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Best of Toronto

The Best Public Library in Toronto

Posted by Rick McGinnis / February 17, 2014

public library torontoThe best public library in Toronto might be the one near where you live, or the one where you grew up, or the one you'll travel to because of the books in its collection, or a well-lit space by a window with a view. In any case, the Toronto public library system is a hundred-year accident that saw a philanthropic impulse meet with a rich man's generosity and the tiny library systems set up a dozen townships and municipalities to coalesce into the constantly evolving network of bookrooms all over Toronto.

Toronto's public libraries began over 200 years ago with a subscription reading room in Elmsley House, Upper Canada's parliamentary building. Over the decades, subscription libraries and reading rooms began springing up in fire halls and Mechanics Institutes all over what would eventually be called the GTA. City Hall created the public library system with the Free Library By-Law in 1883, but it was Andrew Carnegie who helped turn Toronto's libraries into esteemed parts of the streetscape.

You might use them to check e-mail, to cram for exams, organize your neighbours to fight City Hall, or simply to enjoy refuge in what remains one of the last relatively quiet places in the city. Chances are, though, you don't use them enough, so hopefully this will serve as a useful guide to the best the city has to offer.

Here are the best public libraries in Toronto.

Toronto Reference Library
When Raymond Moriyama's downtown reference library opened in 1977, it was probably the most futuristic-looking building in Toronto - in a brutalist, carpeted '70s kind of way. The bunker-like entrance led past a fountain and a curtain of knit art to open into a massive, dazzling atrium that, for generations of students, has meant "time to buckle down and study." A recent renovation, complete with revamped entrance, Balzac's Coffee, clear glass meeting and study pods and several neato digital upgrades has kept the TRL futuristic, only now it's more Gattaca than Logan's Run.

Bloor/Gladstone
Designed by Alfred Chapman the man who gave us the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion and the Princes' Gate, this branch was the first wholly paid for by the city, and opened in 1913. It was expanded in the '70s by the architect's son, Howard, and again just a few years ago in an award-winning renovation that added a glowing glass box to the west of Chapman's building, an update that pours light into the space and set a standard for the preservation of the city's historic libraries. The tranquil reading garden, a particular hit of the latest reno, is being copied in subsequent updates to TPL branches.

Lillian H. Smith
You make your way into the most imaginative library in the TPL system past the griffin and winged lion guarding the doors. It's utterly evocative for the home of the children's lit and sci-fi collections, on the edge of U of T's downtown campus and a short walk from Kensington Market. The Lillian H. Smith branch began as the Boys & Girls House Library on Spadina north of Bloor, and moved to its new home on College in 1995. Its meeting rooms are the sort of place where kids' comic shop Little Island will host their Comic Arts for Kids Expo, and where the library holds regular meetings of Storygami, its origami club.

High Park
One of three libraries built by Eden Smith with Carnegie's second grant, it has clones in Wychwood and the Beaches, though subsequent renovations have significantly changed all three buildings. The adjacent neighbourhood is family central so the kids' room on the main floor is always busy, but if you show up at the right time you can find a quiet spot upstairs and leaf through the library's collection of Polish books, a remnant of the recent past on Roncesvalles.

Runnymede
The stylized stone totem poles on either side of the entrance to this library are a reminder of the first great period of Canadian nationalism, back when the Group of Seven were mythologizing our landscape. The building is meant to echo colonial Quebec, and thanks to a sympathetic addition by Bruce Stratton in 2005, it gained space, light and views, looking out on a park behind the library.

Wychwood
When it opened in 1916, it was a big, open room with high windows and a lot of empty space. Like its Carnegie sibling at High Park, the years have filled in a lot of that empty space with bookshelves, furniture and stairs, and until a flood closed it down earlier this year, Wychwood was in need of a refresh. Repairs have hopefully pushed ahead a scheduled update, and when it reopens later this month Wychwood should be tidier and brighter.

Yorkville
Built with money from the first Carnegie grant, this little gem just around the corner from the Toronto Reference Library opened in 1907 and succeeded the first branch of the Toronto library system, which had opened in Yorkville Town Hall. Renovated in 1978 and 2010, the library is the home of a fine local history and theatre collection, as well as the TPL's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Collection.

