Gathered in this post are 100 photos with 100 links to meditations on my gratitude for the Toronto Public Library system. I hope you enjoy this on-line gallery of my photography exhibit at North York Central Library (July-August 2015).
On my way to see a friend’s exhibit on Queen Street West one winter evening in 2008, a blue and white TPL sign stopped me in my tracks. Not wanting to waste a library-visit opportunity, I took a quick art detour to Parkdale Library, which was the 45th branch on my pilgrimage. (Four years after this evening visit, I returned to the site with my camera).
To walk into a warm library on a cold night is very comforting, like visiting a favourite aunt after a neighborhood snowball fight. She naturally offers you hot chocolate and fusses over how chilled you are.
Hot chocolate wasn’t available at Parkdale, but its main level had a vibrant mural that nourished the eyes with colourful shapes. Though the shapes were abstract, I could still identify a whale, a cow, a bird, and some eggs. (I liked how the clock seemed more egg-like than most clocks because of its proximity to the mural eggs).
On the west side of the library, I saw a homework room, two quiet study rooms, and a community outreach office. In this office, a staff member was talking to numerous clients in a friendly, respectful manner.
Along the south wall and part of the east wall were books in Vietnamese, Polish, Gujurati, French, Russian, Spanish, and Chinese. (On my 2012 visit, I saw Tibetan and Tamil books but not Russian ones).
I was impressed by the variety of activity at Parkdale Library. For example, I observed a computer class in progress, three men discussing social issues at a study table, and all of the children’s computers in use. The homework room hosted two families studying intently, and one student was camped out near a potted palm in an armchair, his books, notebooks, and backpack strewn about comfortably. With so much light and energy inside, the room was a haven in contrast to the cold and darkness outside I experienced on my initial visit to Parkdale.
As I exited the library after my second trip, I noticed an art-gate that had escaped my attention previously (even when I passed it on the way to a Gaga Dance program earlier in 2012). A companion piece to the globe sculpture outside, it was decorated with eight red book spines that bore an unfortunate resemblance to dynamite. The books represented eight countries: Sweden, Russia, France, Slovak, Spain (with the “s” scraped off by a vandal), Italy, Germany, and Poland.
Thinking I had finished my blog work, I started walking east along Queen Street West. I had tucked my camera away too soon, though, for a mural by Maureen Walton next to the library building immediately captivated me. It was the perfect visual to summarize a morning immersed in the dynamic urban creativity of Parkdale!
Forest Hill branch presides on a rise of land located on the north side of Eglinton Avenue West, just east of Bathurst. It has a wide central aisle flanked by four large arches that span rows of shelving. Each arch contains a wavy piece of metal, and silver mesh occupies the space between the curved metal and the apex of the arch.
I enjoyed walking down the main aisle, noting the large fiction collection, young adult nook furnished with a red recliner, solid ESL offerings, and a Hebrew and Yiddish section. Apart from some kits for learning Russian and French, Forest Hill branch didn’t have the diverse multilingual collections I was used to seeing in Scarborough.
Without a patron or stroller in sight, the Forest Hill children’s section was completely quiet. A forlorn train set rested on a ledge above the raised and semi-enclosed pre-school area. The train’s body was composed of five boxes in varying sizes and covered in fading red, yellow, and blue construction paper. The sixth box, the engine car, was decorated in black and sprouted a paper-towel spool for a chimney. For steam, an opaque white plastic bag puffed out of the chimney. All six boxes carried a word, which together announced, “All Aboard the Forest Hill Express!”
On my second visit, the train had left the station permanently, but many positive features remained. I liked the ivy on the windows, the wall-hanging with a Medieval crest, and the sculpture of a bear mama and her cubs in the pre-school room.
The rewards of return also netted peaceful views of the newspaper reading area, yellow frames of sturdy study carrels, and an empty program room with chickens roosting on the puppet theatre.
After I left Forest Hill Library, I walked in a small garden that helped the branch earn its name, for the pines and rocks evoked a forest so successfully that I tuned out the insistent traffic on Eglinton Avenue.
Forest Hill, thank you for your green arches, folksy crest, and theatrical poultry! Your garden and quiet shelves offer peace in the wilderness of chaotic urban life.
To reach Saint Clair/Silverthorn, I travelled to Saint Clair West subway station and caught the westbound 512 bus. Then I rode along Saint Clair West until I heard the automated announcement for Silverthorn. Familiar blue TPL lettering on a white sign soon caught my eye, making feel at home in a neighbourhood that was unknown.
