Last Thursday I took the Broadview streetcar from downtown to Riverdale Library. Although I always enjoy visiting this wedge of historical architecture, last week I found its red-brick solidity an especially welcome contrast to the uneasy atmosphere leading up to the G-20 Summit.
Heavy wooden doors opened to the spaciousness of the lobby, inviting patrons to breathe freely. A soaring white ceiling, skylight, columns, and wide aisles all worked together to create a sense of freedom and possibility, exactly what a Georgian Revival edifice should convey! I felt my own spirits revive when I gazed at the skylight, and I sent a silent message of thanks skyward to Andrew Carnegie. As recorded in A Century of Service: Toronto Public Library 1883-1983, Carnegie provided the initial funding for this library and three others in 1903 (Penman, 16). Ultimately, he would finance ten TPL branches.
My window seat antennae led me to the northeast side of the library, where I found a wide curving bench. This lovely piece of reading furniture was an integral part of the children’s area, which also boasted a double-sided hearth and a Children’s Program Room with a matching window seat on the west wall. When I went inside this room, I found a puppet theatre and a leafless tree with a sign that read “Riverdale Tree: Do Not Remove.” (What was the story behind that stern note? Had dissident stagehands from a rival library been caught with the unwieldy object under their cloaks?)
Back in the main section of the kid’s wing, I noticed a substantial pirate ship on top of a central shelf and a Paddington Bear high overhead. Someone who was hopefully not a hostage-taker had taped Paddington to a wooden chair swing with a massive quantity of packing tape. Were staff concerned that the bear would fall onto the hapless heads of readers below? Lawsuits have sprouted over less, so it’s just as well that this bear is staying put in his lofty seat.
The central section of Riverdale contained a corner reserved for teens to flop on some pink and yellow cushions, a computer bay, and the magazine racks. Along the curved west wall, rows of tall shelves fanned out in a radial pattern. Following the curve to the southwest corner, I saw a sign which said “Quiet Community Room.” I opened the door and was surprised to find that it wasn’t quiet at all in there. About ten women were sitting at various tables with big thermoses and some snacks. When a couple of them gave me a half-smile which conveyed the question “What are you doing here?”, I realized that I was the one who had surprised them by disturbing their study break. I apologized to the teacher and retreated from what appeared to be an ESL class, judging from the vocabulary words written on the flip-chart.
To support the class and other learners, a strong ESL collection was only a thirty-second walk from the classroom. Vietnamese was represented, too, but the largest holdings were in Chinese. Multiple shelves offered Chinese fiction, non-fiction, DVD’s, and more.
From the multilingual collections, I moved further into the interior and sat down between two high shelves. With my head resting just below a classy wooden windowsill, I surveyed the materials available in my temporary domain: French dictionaries, self-help books, SAT preparation texts, mathematics books, and fashion guides. I enjoyed my bookish retreat for awhile, leafing through some sale magazines I’d bought and pausing to admire how vast the overhead space appeared from floor-level.
After my floor visit, I returned to the window seat to experience it in more depth. I took off my shoes, nestled against the wall where it formed a right angle with the seat, and rested my left arm on the upper ledge. It was the perfect place to journal about a recent trip to Missouri. I felt so fortunate to inhabit a quiet corner of this beautiful old library, enjoying the trees outside as well as the rumble of passing streetcars on Broadview Avenue. I also felt connected to the lucky Torontonians of a century ago who welcomed Riverdale Library into their lives.