “redeems” a mall instead of becoming compromised by its commercialism. In my view, we need these literary reminders of the immaterial — ideas, imagination, poetry — in a world obsessed with the material.

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… by Catherine Raine