Threatening the Toronto Public Library

Originally published on Torontoist on July 21, 2011.
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An uncommon sight in the future? Sod-turning ceremony for the Forest Hill Village municipal offices and library building, Eglinton Avenue West at Vesta Drive, November 13, 1960. Photo by Geoffrey Frazer. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 207, Series 1251, Item 146.

Earlier this week, Torontoist reported that Councillor Doug Ford (Ward 2, Etobicoke North) was dismayed because he perceived there to be more library branches in his area of Etobicoke than Tim Hortons. Though the actual numbers don’t support Mr. Ford’s claim, would it be horrible if it was true? Through collections and outreach programs, the Toronto Public Library’s 99 branches provide more brain food than all of the double-doubles and boxes of Timbits sold throughout the city.

Yet curtailing access to the library, through reduced hours or branch closures, is among the recommendations KPMG provided in today’s portion of the Core Services Review. Based on past experience, attempts to implement such advice, to force reduced hours or closures onto local libraries, will be met with stiff opposition, and politicians will either back down or tone down the degree of service reduction.

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The Toronto Public Library in its original location in the former Toronto Mechanics’ Institute, July 1, 1884. Toronto Public Library, Item X 71-16.

Though a limited form of library via the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute was available as far back as 1830, it wasn’t until the early 1880s that city officials seriously set out to to create a free public library. Championed by Alderman John Hallam, a bylaw to create a public library was placed on the January 1, 1883, municipal ballot. Detractors argued that books were so plentiful and cheap that there was little reason for taxpayers to fund a library. That argument was countered in many newspaper editorials: “We wonder,” wrote the Mail on Christmas Day, 1882, “if those who say so ever put themselves in the artisan’s place, and calculated how much he could spare in a year, after supporting his family, for books. For a quarter of a dollar in taxes, or less, the library will give him use of, or choice from, thousands of volumes.” The bylaw passed by a landslide.

After a brief search for sites, the Mechanics’ Institute agreed to turn over its collection and property. Following renovations, the TPL officially opened its doors at the northeast corner of Church and Adelaide streets on March 6, 1884. Though it quickly became popular, critics felt the collection contained too much mind-corrupting fiction and needed more dry reference works. Hallam noted that he learned far more from the likes of Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and Sir Walter Scott than nine-tenths of the published sermons that Torontonians considered “good” literature.

Those who considered the TPL a passenger on the Victorian equivalent of the gravy train—such as the author of the following verse that appeared as a letter to the editor of the Toronto World—continued to air their beefs in public forums:

What is this building, father?
This, my son, is the celebrated free library.
Why is it called a free library, father?
Because everybody is compelled to subscribe.
What was the origin of it?
Ex-Ald. Hallam’s vanity.
What good is it, father?
To increase the taxes and circulate sensational novels.
What are sensational novels?
Tales where shop-girls marry lords.
What is the use of reading them?
They make people discontented and negligent.
Has the library any other purpose?
Yes, my son, it provides some good fat berths.
Do the subscribers manage it?
Nominally they do, but really they do not.
Who does, then?
Some people who pay very little towards it.
Is it very popular?
Wait until the tax bills come in.
How are the public benefitted by it?
Ask the trustees, my son.

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Metropolitan Toronto Central Library, northwest corner of College and St. George streets; the predecessor of the Toronto Reference Library, it was built with Carnegie money. Photo taken May 15, 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 307.

For the rest of the 19th century, library officials were frustrated by the city’s refusal to provide the full amount of funding it was allowed under provincial law. Branch closures were frequently threatened but never carried out. City council continued to cut funding until it made one reduction too many in 1900. The library board sued for the lost funds and won. Funding stabilized after that point, thanks largely to Carnegie grants that began a few years later.