Similar to Mount Pleasant, Saint Lawrence, and Kennedy/Eglinton branches, Saint Clair/Silverthorn occupied a storefront building, Consisting of one large room, it had a friendly scholastic atmosphere that seemed to say, “Come on in and do your homework!”
Apart from the pretty fern pattern on the carpet and a window bench, the library’s interior decor was somewhat bland, especially compared to the previous branch I had visited, Wychwood Library. However, on my second visit, I noticed a fine specimen of a pumpkin and ghoulish characters strung on fishing line that enlivened the atmosphere.
Saint Clair/Silverthorn’s energy increased dramatically when a kindergarten class from across the street arrived for a program. As the group assembled near the entrance, a child belted out a happy greeting to the pumpkin by just hollering, “PUMPKIN!”
The uncarved Jack-o’-lantern was in better shape than some unfortunate Halloween creatures who had fallen behind the bench that doubled as a low bookcase and perch to watch passing streetcars. From the rusty vent below, a ghost cried out for help.
On the opposite end of the library from the hapless ghost, three shelves were reserved for the ESL collection. As part of the collection, ESL kits, abridged readers, and TOEFL study guides hung from two silver rods by the handles of tough plastic bags.
Four other shelves showed off an impressive selection of graphic novels, and nearby were lots of romance novels and books in Portuguese.
Two titles from the Romance collection stood out: “Three Brides for Three Bad Boys” and “Wrangling the Redhead.” Even though I wanted to wrangle the editor who had approved such a sexist titles, I was nevertheless grateful to Saint Clair/Silverthorn for its welcoming atmosphere, wooden window-bench, and Halloween whimsy.
A photography visit in 2015 increased my gratitude to the library, for it provided the visual gift of two storefront displays that celebrated Black History Month and Chinese New Year. Thank you, Saint Clair/Silverthorn for rounding out the seasons with your commitment to community education!
To enter New Toronto Library, I passed under a silver scaffold in the shape of a steeple. Then I emerged into one lovely long hall that looked like the nave of a modest yet funky cathedral with giant orange slices arching overhead.
Potted palms standing tall in so much open space created a very upbeat and oxygen-rich atmosphere. For this admiring patron, New Toronto summoned a host of adjectives: hopeful, clean, modern, cheery, open, orange, green, brown, and cream.
In the east wing of the library, a display of banned books celebrated freedom of speech with titles such as Huckleberry Finn, Harry Potter, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Color Purple. I also studied a colourful exhibit of children’s bookmarks and selected “Books Open Your Heart” and “Make Peace with Books” as my favourites.
Side wings lined the open central hall, and I enjoyed dipping in and out of them like a bespectacled hummingbird, selecting an art book here, a DVD about Venice there, and admiring the ESL, French and Polish collections.
I could have happily spent more time in this uplifting library, but a few more branches awaited visits. The second time I called on New Toronto, I had the luxury of spending an entire Saturday morning there, allowing me to notice details such as the literacy-building carpet, a Halloween tableau, and a shiny bell in the rain outside.
Thank you, New Toronto, for your imaginative architecture, anti-censorship display, and jolly orange slices!
The moment I stepped into Long Branch Library, I was drawn to the “Once Upon a Time” display in the lobby. A librarian had painstakingly assembled large colorful storybooks that rested on stands, and underneath them lay a magical collection of characters and objects from the collective unconscious.
With auburn hair flowing wild, Sleeping Beauty lay on her life-in-death bed, the fateful spinning wheel nearby — all entangled in vines upon vines of roses. One glass slipper waited near Cinderella, and a sorely tested princess tried to sleep on top of nine multicolored pallets. Finally, a castle glowed inside a snow globe near a dragon, a unicorn, and a pop-up castle book in three dimensions.
Moving into the main body of the library, it cheered me to see how it upheld the artistic standards of the enchanted lobby. In this respect, Long Branch reminded me of Woodside Square, and not only because it had windows with same nautical flair as their Scarborough cousins. What made Long Branch’s interior so stylish, even glamorous, was a combination of aesthetic details: walls the dun color of Lascaux-cave horses, lava lamps in the teen zone, and gorgeous light boxes in the style of Charles Rennie MacIntosh.
With gray skies outside and dim lighting within, a groovy moodiness prevailed, making the act of browsing the Polish and ESL sections seem downright cinematic. I wanted stay longer at Long Branch, but I needed to visit another library before Saturday got away from me.
