City Librarian's Report for September 2020

September 11, 2020 | Vickery Bowles

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Below is my report for the September 2020 Toronto Public Library (TPL) Board meeting. It summarizes key activities in support of the priorities outlined in our strategic plan. This report covers items that are not part of the Board agenda package.

For up-to-date information about our reopening, please visit Our Reopening Plan page.


Opening up our public space

Food Bank Partnerships

TPL Staff member sorting food
A TPL staff member working in a branch food bank in March 2020.

On March 13 we closed all of our branches due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A few days later, we re-opened 12 of our locations as temporary food banks to serve our communities. Our staff stopped sorting and shipping books, DVDs and CDs. Instead, they started sorting food deliveries. Our processing warehouse was transformed and, together with food bank staff, TPL staff filled hampers for food bank customers. 

In early June, food bank operations moved from most of our branches to other community locations as we implemented Stage 2 services. Two of our branches to continue to operate as food banks. Together, TPL staff packed over 14,000 hampers, helping meet the needs of over 38,000 individuals by the end of August. This food bank program is in partnership with North York Harvest Food Bank, Daily Bread Food Bank and Second Harvest Food Bank.

Summer Wonder and TD Summer Reading Club 2020 Online

TPL’s Summer Wonder and the TD Summer Reading Club went online this summer. As a result, both programs continued to provide kids and families across Toronto with the fun and exciting summer programs they’ve grown to love. Between June 15 and September 4, TPL offered 51 virtual programs. This included author talks, mini makers, French language programs and more. One Summer Wonder highlight was a series of three "wonder workshops". These workshops encouraged children to build and design their own solution to a global challenge using principles of design thinking. Each challenge was inspired by a book, and this year marked the first challenge featuring a title for younger readers.

As of August 14, over 2,600 kids in Toronto signed up for their TD Summer Reading Club online notebooks. The committee is especially thrilled with the increased traffic they’ve experienced this summer on the Club’s website. Access of ebooks through the website has doubled from last summer, to over 28,000 downloads. Together, these programs help inspire kids to develop a love of reading, pursue new interests and become lifelong learners.

Our Fragile Planet 2020: Live and Online

Black outdoors panelists
#BlackOutdoors speakers with our TPL staff host, Diana.

During this pandemic, people have embraced nature at home and locally more than ever before. This desire was evident during our environmental program series, Our Fragile Planet. Over 650 participants attended our online program series, offered virtually for the first time. Most notably, our launch program, #BlackOutdoors: The Connections Between Race and Outdoor Space, featuring Jacqueline Scott and Demiesha Dennis, had 424 live viewers. 


Broadening Toronto's digital access and inclusion

Supporting City Digital Equity and Inclusion Initiatives: Wi-Fi on Wheels

Bookmobile at Edgely Park
"Big Blue", our Bookmobile, at Edgely Park.

TPL’s now Wi-Fi-enabled Bookmobile served in two starring roles in City of Toronto initiatives. In April, the City closed High Park to visitors to deter large crowds from gathering for the cherry blossoms. To share the cherry blossom experience, BloomCam provided a livestream courtesy of the TPL Bookmobile and Rogers providing on-site connectivity. In August, TPL partnered with a City pilot initiative, Wi-Fi on Wheels. This initiative brought internet access to parks in areas of Etobicoke where there are few public Wi-Fi options. It also raised awareness of the digital divide and related issues heightened by the pandemic.

Internet Connectivity Kit Program

Recently, TPL partnered with Renewed Computer Technology to launch the Internet Connectivity Kit program. This initiative is to support low income families or individuals who lack home internet access. Vulnerable residents, identified by community partners, were provided with:

  • A laptop
  • A Wi-Fi hotspot
  • 4 months of unlimited data.

With these kits, these residents can access crucial online information, such as health resources and social assistance programs. They can also take part in online learning and education or maintain connections with friends and family online, which decreases social isolation. Read more about the Internet Connectivity Kit program.

Digital Innovation Programs Connect with Online Learners

Since April, TPL's Digital Innovation Hub and PopUp Learning Lab teams have delivered over 50 online programs. More than 505 participants have attended, building a community of online learners. These learners have come together based on shared interest in developing a new skill. Program topics have included:

  • Coding
  • Web design
  • Photography
  • Image editing

In August, the team hosted a four-part photography series called Connecting with Creativity. It was led by Digital Design Technicians Marek Holly and Greg Astill. Nearly 40 participants learned tips and tricks to take a good photo as well as image editing techniques using open source software. The series received very positive feedback and requests for similar programs in the future.