After the library systems in Toronto and its suburbs experienced years of growth, threats to services became common from the mid-1980s onward as municipalities attempted to cut costs. The mere threat of a library closure was enough to spur neighbourhood activists into action—among the small branches frequently used for target practice were Mount Pleasant, Queen-Saulter, Silverthorn, Swansea, and Todmorden. The Toronto Reference Library (and its predecessor, the Metro Reference Library) incurred reduced hours and closures for a week at a time during the late 1990s. Mayor Ford’s favourite branch, Urban Affairs, was recommended for closure in 1996 in anticipation of cuts.

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Eastern Branch Public Library (now Main Street branch), July 17, 1939. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 828.

Perhaps the most decimated branch was City Hall, which was supposed to be scrapped in October 1995 in order to save $640,000. Politicians figured it would be an easy cut, since there wouldn’t be opposition from ratepayer groups as there was in neighbourhoods where other branch closures were announced, and the space could easily be rented out for a restaurant or other commercial uses. Globe and Mail columnist Colin Vaughan pointed out the faultiness of the library board’s argument, which said that most of the branch’s users lived outside pre-amalgamation Toronto:

One reason given for closing the City Hall branch over, say, the less-used Beaches branch was that many of the users are business folk from the suburbs, as opposed to the local residents who frequent neighbourhood libraries. Perish the thought that Toronto should serve as a clearing house for the edification of the barbarian hordes. What next? Bar suburban patrons from attending those free lunch-time concerts in Nathan Phillips Square?

The branch remained open but saw its holdings reduced from 75,000 items to 25,000 and its operating time shrunk from nine-and-a-half to three hours a day.

In September 1999, the post-amalgamation TPL recommended closing 12 branches over the next five years. Of those listed, only one, Niagara, bit the dust. Protest against the proposals was loud, especially for the Mount Pleasant and Swansea branches. Noting that the report that recommended Mount Pleasant’s closure was called “Reinvesting in Our Future,” Councillor Michael Walker snarled, “That sure as heck isn’t reinvesting in any future…This library only opened about 10 years ago. There was a clear shortfall of library services in this neighbourhood then.” Down in Swansea, Councillor David Miller reminded the library board that the branch there was as much a monument to fallen soldiers as a library. “The original collection was donated by the residents of Swansea as a living memorial for 22 boys who didn’t return from World War I,” Miller noted. “It’s just as much a memorial as a statue in a park. I think the city has the same moral and ethical obligation to uphold that memorial.”

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Runnymede Public Library, July 17, 1939. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 827.

As mayor, Miller later saw the library board eliminate Sunday operations at 16 branches in September 2007 in reaction to a city budget crisis that Miller blamed on the deferment of votes on new land transfer and vehicle registration taxes. An arbitrator ruled the following month that the board was wrong to act so quickly, which led Miller critics like Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) to gloat over how ineptly the incident was handled. “It was a very cruel decision to force the closures of the library branches, and to see that there are no savings that are going to be accumulated makes it even crueller,” Minnan-Wong told the Star.

But will he have the same reaction if the current council follows KPMG’s recommendation and pushes for library branch closures that will provide, at best, middling savings? Or, if such an event comes to pass, will he tell users of targeted locations that, rather than a cruel blow to their neighbourhood, the loss of a library branch is merely a sacrifice needed to right the financial health of the city? Even if all that happens is a reduction in service hours, we know that defenders of Toronto’s libraries are preparing to protect an institution we should all be proud of.

Additional material from A Century of Service: Toronto Public Library 1883–1983 by Margaret Penman (Toronto: Toronto Public Library Board, 1983), Free Books for All: The Public Library Movement in Ontario 1850–1930 by Lorne Bruce (Toronto: Dundurn, 1994), and the following newspapers: the July 10, 1995 edition of the Globe and Mail; the December 25, 1882 edition of the Mail; the September 21, 1999, September 22, 1999, and October 16, 2007 editions of the Toronto Star; and the January 30, 1884 edition of the Toronto World.

UPDATE

The Ford brothers’ attempts to shrink the Toronto Public Library were met with public backlash, notably from Margaret Atwood. While the in-the-works closure of the Urban Affairs branch at Metro Hall went ahead (which led to confusion in accessing its holdings for years as its collection was integrated into the Toronto Reference Library), the other branches remained open. The TPL expanded in the years that followed, with new branches serving the Fort York neighbourhood and Scarborough Civic Centre.