Parkdale
Opened in 1909 just outside the neighbourhood's border, the original Parkdale Carnegie library is now the home of the Theatre Centre. (If it looks familiar, it's because it was also designed by Robert McCallum at the same time he was building the Yorkville branch.) It finally moved to Parkdale proper in 1964, into the bunker-like building at Queen West and Cowan. A refresh in 1999 updated the library, which is probably one of the most well-used in the system, and home to books in Chinese, Tamil, Hindi and Tibetan, as well as the Rita Cox Black & Caribbean Heritage collection.

Mt. Dennis
The latest renovation in the TPL's ongoing refresh of its branches, the new Mt. Dennis branch opened last year to rave reviews. The new building is built on the bones of an '80s renovation of a simple but functional '50s building whose original floors can be found in the basement of the new library. The TPL gets better every time it puts up a new building or refreshes an old one, and the maze-like '80s building has been replaced with an airy, open space that still features some quiet corners, like the bench by the big front windows, and the reading garden tucked into a onetime alleyway.

Maria A. Shchuka
Beginning life as the main branch of the York Township library, it was renamed in honour of the head librarian of the onetime municipality before being demolished and replaced with Diamond & Schmitt's glass and brick cube in 2003. This is where the TPL turned a corner, both on new buildings and renovations, by commissioning unique facilities instead of working to a standard template. Bright and open, with a flexible floor plan to adapt to changing library usage, this Eglinton West branch library showcases the TPL at its best.

Riverdale
Another Carnegie library, this dignified building commanding the corner of Gerrard and Broadview is probably the ceremonial entranceway to Toronto east of the Don. Renovated several times since then, it houses the Chinese language collection you'd expect from a branch at the heart of the city's second Chinatown, and a local history section highlighting the Don Jail, its nearest neighbour.

Pape/Danforth
There are a few storefront libraries in the TPL system, most of them satellite branches to serve areas in need, but this little jewel box was built to blend into the streetscape in the same year as the Wall Street crash. Retrofitted several times since then, it was comprehensively renovated by Hariri, Pontarini Architects in 2006, it retained its mock tudor facade but gained big new windows and skylights that flood light into a fresh, white-walled space.

Photo by photoanalysis on Flickr

Discussion

41 Comments

Rick / February 17, 2014 at 08:58 am
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I would like to see more modern libraries in the city fitted to accommodate modern technology and the "study culture" in general.

ie/ Board Rooms, Outlets for devices, better WiFi range/support, integrated systems using smart devices etc.

Just things to make the study experience and group work experience more easy flowing.
Ron / February 17, 2014 at 09:50 am
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If only Scarborough and North York had libraries. Maybe that explains the crime problem, the little children have nowhere to go. There used to be a pretty impressive one at North York Centre, but I guess that isn't open any more, or North York finally seceded from Toronto.
J*town / February 17, 2014 at 10:25 am
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During the summer, I love biking down to the Beaches Library, and then hit up the boardwalk afterwards.
Rob & Doug F**d / February 17, 2014 at 10:25 am
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The best libary is a close libary.
Doug F**d / February 17, 2014 at 10:28 am
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Rob meant to type "closed", not "close". Who cares if the pinko, gay, kids are close to a libary?
Doug F**d / February 17, 2014 at 10:30 am
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Typing ain't Rob's talent. He's got fat little piggie fingers.
ThatGirl replying to a comment from Ron / February 17, 2014 at 10:55 am
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I'm assuming you don't live in Scarborough. This is only a list of what blogto considers the Best Libraries. To learn more about locations throughout the city you should visit the TPL website
North York/Scarborough Resident replying to a comment from Ron / February 17, 2014 at 11:16 am
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lol, I literally said the same thing. I grew up going to North York Centre library, and there is no way it shouldn't be on this list. North of Eglinton and east of DVP is always neglected
Henry Dresden / February 17, 2014 at 11:18 am
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Ron: North York Central Library's collection is second only to Toronto Reference Library and is also the only other research library. It isn't classical or stylish, just extremely practical, modern, bright and inviting. The library building has six floors (and a total floor space of 15,626 square metres (168,200 sq ft). It's probably the most convenient library in the heart of North York, directly accessible from North York TTC station, next to Toronto Centre for the Arts, Douglas Snow Aquatic Centre.

BTW North York's crime rate is lower than Toronto, and Scarborough will finally be getting its library in 2014. Phew. You can rest easy and not have to Google before posting erroneous and inaccurate comments.
ceta / February 17, 2014 at 11:18 am
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Why name some architects and not others? Probably one of the best "heritage" representation was imagined by Phil Carter for Lillian Smith branch.
Bobby's replying to a comment from Ron / February 17, 2014 at 11:19 am
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Ha! I was just thinking the very same thing. Like you I seem to remember Central library as a world-class public library. Perhaps it was shut down after that whole Garth thing.
missedthebus / February 17, 2014 at 11:45 am
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We have some beautiful libraries, not just architecturally but as stellar resources. Yes there's always room for improvement as with anything, but there is real danger in taking what we already have for granted and focusing on what's missing.
Brendan / February 17, 2014 at 01:32 pm
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Malvern has a great library.
meme la meme / February 17, 2014 at 02:03 pm
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this is a great site... so toronto positive.. thanks...
alex / February 17, 2014 at 03:21 pm
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i am from rhill and all the libraries that are around me, such as RHPL, richmond green library, thornhill, aurora, are terrible for studying.
-slow internet
-uncomfortable chairs

For this reason I will always study at my university library or my house
Katherine / February 17, 2014 at 03:22 pm
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As someone who lives in North York, I can tell you North York Central is fully operative, and should really be on this list
AJ / February 17, 2014 at 03:46 pm
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This article shows typical downtown Toronto bias. The Cedarbrae library looks like this : ( http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/content/branches/images/cedarbrae-library-01.jpg ) . Do people really think that Scarborough doesn't have libraries?
Kevin replying to a comment from Henry Dresden / February 17, 2014 at 03:53 pm
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Many of the TPL's 99 branches are in Scarborough. The branch opening in 2014 is at Fort York.
DarkLordOfEtobicoke / February 17, 2014 at 04:17 pm
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Long Branch Library is very beautiful. Very Art Deco. But my favorite library in Toronto as for a selection books and a coxy library would have to be Yorkville Library.
David / February 17, 2014 at 04:22 pm
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One of the sillier best of lists. TPL has 98 branches, each to some extent tailored to its neighbourhood.

For any individual, the best library branch is the one offering the services expected within easy access.

When I moved to Toronto in 1980, a major consideration in location was how close was the nearest library (the others were an LCBO and a Beer Store).
Kara / February 17, 2014 at 08:05 pm
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If you're going to talk about Toronto Public Library and leave out North York Central (which has gone through some great renovations over the past few years), you probably need to do some more research. Not only does it have TPL's second largest collection (after Toronto Reference Library), it's probably one of the most up-to-date locations around, with a gaming room that opened up in 2013.
North Yorker / February 17, 2014 at 08:24 pm
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Completely baffled as to why North York Centre isn't on here. It's huge, quiet, and easily accessible. Isn't the picture in the article from there or is there a similar looking library?
LibraryLover / February 17, 2014 at 09:53 pm
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Although it may seem ghetto (because of it's situation inside of Parkway Mall,) I think that the Maryvale branch should be on here because of it's vast array of popular/unpopular books.

The Richview branch is also deserving of a notable mention, as it was recently renovated and has three huge levels of books for children/adults/possibly any damn age group humanly comprehensible.
LibraryLover replying to a comment from DarkLordOfEtobicoke / February 17, 2014 at 09:55 pm
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Did they renovate it? Just curious because I haven't stepped foot into Long Branch for ages, and I'm wondering how it's doing.
Jamison / February 17, 2014 at 11:34 pm
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There are many well designed and beautiful libraries in the TPL. Jane Sheppard was re-designed a few years ago and looks like this:

http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?R=LIB056

Eatonville was redesigned nicely as well.

http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMLIB041&;R=LIB041

But clearly, "Toronto" is south of Eglinton & west of Leslie & east of Jane.

Am in disbelief that North York Central isn't mentioned - 6 floors and has the largest circulating collection in the whole system.

