City Librarian's Report for January 2021

January 15, 2021 | Vickery Bowles

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Below is my report for the January 2021 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.

Opening up our public space

An Online Afternoon Performance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

TSO musicians

TPL was pleased to offer an exclusive online afternoon performance by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) on December 17. The string quintet – Emmanuelle Beaulieu Bergeron, Victor Li, Rémi Pelletier, Theresa Rudolph and Eri Kosaka – performed live from the Heliconian Club in Toronto. The performance featured works by Mozart and Brahms, along with a sprinkling of holiday favourites. It was a great opportunity to come together and appreciate the arts during this challenging time. 261 TPL customers attended and also learned about our new Digital Access card, online programs and wonderful digital resources for the arts, such as Medici TV.

Young Voices Magazine 2020 Launch

Young Voices Magazine Cover
Young Voices Magazine Cover.

This past fall, we held our annual Young Voices Magazine Launch online on the evening of Thursday, November 26, 2020. More than 75 teens, friends and family members joined the event. Attendees enjoyed a video of the Editorial Youth Advisory Group reading their favourite lines from the magazine. Teen contributors also shared video readings and talks about their work. The digital version of the magazine is available on our Young Voices webpage in PDF. Print copies of Young Voices Magazines will be available in our branches when they reopen. New this year, alternative text has been added in the digital version for all of the images. This will allow customers who use screen readers to enjoy and navigate both the text and images of the magazine.

Youth Hub Expansion

Youth Hub at Cedarbrae Branch
Youth Hub at Cedarbrae Branch.

This fall, thanks to enhanced funding from the City of Toronto via the Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy, TPL launched 10 new Youth Hubs. This brings the total number of TPL Youth Hub locations across the city to 23. Youth Hubs support the eight service areas of the library’s Youth Strategy (PDF). They are welcoming drop-in spaces for teens after school and in the summer where helpful staff are always available. Youth Hub service allows librarians to get to know teens, support their needs and interests, and offer responsive activities and programs. Librarians can also connect teens with other relevant library and community services. This includes digital equipment and training, community events and services, and volunteer and employment opportunities. During the pandemic, service has been modified with enhanced safety protocols and reduced capacity to ensure physical distancing. But the same focus on dedicated space, staff and support remains.

As of November 23, Youth Hub service is suspended at all branches in accordance with provincial Grey-Lockdown period requirements.

Broadening Toronto's digital access and inclusion

Introducing our new Digital Access Card

Toronto residents who live in Toronto and are over the age of 13 can now register online for a Digital Access Card (DAC). This  convenient online membership option provides immediate access to the Library’s digital resources and services, including:

  • ebooks
  • eaudiobooks
  • emagazines and newspapers
  • streaming movies and music
  • databases and more.

Customers interested in borrowing physical materials can change to a full-service library card at a library branch. Changing requires identification, and is not available during the expanded Grey-Lockdown period. More than 9,000 customers have registered for a Digital Access Card since its launch on November 12.

Toronto Readers Borrowed Over 8.5 Million Ebooks in 2020

We’ve broken our record...again! In 2020, TPL customers borrowed more than 8.5 million items through OverDrive. Overdrive is our main ebook provider. We set a record in 2019 of 6.6 million downloads. We saw a significant spike in ebook borrowing starting in March 2020. This was when we closed our branches to support efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Each year for the past eight years, Toronto Public Library has lent more ebooks than any other library system in the world. In 2019, Los Angeles and Wisconsin came second and third, respectively. 

Innovation Program Highlights

Innovation Symposium
Library Leaders panelists. Top: Marie Ostergaard, Director of Aarhus Public Libraries; Anthony Marx, President, New York Public Library; Ng Cher Pong, CEO, National Library Board, Singapore. Bottom: Mary Ellen Messner, Acting Commissioner, Chicago Public Library; Vickery Bowles, City Librarian, Toronto Public Library, moderator.

This past November, TPL's Innovation Council presented two online programs: Designing for Equity, and Women in AI. These events explored the themes of equity, inclusion and social justice through the lens of technology, innovation and design. 44 participants attended the two events.

On December 2, TPL hosted our first Innovation Symposium event. This virtual event was focused on library resiliency and innovation in the context of the pandemic and brought together library staff from around the world. This inspiring morning consisted of a discussion with library leaders from across three continents, lightning talk presentations and a keynote address by George Aye of the Greater Good Studio in Chicago. There were 268 people in attendance and TPL plans to make this an annual event. One of the highlights was a lightning talk presentation from Kelly Passek, a Librarian at Blacksburg Middle School in Montgomery County, Virginia who piloted using drones to deliver library books during the Pandemic.

Also in December, Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law, presented an informative program on the COVID-19 Alert App. The replay is available to watch online. This program was moderated by Adrian Harewood, CBC news co-host and host of the weekend current affairs show Our Ottawa. Geist and Harewood discussed the function of the app, but also how it can safeguard our privacy and security. 34 customers attended the event live.