Christmas in Toronto, 1869

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Harper’s Weekly, December 25, 1869.

Saturday being Christmas Day business was suspended in the city; that is to say, all places of business, except such as oyster depots, candy shops and saloons were closed. The streetcars ran as usual, and certainly did a paying business, as they were crowded with passengers nearly every trip. The weather was delightful, reminding one more of a day in spring than in winter; and, as a natural consequence, the streets were crowded with pedestrians, chiefly of the male sex, however. Divine service was held in several of the numerous places of religious worship in the city, and sermons appropriate to the occasion preached. – The Leader, December 27, 1869.

Torontonians gathering ingredients for their Christmas dinner 150 years ago had plenty of options from local butchers. “The St. Lawrence Market,” the Globe reported, “is peculiarly well adorned with meat of the most tempting character, while all over the city the butchers show that though they are not in the market they are quite prepared to meet the wants of the citizens, as respects Christmas cheer.”

The Leader was particularly taken with James Britton’s stall. “Mr. Jas. Britton, everybody in Toronto knows, and every Toronto epicure and gourmand blesses, or ought to, for he has certainly on this occasion pandered to their luxurious tastes most extensively and deserves for his splendid display of meats, to stand foremost on the list.”

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The Globe, December 23, 1869.

Among the advertisers that season was the Wesleyan Methodist Church, who invited the public to view the Christmas tree in the basement of their Richmond Street home. Visitors stopping in on December 23 could browse a “sale of useful and fancy articles” which raised funds for the congregation’s future home in McGill Square (the lot on the northwest side of Queen and Church). “Attendance was very fair during the afternoon,” the Telegraph reported, “swelling to a positive crowd in the evening.” The proceeds helped build the new church, which evolved into today’s Metropolitan United Church.

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The Leader, December 24, 1869.

Browsing the ads for the city’s dry goods merchants, one new name had entered the holiday shopping sweepstakes. Earlier that month, Timothy Eaton opened his first Toronto store at 178 Yonge Street, which offered the radical merchandising method of selling goods for cash only (the store’s “goods satisfactory or money refunded” motto debuted the following year). The store was snug: measuring 24 feet across and 60 feet deep, it only employed four people. Popular items early on included buttons, gloves, and underwear.

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Toronto Mechanics’ Institute, circa 1867-1868. Photo by Octavius Thompson. Toronto Public Library, Z 3-7.

Among the Christmas Day festivities across the city was a dinner held at the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute at the northeast corner of Church and Adelaide for over 220 children living in charitable institutions such as the Protestant Orphans’ Home, the Boys’ Home, and the Girls’ Home (along with, as the Globe dubbed them, “20 inmates of the News Boys’ Home). Organized annually by businessman John Hallam, it featured a hymn sing where the kids’ performances were praised community dignitaries. “The Christmas tree was then disburdened and each child having received from its branches a toy or picture book,” the Globe reported, “and also been handed a paper bag containing cakes, raisins, apples, and sweetmeats, the children started for their respective homes, four happy little bands, rendered so by the liberality of those who will be amply paid for their kindness to these poor little orphans when they shall have addressed to them the words ‘inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me.’”

(Journalists in 1869 were a wordy bunch)

Years later, as a city councillor, Hallam’s support of free public libraries played a role in the transformation of the Mechanics’ Institute’s collection into the Toronto Public Library. Hallam Street is named in his honour.

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Christmas menu for guests of the Queen’s Hotel. The Telegraph, December 27, 1869.

Some of the city’s wealthier, politically-connected citizens gathered for a Christmas dinner at the Queen’s Hotel (the present site of the Royal York). Toasts were made to Queen Victoria, various branches of the military, and Americans. The Telegraph printed the extensive menu.

The Globe reported on Christmas Day at the Don Jail:

Even without the heavy walls of the prison the genial spirit of Christmas penetrated, and brought a thrill of pleasure and a softening influence to many a hardened heard among the 154 incarcerated there. No relaxation of the prison discipline was admitted, except to allow friends to visit the inmates and bring with them some of the Christmas cheer which prevailed without. In more than one cell, tears came to eyes unused to weep, at the thought of former Christmas Days—when innocence made it a happy anniversary. Many a heart that knew not the crucified Saviour had reason to feel thankful for the natal day of Him who pardoned the thief on the cross.

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Francis Henry Medcalf. Wikimedia Commons.

Politically, the holidays saw the start of nominations for city council candidates in the upcoming municipal election. Putting his name back into the fray was former mayor Francis Henry Medcalf, who had resigned from council on November 1 to protest a proposal to extend the term of office from one to three years. He decided to switch wards, moving from St. Lawrence’s (which covered the area south of Queen Street east of Yonge) to St. John’s (later known simply as “The Ward”). At a Christmas Eve nomination meeting, Medcalf claimed that when he was asked to run, he did so because, the Leader reported, “he owed the people of that ward a deep debt of gratitude for the hearty way in which they had always supported them, and he hoped he would be able to pay that debt before he paid the debt of nature.” Medcalf would represent the ward for two years, then returned to the mayor’s chair for a final two-year run in 1874.

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Canadian Illustrated News, December 25, 1869.

We’ll end with the parting thoughts from the Globe’s Christmas day editorial:

Let us hope, in any case, that the event may be happy, and that we, like the rest of the world, may find that, after of dread of turbulence and conflict, we are, as we should be, in peace and good will with all men.

Sources: the December 23, 1869, December 25, 1869, and December 27, 1869 editions of the Globe; the December 25, 1869 and December 27, 1869 editions of the Leader; and the December 24, 1869 and December 27, 1869 editions of the Telegraph.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Carpet with Civic Fibres

Originally published on Torontoist on February 16, 2007.

Next time you visit the library, take a look at the carpeting and furniture. Does it make you want to linger with a good book or run through the checkout as fast as possible?
2007_02_16MRLcarpet.jpgThe Toronto Reference Library, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in November, was breaking itself in when today’s ad appeared. Judging from the number of people seen sleeping there, the carpet colours may be too easy on some readers’ eyes. Architect Raymond Moriyama’s design, with carpeted walls, easy-to-browse open shelves and the 70s see-through elevator, lends a comforting, cozy feel, turning short trips into lengthy stays, especially in winter. Moriyama’s firm is still involved in the building, contributing to its renewal plan.
 
The Reference Library’s roots date back to 1830, with the establishment of the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute (originally named York, until the city changed its name in 1834). Modeled after similar groups formed in Great Britain during the 1820s, its aim, according to Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto, was “the mutual improvement of mechanics and others who become members of the society in arts and sciences by the formation of a library of reference and circulation, by the delivery of lectures on scientific and mechanical subjects embraced by this constitution from which all discussion of political or religious matters is to be carefully excluded.”

Originally located on Colborne St, the Institute moved to the northeast corner of Church and Adelaide in the mid-1850s. By 1858, the library consisted of 4,000 books, available to 800 paying members. A city bylaw passed in 1883 established a free public library system, which the Mechanics’ Institute was folded into. When the library opened to full public access the following spring, the rush of people wishing to use it quickly led to increased staff and multiple copies of popular titles.

In 1903, the city received a Carnegie grant to build a new central library and several branches, including Yorkville, Queen/Lisgar (now used by the city’s Public Health department) and Riverdale. When the new Toronto Reference Library opened at St. George and College in 1909, it contained nearly 100,000 books. The Institute building remained a branch through the late 1920s, the was used as offices by the city’s public welfare department until it was demolished in the late 1940s.
In 1967, the Metropolitan Toronto Library Board was established to handle the reference library and special collections acquired over the years. Moriyama presented his design in 1970, with construction underway by 1975. The old library was sold to the University of Toronto and now serves as the Koffler Student Services Centre, which includes the main branch of the U of T Bookstore.

Source: Saturday Night, March 1978.