As I walked to the front entrance, I passed a black ceramic panther preparing to pounce from a tall shelf. And when I went outside, I admired a sculpture over the door that embodied the state of complete absorption in a book. Even the letters of the Long Branch sign lilted artistically over the entrance, welcoming readers into a sanctuary for the imagination.
Sharing residence with a community centre and French-immersion school, Alderwood branch is located across a wide hallway from Alderwood Pool. A huffing fairy-tale loup could never hope to blow down this huge open rectangle of a library, as its exterior walls are made of giant bricks.
At first I couldn’t identify why this branch seemed so familiar until I realized that it was a school library as well as a Toronto Public Library. The white bricks and the formal atmosphere reminded me of my own elementary school library from back in the day.
In the corner closest to Sir Adam Beck School was a well-stocked selection of French materials for children. A “Class in Progress” sign was at the ready for the beginning of the school day, and as groups of kids arrived at regular intervals, their teachers called for quiet, saying, “Remember that this is a li-brary!”
French books were also plentiful in the general part of the branch, joining a robust Romance collection.
Although Alderwood had initially seemed somewhat institutional, a closer look revealed many craft creations that warmed the place up. They included a cardboard Casa Loma replica, a model forest in a box (complete with rock cave), and a Polish castle with pebbles pasted on the exterior.
On my second visit to Alderwood, I was taken by a woodland diorama with a dinosaur painted to look like a badger or raccoon, a castle with outbuildings made from Hershey’s 100 Calorie Snacks, and a truly wonderful Humber Bay Bridge.
Adding further texture to the scene were two men absorbed in a game of chess, an elderly man sleeping under a life-sized plastic tree, and a masked troll in a chair surrounded by autumnal icons.
As this post nears its conclusion, I’d like to compliment Alderwood Library on its clever hanging rack for ESL kits. These kits come in tough plastic bags with handles that click into place and can be hung from rods. In most libraries, the kits hang all in a row like shirts in a closet, but Alderwood’s rack was designed such that language-learning patrons could easily access the kits from four different angles. Having frequently wrestled with kits mashed together into an unreadable mass, I greatly appreciated this innovation in rack-design.
Even though Alderwood has menacing suitcases and alarming trolls, its accessible ESL rack, charming castles, and generous windows offer much to attract visitors to this branch in the southwest corner of the TPL library map.
Humber Bay, the 69th Toronto Public Library on my quest, came packaged in a compact square building with dark wooden siding on part of its exterior. I liked how the siding created a jazzy-cabin effect.
The wood motif was repeated inside the library, most prominently in the sturdy check-out station. There, several librarians were performing their duties in a massive oaken puppet theatre. Dark beams loomed over their heads, rested below their hands, and composed the broad columns that framed the desk. (On my second visit, I apologized to the staff for comparing them to puppets, and they graciously assured me there were no hard feelings).
Despite the prevalence of heavy wood and the building’s low ceiling, Humber Bay was by no means claustrophobic, thanks to an east wall composed almost entirely of glass and a trio of windows overlooking a garden. A low wooden reading bench with books tucked underneath served to create a charming ivy nook.
A small but well-furnished branch, Humber Bay offered its patrons books in Russian and Polish in addition to the standard library materials.
In the children’s section was a display featuring the local winners of a bookmark design contest. I especially liked the one that had a Christmas tree reading a book about Christmas at the top of the bookmark. Below the tree floated a blue ghost learning about Halloween. Next down was a turkey studying a Thanksgiving text, followed by a heart, a bookish birthday present, an egg, and a literate shamrock. They all looked happy, even the turkey.
Near the end of my stay at Humber Bay, I sat at a table near the streetside window and wrote down some words to characterize the library: simple, manageable, light-filled, wholesome, enclosed, reserved, and ivy-blessed. Thank you, Humber Bay, for being the best jazzy cabin with an ivy nook I have ever visited!
From the moment I walked in the door of Danforth/Coxwell branch, its compelling energy was palpable. Kids raced around to gather books, strollers abounded, and every corner of the building hosted a patron. Danforth/Coxwell was the most popular place to be seen reading on a summer weekday afternoon.
Surveying the busy Children’s section on the west side of the main level, a lime-green gorilla hung from the ceiling next to a fuzzy pelican in green, orange, and black. Near the west wall, three carpeted steps led up to a small platform that supported shelves of picture books. A father was sprawled on one of the steps, reading a story to his two boys.
