100 Years of Boys & Girls House: Children's Library Services at Toronto Public Library

September 2, 2022 | Myrna

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September 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of Boys & Girls House, a former branch of Toronto Public Library. Boys & Girls House opened on September 11, 1922 and was the first dedicated children’s library in the Commonwealth. 

Boys & Girls House was influential on the development of children's library services. The branch served young Torontonians, but it was also a professional development resource for children’s librarians, teachers and researchers from around the world. Today, its legacy lives on at Lillian H. Smith Branch (239 College Street). 

Origins of Boys & Girls House

In 1912, librarian Lillian H. Smith (1887-1983) was hired as the first head of Toronto Public Library's Children's Department. She set to work expanding TPL's collections and services for children. New Children's Rooms were opened at several Toronto library branches. Staff training was introduced, with a focus on children's literature and library programming. 

The new Children's Rooms were very popular. Librarians recount being forced to turn away visitors because the rooms were too jam packed. The College Street Circulating Branch (formerly at 214 College Street) was particularly busy. Operating out of a tiny 36 square foot space, it circulated more than 100,000 books a year.

A new type of space was needed to meet the rising demand for children's books. In 1922, TPL purchased a residential home at 40 St. George Street for $25,000. After some renovations, Boys & Girls House was born. 

Black and white photograph of a three story Victorian home with a long verandah
Boys & Girls House (approximately 1930) was originally a residential home.

Boys & Girls House opens

Boys & Girls House opened to the public in September 1922. It was immediately popular. Surrounding neighbourhoods were densely populated with children, many from recent immigrant families. Books flew off the shelves — popular items included fairy tale books, Lewis Carroll's Alice stories, Heidi by Johanna Spyri and more. 

By 1923, the newly opened branch was already overflowing with young visitors. A 1923 report described the crowded conditions, writing "[n]o tables and benches can be placed in the circulating room, since all the space is required for standing room! On many afternoons of the week the reference room is not only filled but crowded." 

Adults were also active users of Boys & Girls House. Librarians from schools and smaller Ontario towns would visit to find inspiration for their own children's book collections. Library reports mention visits from early childhood educators, occupational therapy students, pediatric nurses and other professional groups.

Picture of a group of children seated and standing at a table reading books in a library.
Children visiting Boys & Girls House (approximately 1935). Boys & Girls House was often standing room only with more readers than chairs.

Puppets, plays and storytelling

In addition to reading, storytelling and theatre were an important part of Boys & Girls House programming. Many children participated in library clubs, which put on plays ranging from The Three Little Kittens to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. One annual report mentions "Solly Wagman, aged six, gave a memorable performance as a kitten." In 1928, a theatre and story room space was added to Boys & Girls House. Children would travel from all over Toronto to perform plays at the Boys & Girls House theatre.

In 1934, two library workers, Frances Trotter and Jean Thomson, received a grant to study puppetry in Europe. Trotter and Thomson visited the USSR, Poland, Germany and France, learning about puppetry in each country. They returned to Canada and shared their findings with fellow library workers. Staff created intricate marionettes for library performances. Children participated in puppet programs, designing and performing with their own puppets.

Puppetry remains an important part of Toronto Public Library's children's services. In addition to regular puppet programs, our Marguerite G. Bagshaw Collection features research material on puppet making, techniques and history. 

Storytelling was another mainstay at Boys & Girls House. Library staff were trained in storytelling, delivering popular story hour programs for children. In 1961, Poet Laureate of Great Britain, John Masefield, sponsored a storytelling festival at Boys & Girls House. Held periodically at Boys & Girls House until 1972, the festivals featured celebrated storytellers from around the world.

Osborne Collection

In 1934, English couple Edgar and Mabel Osborne visited Boys & Girls House. Boys & Girls House and the work done by Lillian H. Smith impressed the couple. The Osbornes were avid collectors of historical children's books and discussed one day donating their collection to Toronto Public Library.

In 1949 following Mabel's death, Edgar donated their collection of more than 2,000 rare and notable children’s books to TPL. The Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books was born. One of Edgar's stipulations was that the collection must continue to grow. Today, the Osborne Collection holds more than 80,000 items, including books, original art, toys and archival material.  

The collection drew a new type of adult researcher to Boys & Girls House. Scholars visited to study the histories of childhood, children's literature, publishing and much more. TPL staff created a print catalogue of the Osborne Collection (now available on our Digital Archive), which became a respected reference source for children's literature researchers around the world. 

Black and white photograph of older man with a pipe looking at a book
Edgar Osborne in 1970. Courtesy of the Toronto Star Photograph Archives.

A new building

The original Boys & Girls House building was a residential home. The house wasn't designed to accommodate hundreds of daily visitors. By the 1950s, the heavy foot traffic was causing structural problems. Librarian Judith St. John recounted the time a 200-plus-pound chunk of ceiling plaster fell directly on her desk. Luckily, St. John happened to be off that day and narrowly avoided injury. In 1963, the building was condemned.

Supporters and former staff from all across Ontario attended a farewell party in April 1963. Regrets were received from former Boys & Girls House librarians living around the world, including Brazil, Nigeria, Australia and New Zealand. Many young librarians from other Commonwealth countries had interned at Boys & Girls House. 

In 1964, the newly constructed Boys & Girls House — designed by architects Murray and Fliess — opened at 40 St. George. The new building housed children's borrowing collections, the Osborne Collection, The Spaced Out Library (now the Merril Collection) and staff offices. 

A change of address

In 1995, Boys & Girls House gained a new name and address. Moving to 239 College Street, the library was renamed Lillian H. Smith Branch to honour her pioneering role in children's librarianship. Designed by architect Phillip H. Carter, the building pays tribute to stories of fantasy and adventure. The library's design is inspired by medieval castles, winged lion and gryphon sculptures flank the entrance, and torches light the basement. 

The legacy of Boys & Girls House lives on at Lillian H. Smith Branch. The library houses extensive fairy tale and children's book collections, along with the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books (4th floor) and Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy (3rd floor). In addition to children's books, the library has books for grown-ups, newcomer services and programs for all ages. All are welcome to drop by and explore this storied library branch. 

Entrance to Lillian H Smith Branch
Lillian H. Smith Branch's winged lion and gryphon statues are nicknamed Edgar and Judith in honour of donors Edgar Osborne and Judith Merril.

Further resources

To celebrate Boys & Girls House's 100th birthday, we have digitized photographs of Boys & Girls House over the years

Learn more about the history of Boys & Girls House and children's services at TPL: