Toronto’s public libraries evolving into community hubs

Increased focus on events keeping neighbourhood institutions relevant in digital age

On Feb. 14, Mary Spence and about two dozen others gathered at the Bloor/Gladstone library to watch the classic film An Affair to Remember.

“It’s nice to have something to do on Valentine’s Day,” said Spence, 75. “Ever since my husband died I’ve been spending a lot more time here.”

The screening is one of the many events Toronto’s public libraries put on to broaden their appeal beyond being book lenders.

“The library is really good at hosting events for … people to come out to,” Spence said.

Libraries are evolving more and more.

—Katherine MacGregor

For Spence and others, the local library is increasingly becoming a centre of community life. As the march toward digital books and reading continues, libraries across the city have begun to focus more on hosting events, hobby groups and children’s parties.

“Events (like that) are really important for the community,” said Katherine MacGregor, a worker at a local library. “With movie nights and clubs, … open information events, libraries are evolving more and more.

“I’d love to see libraries become more political [information] sources, especially as spaces where people can access free information,” MacGregor said. “Free being the operative word.”

Tanya Sidhu, who moved from India five years ago, said attending library events has made Canada feel more like home.

It’s a great place to meet other people.

—Tanya Sidhu

“It’s a great place to meet other people,” Sidhu said. “It’s made me feel a lot more connected to the community.

“It’s especially true for the grandparents like mine who have nothing to do at home when their kids are away at work. They can’t afford anything else.”

More people are attending events than ever before, MacGregor said, something she attributes to the City of Toronto’s recent Toronto Public Library Strategic Plan 2012-2015.

The plan lays out several steps to continue developing better community programs in libraries. It includes building up a digital collection, partnering with Toronto universities, and connecting readers and authors through initiatives like the Writer in Residence program.

According to the Toronto Public Library’s website, over 72 per cent of Torontonians use their local branch at least once a year.

What the Toronto Public Library is doing is positive, Sidhu said, though she added there are gaps in library programming.

“I do wish they had more programming for people in their mid-20s like me, but with us it’s the time factor,” Sidhu said. “Kids have time after school. Adults don’t have much time after work.”

Toronto’s libraries, however, do aim to present offerings with a broad appeal, MacGregor said.

“We try to keep the age spectrum wide with events,” she said.