In addition to the comfortable steps, three solid window benches provided yet more literary opportunities and doubled as miniature stages for self-expression. One little girl was so happy in the library that she was jumping up and down on a window seat in her flip-flops. A cheerleader for literacy!
Happily, I noted three more wooden window benches on the other side of the main floor, which held the teen and adult sections. All three window perches faced Danforth Avenue, where passersby were bracing their umbrellas for an imminent thunderstorm. Appreciating my sheltered position, I walked between tall shelves of fiction and non-fiction, noting the extensive Chinese and French collections.
I eventually came to rest on a window seat as the sky darkened outside. After sorting through a stack of library materials accumulated during my self-guided tour, I checked out my selections and walked up to the second floor.
The upper level contained offices, washrooms, and a community room where I once spent a few hours volunteering for an English Conversation Circle. This reminder of how much the Toronto Public Library helps newcomers as well as children, teens, and seniors made me want to jump on a window seat and cheer!
My husband Stewart was with me when I first visited York Woods Library, the 75th branch on my quest. When he saw the thick exposed concrete of the interior, he said, “This Brutalist style reminds me of my local library in Scotland in the 1970’s.”
Brutalism was new to me, but research confirmed that York Woods, which was built in 1970, possessed Brutalist functional concrete blockiness in spades. (Apparently, Prince Charles is a prominent opponent of Brutalism, so if he ever wants to join the 100-branch club, he’ll need to be sedated before visiting this branch in northwest Toronto).
Behind the wide checkout desk opposite the entrance was a sign that invited everyone to “Enjoy Cricket, Lovely Cricket with The York Woods Library.” In fact, we had just seen a lively informal game in progress in the parking lot, with a tennis ball standing in for a cricket ball.
The community-friendly vibe was consistent throughout the building’s interior as well, from the large variety of languages available on second floor (including Urdu, Spanish, Hindi, Tamil, Polish, and Somali among others) to the Learning Centre’s computer lab and the Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection.
Near the Leading to Reading Office on the main floor was a Victory over Violence Exhibit. Posters and large freestanding displays defined passive violence, verbal abuse, oppression, and social apathy. I was especially struck by Martin Luther King Junior’s quotation: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Promoting early reading skills is clearly something that matters to the Toronto Public Library, as evidenced by the large children’s section at York Woods branch. This department contained a Children’s West Indian and Black Heritage Collection as well as materials reflecting the linguistic diversity of the neighbourhood.
Attracted by the tall windows on the south wall, my curiosity was rewarded by the site of the most artistic picnic table I’d ever seen resting on a rectangle of concrete.
Later, I went to look at the table more closely and discovered its creators were local artists who belong to the Jane and Finch West-Side Arts Hub.
Uplifted by the inspiring quotations on the outdoor table, I ended my first visit to York Woods by going back upstairs to fetch Stewart, who was patiently reading in an armchair with a view of a community garden and a Baptist church.
Thank you, York Woods, for your picnic table, your strong concrete lines, and for your generous open spaces. These clearings offer us chances to breathe, think, and dream in our crowded city, blessing us with calm.
Recently relocated from a mall down the street, Jane/Sheppard now occupies the site of a former police station. I missed the grand opening in April 2009, so I was excited to finally visit the branch in September of the same year and enjoy its refreshing newness. Even the carpet smelled new!
When I returned three years later for a photography visit, I noticed some nice tufted grasses that I had previously overlooked. Some of the furniture looked more careworn than in 2009, but the building itself still seemed fresh.
Built in the shape of a glass cube by Cannon Design, the simplicity of Jane/Sheppard’s visual statement appealed to me. Despite a floor space of only 7,000 square feet, the interior felt uncluttered, calm, and airy. Abundant glass, sunlight, and subtle whites and greens made it the perfect translucent paperweight for a classy giant who likes books and key lime pie.
Unaware that they were inhabiting an imaginary paperweight, a small number of patrons dotted the libraryscape on my first visit. It wasn’t hard to find a place to sit and look around, so I chose an innovative long booth with a wide table designed to accommodate laptops.
In addition to the booth, a broad range of seating options were available at Jane/Sheppard, including chairs for magazine readers facing Sheppard Avenue, a window seat on the west wall, and cushioned blocks in yellow, red, and green for the smaller kids. (On my 2012 visit, there was only one block left).