Virtual Exhibit in Partnership with the CN Tower

Illustration of Toronto from exhibit

TPL partnered with the CN Tower earlier this year to create an in-person exhibit on their observation deck. Called 114 Stories X 114 Storeys, the exhibit showcases our city's diverse cultures and communities. It contains many photos of Toronto landmarks from our Special Collections. After the exhibit was cut short due to COVID-19, TPL worked with the CN Tower to recreate the exhibit online. In June, we published an English version and French version of the virtual exhibit, featuring images from the exhibit as well as virtual views from the CN Tower.

Digital Puzzles Highlighting Our Special Collections

Jigsaw puzzle of vintage ads for shoes showing women playing tennis

In June, TPL expanded its recent post of digital jigsaw puzzles of items in our Special Collections. Many of the 70 jigsaws are paired with local history trivia. Puzzlers can learn more about their city as they put together these pieces of history. The puzzles also included other fun and unusual images from other areas of TPL’s extensive Special Collections. Over 28,000 customers have visited the post, including nearly 700 visits from Google Classrooms. Google Classrooms is an online platform for educators to provide content for their students.

Additionally, in July, we created a Sherlock Holmes-inspired virtual "escape room". It is an interactive series of different kinds of puzzles that connects participants with our Arthur Conan Doyle Collection and Sherlock Holmes stories. It was positively received, with one participant noting, "So creative and innovative! ... Loved how they incorporated mentions and links to relevant stories."


Building pathways for workforce development

Youth Digital Internships for Under Represented Groups

TPL’s Director, Service Development & Innovation, Pam Ryan, worked with TPL partner, Computers For Success Canada / Ordinateurs pour l'excellence Canada to create a national program of youth digital internships in urban public libraries. With funding from the Government of Canada, each of the participating libraries (Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Hamilton, Regina, Toronto, Vancouver) will receive $240,000 to support the creation of at least 64 internships across Canada in 2020/21.

These paid internship positions will provide interns, aged 30 and under, opportunities to enhance their digital skills and employability by developing the expertise and competencies necessary to actively participate in the digital economy. Each participating library will prioritize employment diversity and inclusion considerations in the hiring process. Proactive consideration will be given to Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC), individuals who identify as LGBTQ2S+, persons with a disability and official language minorities. TPL will offer 8 internships: 6 Library Assistant positions focusing on providing seniors digital literacy skills training and support, and 2 Digital Design Technician positions to offer services and programs in TPL Digital Innovation Hubs.

Let's Learn Tech Highlights

Over the spring and summer, 277 TPL customers participated in Let's Learn Tech. The in-person courses were disrupted partway, but learners successfully moved and adapted to remote learning. Participants appreciated the ability to keep learning with others from home. One participant commented, "It is wonderful of you all to be holding these online sessions and I am sure I speak for others when I say they are very much appreciated. Thank you!" Three more online programs were added in June on Python, Cybersecurity and Linux. Let's Learn Tech is offered in partnership with Cisco Networking Academy.


Providing the vital ingredients for a democratic society

TDSB Summer Model School Outreach

This summer, TPL partnered with TDSB Model Schools to support visits to students in grades 3-6 attending summer model schools in July. Staff from North York Central Library brought our services and resources to these classes remotely. From July 6 t0 31, TPL staff conducted 37 remote visits, reaching 1,962 students in 111 classes at 19 model schools.

TDSB also proposed a new initiative this summer for teachers, principals and learning coaches to engage with Summer Wonder. Our Children's Service Department staff offered a remote presentation with tips and recommendations to 30 educators. Incorporating Summer Wonder into their lessons helped support these educators in building a sense of community with their students and their families during online learning.

Book Donations to Family Shelters and Asylum Seeking Sites

Children's Books Donation to Family Shelters and Asylum Seeking Sites
Children’s books being packed for contactless delivery to various family shelters and sites.

This spring, TPL staff prepared and packed 700 brand new children’s and teen books. These books were delivered to various family shelters and to sites where asylum seekers are staying temporarily in Toronto. They were especially appreciated at a time when TPL services and community support was limited due to the pandemic. This initiative strengthened our connection with these sites and has given us new opportunities to share and promote our resources for the staff and families. Another delivery of children’s books may be possible in the fall.

