History of the Music Library at Toronto Public Library (1959–1977)

June 21, 2023 | Pamela

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Did you know that we once had a branch devoted just to music? The Music Library opened its doors in 1959 and operated for nearly two decades. It offered thousands of records, books and scores to borrow or use on the spot.

Here's a look back at this largely-forgotten location in Deer Park, featuring images from our Digital Archive. You'll see how public libraries have always been more than just books — and how parts of the Music Library live on at Toronto Public Library.

Building covered in leaves and sign reading Metropolitan Music Library
Music Library, approximately 1970. View on Digital Archive.

The building before it was the Music Library

The building that would become the Music Library was built in 1930. It started out life as the home of George Howard Ferguson, premier of Ontario (1923–1930) and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom (1930–1935). The Conservative Party gave the house to Ferguson as a retirement gift.

Situated on the northeast corner of Avenue Road and St. Clair Avenue West, the 100-foot lot had many old trees. Ferguson stipulated that they be preserved. Architects Wright and Noxon drew on a modern interpretation of the Georgian style for the residence. The house had an off-red brick with stone trim and soft green shutters. 

Vintage photo of tree lined street and a two storey building tucked in the trees
George Howard Ferguson House (right), 1933. View on Digital Archive.

A growing music collection at Toronto Public Library

Long before the Music Library would form in the Ferguson House, we had a music section at our Central Library on College Street. As of 1915, it held 828 books of music or related to music. But the collection outgrew the space. When the Music Library opened in 1959, there were 25,000 records, books and pieces of sheet music. (The collection grew to 30,000 books and scores and 6,000 records by the mid-1970s.)

Man listening to music in vintage photo of library interior with woman standing by with gloves in hand
The music section at Central Library one year before the new Music Library opened, 1958. View on Digital Archive.

Opening of the Music Library

The Music Library opened on April 2, 1959 in the Ferguson House at 559 Avenue Road (the number later changed to 555). It was on the main floor, with the Canadian Centre for Music on the second floor. The official opening was April 18, during Canadian Book Week. Ernest Macmillan, a dominant force in Canadian music, gave a brief address.

Most of the collections came from the Central Library's music section, which closed on March 26, 1959. Donations were also plentiful. Besides books and scores, the Music Library received items such as pictures, pottery and sculptures. Mrs. Albert Nordheimer provided a Toronto-made Nordheimer concert grand piano of Sheraton design for the Rare Music Room.

Old photo of two story building with sign reading Music Library Toronto Public Libraries and people walking nearby
Music Library on the day of its official opening on April 18, 1959. View on Digital Archive.
Two men in suits look at large book beside shelf of bound books
J. N. Bennett, chair of the Public Library Board (left) and Ernest MacMillan, chair of the Canadian Music Council (right) inside the Music Library, 1959. View on Digital Archive.

Services at the Music Library

Customers could visit on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 12 pm to 8:30 pm and on Saturdays from 9 am to 5 pm. It was closed on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Library card holders were free to borrow books, scores and sheet music. (At the time, a regular library card cost 10 cents.) Circulating books included biography, history and theory. Rare and special books, periodicals and newspaper clippings could also be accessed in the branch. Materials were not organized by the Dewey Decimal System but by a classification scheme from Brookline, Massachusetts.

Long playing records (LPs) were also part of the collection. There were fees to use the records, which fell under a narrow range of genres — a stark contrast to today's more inclusive Toronto Public Library. An annual charge of one dollar was in place for listening privileges and there were rental fees for recordings. In 1960, The Globe and Mail quoted the head of the Music Library as saying that jazz LPs weren't collected as "many jazz fans don't take care of the records" and that "rock ‘n’ roll is not music and we don’t stock it.” Thankfully, the times they were a-changin'.

Vintage photo of two people sitting with over the ear headphones and turntables and two women in back browsing vinyl records
Inside the listening room of the newly opened Music Library, 1959. View on Digital Archive.
Envelope reading Toronto Public Libraries Music Library 559 Avenue Rd Music Notes Books Scores Records
Letterhead featuring a musical note listing three services: books, scores and records. Date unknown.

Addition in 1967

The Music Library's success led to an addition. Architects James A. Murry & Henry Fliess designed a new space for The Music Library Concert Room. W. Kaye Lamb, Canada’s National Librarian, opened the addition on December 9, 1967. The highlight of the opening was a performance of Variations on Opening a Music Library by Shelai Bluether and Liesal Kohlund, staff at the Music Library. The pieces were composed for two pianos — made possible since Mrs. Albert Nordheimer donated a second grand piano, a Steinway.

The new venue seated 160 people and was available to rent for concerts, exhibits and film showings. The library sponsored concerts both live and recorded. Many wonderful performances were sponsored by musician unions. Staff also arranged exhibitions of Canadian Music and Painting, working with organizations like the Canadian Music Centre.

A section in the Music Library opened in 1968 as a film reference centre for materials in the performing arts: Music Library Cinematheque. Other changes to the Music Library included enhanced listening stations that allowed customers to listen to music and easily follow its score.

Room full of people wit two grand pianos being played facing each other at the front of the room
Performance of eight "Variations on Opening a Music Library" by Sheila Bleuthner (left) and Liesel Kohlund (right), 1967. View on Digital Archive.
Yellowed calendar from May 1969 with handwritten notes some of which are crossed off
Booking calendar for Concert Room, 1969.
Vintage photo of two people listening to headphones and sitting in front of turntables with musical scores being held overtop with turntables
Listening stations that also had space to follow along with sheet music, approximately 1967. View on Digital Archive.

Farewell to the Music Library

Our new central location, Toronto Reference Library at 789 Yonge Street, officially opened on November 2, 1977. The Music Library was incorporated into this larger location, and the smaller branch was no longer needed. Library staff spent most of that year coordinating the move to the new location from the old Central Library as well as the Music Library (initially relocated to the second floor of Toronto Reference Library).

The Music Library building was listed for sale by the City of Toronto for an asking price of around $300,000. It remained empty until 1980, when the Religious Order of the Cenacle bought it as a retreat house. In 1988, Upper Canada Development purchased it and made extensive renovations. Finally, it became the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea. 

In 1976, the building was granted Heritage Status by Toronto City Council (Bylaw 101-87), so the property is protected from any future development. 

Colour photo of two storey building with extension at ground level
The building on Avenue Road is now the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea. The 1967 addition is visible on the right. Photo by author, 2023.

Legacy and current music services

The most direct legacy of the Music Library is the Arts Department on the 5th floor of Toronto Reference Library. It holds many of the same scores found at the Music Library. It also offers 16,000 CDs to borrow and 5,000 vinyl records, listening stations, and piano practice rooms. Elsewhere on the 5th floor, we also preserve thousands of rare and original Canadian sheet music as part of our Special Collections in the Arts.

Our music collections and services now extend far beyond any one location. We offer CDs and in-person music programs across our system, free music and concerts to stream from home, and cultural passes that provide equitable access to ticketed musical performances in Toronto. Oh, and did we mention our musical instruments lending library and recording studios?

On your next visit, keep an eye out for artifacts from our old music branch. The Steinway piano from the Music Library lives at Northern District branch where it's still played at concerts and piano lessons. Back at Toronto Reference Library, visitors to the 5th floor may spot a sculpture of a harpist that once played its silent song in the old Music Library.

Gentle wooden sculpture of rounded figure cradling harp and in background music on library shelves
The Harpist by T. Bagnall (1965) can be seen on 5th floor of Toronto Reference Library, home to our Arts Department. Photo by staff, 2023.

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