Crouched near the savannah grasses by the south windows were three solid, low-to-the-ground animals in dark grey leather: an elephant, a hippo, and a rhino. They had gathered to contemplate a wire and bead toy, perhaps hoping it contained water.
After finishing up my notes, I rose from the comfortable booth and departed Jane/Sheppard with a sense of appreciation for its quietly regal presence that glowed with light from the outside in.
Residing in the thick of urban bustle, Maria A. Shchuka Library‘s tall windows offered views of the swirl of traffic at the intersection of Eglinton Avenue West and Northcliffe Boulevard. From a continuous bench that hugged the west and north walls, readers could browse the newspaper as transient groups of bus passengers and pedestrians passed them a few feet away on the sidewalk.
Wanting to see how far the bench extended, I left my armchair to survey the entire ground level. In the northwest corner was an imaginative children’s area with unconventional furniture. The small tables were neither round nor square; instead, they resembled sunny-side up amoebas.
At floor level, I admired the lowest bookshelves I had ever seen. They actually looked more like cubbyholes than shelves, as they were cleverly tucked under the window bench on the west wall. This thoughtful arrangement placed small picture books within easy reach of Maria Shchuka’s youngest patrons.
Much less accessible was a rattle-tailed dragon with a peekaboo mirror on one foot and a flower pocket on the other. Custom-made to fit in the pocket, a soft daisy dangled from the dragon by a braid. Although this plush creature had wings, its legs were shackled by clear plastic restraints that were bolted to the top of a free-standing bookshelf.
Feeling sorry for the dragon’s restricted life on a shelf, I walked up to the second floor. The shades had been drawn against the late afternoon sun, so everything looked more silvery than downstairs.
Computers lined two sides of a small atrium, making it difficult to peer all the way down into the reception area below. Maybe the designers were worried about pranksters dropping paperballs on people from on high.
Though Maria A. Shchuka stopped being Head Librarian in 1996, she might have shooed mischievous characters into the spacious Quiet Study Area or the Learning Centre for a meditative time out.
However, with so much to study at this branch — the Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection plus books in Italian, Chinese, Turkish, Portuguese, Tagalog, Spanish, Russian, and Vietnamese — who could complain that boredom had driven them to lob paper missiles over the atrium?
Located near the intersection of Albion Road and Kipling Avenue, Albion Library‘s gritty branch-on-the-edge vibe reminded me of Eatonville Library, which also presses against the outer limits of the Greater Toronto Area. Eatonville was built in 1967 and Albion in 1973: two survivors of groovier times.
True to the non-conformist decade that produced it, Albion’s dark green and red-orange interior showed a refreshing disregard for pastel niceties. Also in line with a truth-seeking era, the large exposed heating and cooling ducts overhead did not pretend to be respectable. Forty two years ago, a barefoot patron might have felt comfortable reading a copy of Be Here Now under such non-hypocritical ducts.
Fully shod but sympathetic, I explored the sprawling single-level building, a notebook with doves on the cover in hand. As I circled the branch, I found generous windows, stretches of book-lined aisles, and pleasing zig-zag angles.
When I wasn’t distracted by poetic patches of sunlight on the carpet, I was studying the amazing range of materials in Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Gujarati, Telugu, Hindi, Italian, Punjabi, Spanish, Tamil, Urdu, and Vietnamese. I also admired a glass cube in the middle of the north wing that displayed a busy computer lab.
Other animating elements included a landscape collage, a pro-vacation art installation, and a monkey who was swinging over the information desk.
After buying a few books from the sale trolley, I left Albion feeling cooler than when I came in. And that’s coming from a deeply hip person who blogs about libraries!
George Herbert Locke was the Toronto Public Library‘s second Chief Librarian, a position he held from 1908-1937. According to Margaret Penman’s A Century of Service: Toronto Public Library 1883-1983, Locke defended fiction’s right to be in the library, created National Story Hours for children, and gathered materials in Russian, Yiddish, Italian, and Lithuanian for new immigrants (pp. 22-23). Penman believed that Locke’s greatest achievement was “the establishment of an integrated branch system . . . that provided for interrelated services in all parts of the city of Toronto” (p. 24).
George Locke’s namesake library made its architectural presence known the moment I emerged from Lawrence subway station. The solidly handsome building was a fitting tribute to a man once described as a “strong, straight-grained, sinewy Irish-Canadian, six feet three inches tall, two hundred and sixty pounds” (19).