Partnership with Prosper Canada

Since May 2019, TPL has been working with Prosper Canada as a service development and delivery partner as part of the Prosperity Gateways: Cities for Financial Empowerment (CFE) Toronto project. This project employs a structured, human-centred consulting process with the aim to identify, design and integrate scalable and sustainable opportunities for financial empowerment into our library programs and services. Read more about this partnership. On July 30, we held a successful event on Financial Benefits During COVID-19 as part of this partnership. The event involved a panel discussion, moderated by TPL Board Member Sarwar Choudhury, on income security and financial preparedness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Libraries, Publishing and Bookstores

On July 25, The Globe and Mail published an opinion piece by Kenneth Whyte, suggesting that public libraries loaning books has negatively impacted independent bookstores and the publishing industry more broadly. The Canadian Urban Libraries Council (CULC) posted a response to Whyte's claims on July 27. CULC argues that "public libraries are in fact good for bookstores, publishing, and authors" and identifies the sources of industry woes as the growth of ebooks and the impact of Amazon on the marketplace. This was published in the July 31 digital edition of Publishers’ Weekly, the international "bible of the book business". There have been several responses from different sources since, and a list of these articles is available on I am heartened by the response from customers in support of our services, and also the response from other libraries and the publishing industry. Research has shown that library borrowers are also book buyers, purchasing more books per month than those who do not use libraries at all.

Empire Club of Canada Speech on Intellectual Freedom

On March 9, 2020, I spoke at the Empire Club of Canada, a forum for events and discussion. My talk focused on free speech, the mandate of our public library system, and the need to accommodate different viewpoints. A recording of this speech is available to watch online.

February 2020 EDGE Conference

Back in February, I attended the EDGE Conference in Scotland. This conference was developed by the City of Edinburgh Council. It was a great opportunity to share good practices and discuss future developments in the library sector. While there, I was interviewed on transforming public library services. I spoke on managing change and understanding libraries as a democratizing force in the modern world. ​A recording of this interview is available to watch online.

Investing in staff and an innovative service culture

Online Staff Town Hall, August 2020

On August 6, over 400 TPL staff participated in a live, online town hall. The focus of this event was TPL's Stage 3 Reopening Plan. It brought staff together to ask questions, get answers and help finalize TPL's reopening plan. Branch staff brought vital insights on the needs and questions from our customers. This helped us develop our Frequently Asked Questions. The session was recorded for staff who were unable to attend live, and over 300 staff watched the video replay.

TPL Blogs from our Expert Staff

Over the past few months, our dedicated blogging team has worked hard to highlight and promote our online resources and collections. Between March 18 and August 31, the team posted over 120 blog post articles for our customers. These articles have covered a broad range of topics, including:

Our most popular blog post article has been 38 Ways to Use the Library from Home. The article has over 70 customer comments and questions and answers from our staff, and over 205,000 views. TPL blog posts are a fantastic way to discover staff recommendations. Between April and the end of August, our customers placed over 62,000 holds on items recommended in our blog posts. This is an increase of 178% from the same time period last year. About 50% of these holds were placed as soon as we announced our Curbside Pickup Service. 

Online Programs

We are dedicated to offering innovative, high-quality and diverse programs to our customers. This dedication did not change in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, we moved our programming online. Our online program offerings have included multiple author talks, dance classes, interactive escape rooms, book clubs and more. Over 410 programs have been offered live and online so far. More than 23,000 participants from Toronto, across Canada and across the globe have taken part by either attending a live online program or watching a video replay. Many of these programs are available to watch on our YouTube and CrowdCast channels: Programs, Innovation and Culture, including a special Storytime with Mayor John Tory! We will be continuing to offer online programming throughout 2020.

Answerline Service Busier than Ever

Throughout the stages of our reopening, our Answerline service has been working harder than ever. Due to the high volume of calls and emails, an additional 20 staff members are assisting Answerline staff. Between mid-May and the end of August, the team answered over 23,700 emails and 20,450 phone calls, as well as countless questions and direct messages on our social media channels. Many of these questions related to our reopening plans in general. Many more related to individual customer concerns, situations or reference and research needs.

Auditor General’s Risk Assessment

In 2015, the TPL Board accepted the City Auditor General’s offer to perform a risk assessment for TPL. The Auditor General began this work in August 2020 and expects to report to the Board at its October 2020 meeting with a preliminary risk assessment and proposed audit plan.


Edited September 15: Corrected inaccurate date information about the food bank partnership.