The Best Public Library in Toronto
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.