Judging from Locke’s picture, I could see how this “outstanding example of manhood at his best” (19) might have quickened the pulses of a few maiden librarians. (From 1883 until the late 1950’s, female librarians were not allowed to keep their jobs after they got married. A Century of Service further describes how these hard-working women were perceived as “vestal virgins tending the flame of literature and dancing around the figure of the chief librarian” (38)).
No dancing librarians greeted me at the door of this sturdy stone branch, but sturdy didn’t translate as stodgy. In fact, the outer solidity enhanced the interior’s classical openness. Flanked by steadying wooden columns, the central circulation desk was the calming focal point of the entrance.
The entire library resembled a jewellery box with three sections side by side, all connected and flowing through space. If Locke Library were a dance, it would be a Viennese waltz performed by an elegant but not pretentious couple in their sixties.
To the left of the main desk was the Children’s/Teens Collection. It was blessed with a wooden bench that rested below a bay window overlooking Lawrence Avenue. A large structure attached to the ceiling hosted eight parrots who faced away from the street. Each bird was swinging from the upper ramparts on individual trapeze stands, fine spots to observe library traffic below.
Lower down on the structure were some toy animals who were hanging on for dear furry life. These precarious creatures included Skooby Doo (with a pack of Scooby Snacks), some bears, and a lone monkey. More stuffed animals led a less challenging existence on top of bookshelves and draped on chairs.
Several steps away from the aerial menagerie, a nook in the northeast corner welcomed readers with three steps leading up to a sofa, a large round window, and shelves of picture books. The enchanting nook captured a fairy-tale mood, making it the perfect setting for the magic phrase “Once upon a time.”
When I crossed over to the other side of the library, I found the Adult Collection to the right of the circulation desk. Unleashing my natural window-seat affinity, I made a bee-line for a bay window that mirrored its equivalent on the north side. Then I nestled into the warm corner where the bench met the wall, enjoying the afternoon sun on my left shoulder and the sight of a large pine tree in Lawrence Park and Ravine.
Returning my attention to the interior, I liked how the sunny spaciousness felt like a continuation of the park. My fellow readers seemed to share the peaceful spring mood. One young patron had propped a giant skateboard beside his armchair before settling down to some homework. Others were absorbed in the newspaper or their laptop screens.
Relinquishing my warm corner, I walked among the shelves and discovered that ESL was solidly represented but there wasn’t an extensive multilingual collection. At this branch, the largest one was the Children’s French Livres in the north wing.
I couldn’t be disappointed for long though, especially when I spotted my third window-seat of the day. From this new perch, I gazed out at Yonge Street and then studied the play of shadows on the seat. Easily amused by objects in sunlight, I photographed Kaffe Fassett‘s Glorious Interiors resting between diamonds of light and shade.
I wanted to spend more time by the window, but I had an appointment to keep, and people rarely accept “I was late because I was taking pictures of library books on a window-seat” as a valid excuse. Though brief, I treasured my visit to this calm centre of down-to-earth elegance at Yonge and Lawrence.
George Locke, your branch does you proud! As an enthusiastic TPL patron, I would like to thank you for the crucial way you strengthened the library system. Without your vision and dynamism, Toronto’s cultural heritage would be the poorer today.
When I studied the TPL map before I set out for Davenport Library, I incorrectly assumed that Shaw Street extended as far north as Saint Clair Avenue West, causing me to overshoot the desired streetcar stop. In fact, three unnecessary stops passed me by before I realized I’d gone too far.
Deciding to try my luck on foot, I hopped off into the rain, walked down Dufferin to Davenport Road and then proceeded east on a prayer that Shaw would appear soon.
I was getting tired and cold, so when I saw the small building on the corner of quietly residential Davenport and Shaw, my spirits lifted. On that dark afternoon, the library’s lights looked especially welcoming to this sojourner.
The door made a chunky clink when I opened it, but none of the three patrons inside looked up. Glad to rest my feet, I sat down at a table and let the lime walls of the narrow room soothe me.
The floor’s blue and green tiles complemented the walls, and I liked the way the shelving had been adapted to fit into a space that resembled a railroad apartment. Davenport’s tall shelves lined the west wall, each a three-sided entity unto itself. A book-seeker facing west could contemplate titles in front of her and then find more on the left or the right.
Tucked into the southeast corner of the library was the children’s section. Above some cheerful red shelves, miniature kids were enjoying hot air balloon rides with their friends.