Not mad that this list at all, but it clearly shows how the 'suburbs" can feel neglected by the downtown elites.
Honest Librarian / February 18, 2014 at 05:18 am
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Libraries belong in good neighbourhoods such as Etobicoke. Libraries do not make.sense in immigrant populous areas such as Scarborough, North.York and.especially the downtown core. I think Rob Ford has done a great job of trying to shut.down or reduce library services. It keeps people of colour from.using libraries and especially working in them. I must say I have been a great librarian working at the Eatonville branch and along with.friends at the Leaside branch, we do our very best to keep our libraries white-only. Hopefully if Rob Ford becomes mayor again, we can really do something about the immigrants using our libraries. Vote Rob and Doug Ford. Ford more years!
steve replying to a comment from Jamison / February 18, 2014 at 07:04 am
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Thanks for the elitist comment.
R-b & D--g F--d / February 18, 2014 at 07:35 am
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We promise to bar all greenies(immigrants) from all librairies!! All gays too! At least until we close them all and burn all the books!! Yowzir!!
I Have More Libraries Than Tim Hortons replying to a comment from Jamison / February 18, 2014 at 08:22 am
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Although Eatonville looks good, it shouldn't be on this list because it's simply a room with free wifi and books.
Ron / February 18, 2014 at 08:44 am
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It's interesting watching BlogTO make the exact same mistakes that Toronto city council made, that led to our mutual friend Ford in the mayors office.

Miller, Hall et-all didn't understand that Toronto exists North of Bloor, East of the DVP or west of Bathurst. You would think the ad revenue at a minumum would be a motivator for this site to research a bit better and when labeling something as a 'Toronto' list, making sure it's actually representative. Maybe BlogSOB would be a better name to use.

Hon / February 18, 2014 at 10:11 am
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Its interesting watching Ron making the same mustakes as Mongo. Ron & Mongo both think wrbsites/internet have importance. Joke is on Ron/Mongo.
Toronto Girls / February 18, 2014 at 10:40 am
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People like Rob Ford are going to keep winning as long as ridiculous Best-Of pieces like this make it past filters to get published. He is exploiting a massive, ridiculous, even offensive gap in understanding and knowledge. Even the terms on which he is dismissed just alienate most Torontonians further because they identify with him.

Tens of thousands of Torontonians use North York Central Library every year, if not more.

Also, best kids library: S Walter Stewart, in (gasp) East York. It has a rocket ship for puppet shows, and an auditorium. Beat that!

Yeesh.
Mongo plays Bongo / February 18, 2014 at 10:53 am
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Mongo no can read. Mongo knows morse code. Mongo plays morse code message on bongo to close all libaries. The natives are restless.
Mongo alienates Toronto Girls / February 18, 2014 at 10:57 am
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Mongo an alien from Mars. Mongo agrees we should all cheer for Mayor Rob Ford. Aliens for Ford! Four More Light Years! Four More Parsecs!
Chris replying to a comment from Ron / February 18, 2014 at 12:22 pm
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North York Central Library is still there (though the mall that houses it is undergoing renovations).
North York Exists / February 18, 2014 at 06:22 pm
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As someone who loves books, and is constantly studying, I can honestly say I spend at least 5 hours at North York Central a week. Granted, I live in extremely close proximity to it, however I know i would definitely commute to it if I moved. It has the second best collection in toronto (as already mentioned), and a really friendly and open atmosphere. There is always some kind of seminar or group or club meeting happening, and they really do try to have something for everyone. Now it has its faults, as everything does, the most important of which apparently being that it is not south of egligton.
Colin Boyd Shafer / February 18, 2014 at 08:53 pm
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I am photographing the world, one Torontonian at a time.

A wide range of libraries have been chosen as places Torontonians feel at home:

Eliana born in Croatia chose Toronto Reference Library: http://cosmopolistoronto.com/eliana-croatia/

Catalina born in Colombia chose Robarts: http://cosmopolistoronto.com/catalina-colombia/

Mayank chose Toronto Reference Library: http://cosmopolistoronto.com/mayank-india/

Check out the project!
Christina replying to a comment from Ron / February 19, 2014 at 01:38 am
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there are numerous libraries in both north York and scarborough not featured here, for the record
Jimmy replying to a comment from Hazel McCallion / February 21, 2014 at 05:18 pm
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000
General Knowledge
XXX

That's where they fit.
Mick / February 21, 2014 at 11:42 pm
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Mimico Centennial.
One of the best neighbourhood libraries.

Bloor-Gladstone is well organized and full of competent staff.

Runnymede for me is the most beautiful heritage library building.

Overall TPL is a treasure - a public library system that few other cities in the world can emulate.
Mahin replying to a comment from Ron / March 7, 2014 at 12:05 am
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Have you seen Cedarbrae Library in Scarborough? It was heavily renovated a few years ago? (Not that it needed it. Cedarbrae already was a nice library.)

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