Although it took only a few minutes to cover the library’s 3,604 square feet, I lingered for more than an hour at a table in the northwest corner marking papers. I felt the gratitude of a traveller who has found shelter after being cold and lost. How lucky I was to spend a rainy afternoon in this secluded boxcar of a branch!
I’m journalling live from the south room of Runnymede‘s upper story, which doubles as a study area and art gallery. For me, this attic has the ideal combination of austerity and artistic style, placing it on a par with Gerrard/Ashdale and Main Street‘s dramatic attics.
A simple hearth lies a few yards in front of me under a sloping eave. Above the carved wooden mantle is a quilted runner that celebrates Runnymede’s postage stamp stardom in 1989.
An image of the grey stone building anchors the centre of the runner, and the inner panels are framed by the famous totem poles that flank the library’s actual entrance.
I’d like to see the room on the north side of the attic, but the door is closed and I can hear the murmur of a meeting in progress. I decide to return later and explore the rest of the library in the meantime.
As I descend to the main level from the gallery, I enjoy how the wall separating the flights of stairs contains square windows with amber glass; they give people the opportunity to make funny faces at each other as they come and go between floors.
Now I’m perched on a low wooden bench on the north side of the main floor. The bench fronts a very tall window with dignified dark-brown frames that harmonize with Runnymede’s classy furnishings. These include built-in bookshelves that would look right at home in Mr. Rochester’s study (or any other brooding aristocrat’s den). And the imaginary study need not be limited to Rochester’s England, for books at Runnymede are available in Ukrainian, German, Polish, French, and Russian.
Following the row of shelves until the foreign-language books transition into large art volumes, I’ve now reached the south wall. Mostly glass, it offers a view of a square piece of lawn and a collection of respectable houses.
One section of the south wall has been covered by a floor-to-ceiling sheet of copper with nine square windows cut from it. Near the base of the copper structure is a long sturdy window seat, perfect for leaning against the copper while looking out one of the nine windows. (Fingerprints on the glass testify to moments of inattention and the desire to be outdoors).
The staff’s private room is near the Children’s area, and four portholes in the office’s Kermit green wall indicate submarine playfulness or possibly mild surveillance.
No librarians are peering through the round windows in a disapproving manner, although some of them might object to a young couple who appear fused together in a studious love-heap. The affectionate pair are huddled on a bench that backs up against the Teen Section’s wide computer table. (In this context, the high portholes in the library remind me of a 19th-century parlour that I once read about. It had a tiny window above the door for parents standing on chairs in the adjacent room to better monitor courting couples).
Shaking off outdated notions of repressed librarians, I return to the upstairs gallery to see if the meeting room across the hall is empty. I find it unoccupied and enjoy a few minutes sitting by the windows. Under the eaves, a piano and puppet theatre wait for the next entertaining yet educational event, and three lovely dormer windows show bare tree branches and a dark blue sky. I feel peaceful here.
Pape/Danforth’s distinctive Tudor Revival look was an expression of Chief Librarian George Locke’s desire to re-create a British shop of olden times: “The front facade is decidedly English in character, the lower part being carried out in stone and the upper in half timber work and stucco panels, with projecting bays surmounted by gables” (cited in Margaret Penman’s A Century of Service: Toronto Public Library 1883-1983, page 28).
More than a year before the library officially opened, Dr. Locke spoke to the Toronto Telegram on the topic of new branches: “You cannot make grown people good but you can make them more interesting . . . We are trying to make them more interesting by building libraries” (1 February, 1928). Locke’s comment might suggest that he thought early 20th-century Torontonians were boring. Or perhaps he was simply tired of them complaining so much about the moral dangers posed by fiction in the libraries.
If Locke’s strategy was effective, the number of amusing conversations at Toronto’s cafés and parties should have risen in direct proportion to the growing number of libraries over the past 86 years. With 100 libraries at present, we have absolutely no excuse to be dull!
Although Pape/Danforth must look quite different on the inside than it did in Dr. Locke’s day, I think he would have approved of the rectangular swathes of space and sections of wooden flooring.
While long and narrow, the two floors of the building nevertheless avoided claustrophobic effects. For instance, the lemon yellow walls on the east side of the main floor made the Children’s section seem spacious and elegant.
Tucking a shelf of picture books under a long window seat also saved space, making room for an olive-green cushion shaped like an amoeba. I was also fond of two stuffed dragons who occupied a windowsill each, their green ears peeled for stories about Medieval times.
On the west side of the main floor was a square section of wide-planked flooring that was pleasant to tread upon. Standing on this wooden raft near the computers, I studied some artwork by Otilia Gruneatu Scriuba, who had filled a canvas with centaurs, fire, and athletic male forms. (More of his paintings were on display on the wall beside the landing between the lower and upper floors).
A few paces away from the computers was a reading lounge blessed with a bay window overlooking Pape Avenue. I appreciated the luxurious width and depth of the windowsill; it seemed to be a sill for its own sake, celebrating its intrinsic value instead of being pressed into service as a bench or shelf.
Opposite the bay window, a collection of objects in a built-in shadow box caught my eye. To promote Asian Heritage Month, an artistic hand had arranged bamboo stalks, a red shawl, a glossy necklace, and some books in the display box.
When I walked upstairs, I found another bay window directly above the one on the main level. Its sill was also very generous. In fact, it was so inviting that one reader was resting her feet on it. I worried that she was going to leave footprints on the historic white sill or transfer a brown ring from her travel mug.
Harnessing my disapproval, I shifted the focus to browsing innocent shelves that offered materials in Chinese, Greek, and French. The categories of ESL and Adult Literacy also made a strong showing.
As I walked towards the Quiet Study Room at the back, I noticed a young patron sitting crossed-legged on the sill of a smaller bay window on the south wall. Because no shoes were involved in the pose, this seated tableaux didn’t bother me at all. On the contrary, I liked how she inhabited the space unconventionally, adding visual interest to the room.
I spent a few moments in the restful Study Room with its dove gray walls and dim light. Equipped with a sink and a small wooden puppet theatre, this room held lots of possibilities for coffee-fueled meetings and entertainment for the pre-coffee set.
Before I left Pape/Danforth, I took one final look at this popular and well-utilized branch. A kind employee at the information desk interpreted my gaze as an appeal for information and asked if she could help me. Shaking my head no, I thanked her and descended the artistic stairs with gratitude for her attentiveness. What I really wanted to know, though, was if my visit had made me more interesting!
My seventieth Toronto Public Library was Elmbrook Park, the most westerly of all the branches. A modern building on the edge of a small neighbourhood park, Elmbrook Park library was blessed with sunlight that filled the interior.
The light illuminated an arresting picture window behind the checkout desk. Its glass was divided into six panes, with each one representing an imaginary world to which books transport us.
As I looked from right to left on the top half of the window, I saw a purple dragon with fire-breath so fierce it crossed into the next panel, a castle, and some Egyptian stick-figures milling around a giant tree near a pyramid.
Continuing counterclockwise, the lower panel contained a pirate ship, an island studded with palm trees, and some stick cavemen menaced by a pterodactyl and a dinosaur that said “Roarr!” Sensibly, the prehistoric stick-men stayed in their cave, which was decorated with dynamic hunting scenes.
The entire west side of Elmbrook Park library was devoted to making young readers feel welcome, as evidenced by a basket of crayons on a table and stuffed animals on a variety of surfaces. On my first visit in 2009, I observed a comfortable chair that supported a cuddly bear in a red flannel bow-tie, a mama hippo with two babies attached to her side, a floppy frog, and a bunny in pink pajamas. A green triceratops had been flung horn-first onto a low table but appeared to be in good spirits.
Sitting on top of a shelf was a stuffed felt bean about the size of a large mango, from which sprouted, well, sprouts in light and dark green. A Jack doll was hanging like Tarzan from one of these vine-like sprouts.
Near the bean stood a mustachioed giant flanked by two women. I assumed one of the female dolls was Jack’s mother, but I wasn’t sure about the other one. Was she the giant’s wife? A social worker concerned that Jack was an at-risk youth? I looked around for the cow and some gold coins, but they were gone, presumably bartered for food in these tough economic times.
I liked how Elmbrook Park celebrated creativity by displaying children’s bookmark designs that had won a contest. My favourite one encouraged all of us to “Read to your shoe” (by 8 year-old Grand Award Winner, Annika Quinn, Danforth/Coxwell Branch). A towering collection of box lofts also displayed the crafting skills of library staff.
Sunshine, zany paper condos, dinosaurs, and pirates were joined by lively books in French and Chinese, further enhancing the inviting atmosphere of this library on the municipal edge.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After 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.
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).
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.
It 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.
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.
When 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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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!”
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.
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.