Hour of Code week took place the week of December 7. This world-wide event is dedicated to building coding skills for all ages. TPL participated in Hour of Code week by holding six online programs for customers. Topics included scratch coding, web design and Python and the six programs had a total of 147 attendees.

TPL Donates 2000 Books to Toronto Homeless Shelters

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, TPL has been providing support in multiple ways to those living in our city’s homeless shelters. One of the ways is book donations of withdrawn library materials. These donations provide reading materials to people who may not have access to a library or cannot easily leave the shelter. To date, TPL has donated approximately 2000 books to 23 shelters across the city. Feedback from shelter residents has been overwhelmingly positive, and we hope to continue providing book donations to more shelter sites in the future.

Online Highlights from our Special Collections

Illustration of rocket ship and text Spaced Out with smaller text 50 years of the Merril Collection

The year 2020 marked 50 years of our Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy. The Merril Collection is one of the world's top research collections of its kind. As part of our virtual "Spaced Out" celebration, we published new online content throughout November and December:

Plus, the Merril Collection's webpage was revamped — it now offers a brand-new timeline of the collection's history as well as research tools that were previously only available in person.

Additionally, TPL’s Arthur Conan Doyle Collection recently published its latest virtual escape room: Arthur Conan Doyle & The Spirit: A Mystery. The theme of the escape room is spiritualism, a movement Doyle was very involved in throughout his life. So far the feedback for the virtual games has been very positive with constant requests for more.

For the holidays, and to help Torontonians avoid a non-essential trip for wrapping paper, our Special Collections staff unveiled printable wrapping paper designs. The festive designs feature public domain images from some of TPL's most prestigious holdings as well as bits of local history. This includes John James Audubon's Birds of America and Eaton's catalogues! So far, the post has attracted over 10,000 views and was covered by blogTO. We were even lucky enough to have a customer share with us a photo of their finished wrapping project!

Raising Confident Kids parent workshops go virtual

Raising Kids Who Arent Scared of Math Seminar Screenshot
Raising Kids Who Aren’t Scared of Math seminar, with Vanessa Vakharia (presenter, left) and Suzanne Fernando (TPL staff, right).

In 2018, Toronto Public Library launched the Raising Confident Kids series of workshops for parents and caregivers. This year, we were able to offer the workshops virtually in October and November. Workshops covered:

  1. Financial Literacy for Families
  2. Raising Kids Who Aren’t Scared of Math
  3. Early Literacy for New Parents
  4. Helping Kids Thrive Online
  5. Emotional Intelligence and Raising a Resilient Child

Industry experts and library staff presented evening workshops for parents and caregivers to attend virtually. 243 customers attended the workshops. These workshops were generously supported by the Estate of Barbara Kathleen Bird.


Building pathways for workforce development

Leading to Reading Service is Back!

Leading to Reading volunteer and student at Thorncliffe
Leading to Reading volunteer and student at Thorncliffe Branch.

Leading to Reading sessions were cancelled in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. TPL staff knew this would have a considerable impact on children who relied on this service to help them overcome their reading challenges. After months of preparation, in-person sessions gradually resumed. These sessions ran from the week of October 26 to mid-December at 12 locations with 62 volunteers and 62 students. In-person sessions looked very different. Volunteers and students wore masks, practiced physical distancing, and were separated by acrylic shields. Instead of sitting side by side, students and volunteers used iPads to read digital books together, and physical books were quarantined after use. In-person sessions are not available during the expanded Grey-Lockdown period, but will resume once it is safe to do so.

Virtual Leading to Reading sessions are being piloted. Currently, 27 children are participating and the pilot is continuing during the expanded Grey-Lockdown period. One thing certainly hasn’t changed – after over 40 years of delivering reading support to children, Leading to Reading continues to evolve to help children build their reading skills and confidence.


Providing the vital ingredients for a democratic society

Our Fragile Planet 2020 Fall Highlights

Accessible Birding speakers
Jerry Freya Andres (top left) and Virginia (top right) discuss how to making birding more accessible for people with disabilities with Andrés Jiménez Monge (bottom left).

This year, more than 1,000 customers participated live in Our Fragile Planet programs, our environmental literacy series. While most attendees were from Toronto, people across Canada, the US, and around the world tuned in to this series. Our Fragile Planet has been supported by TD Friends of the Environment (TD FEF) since 2014.

As part of the series, our latest Enrivonmentalist in Residence, Andrés Jiménez Monge, connected online with more than 450 people during the 10-week residency from August 31 to November 6. Andrés presented programs on different topics such as Birding By Ear, a program tailored for people with sight loss. He also hosted a variety of special guests including Joseph Pitawanakwat, a holistic health and plant educator and member of the Wikiwemikong First Nation. Pitawanakwat and Andrés discussed decolonizing bird names. 193 customers attended this program live and the replay is available online.


Investing in staff and an innovative service culture

2020 United Way Employee Campaign

Recently, the Toronto Office of Partnerships, United Way Office announced that TPL has been selected as a recipient of the 2020 United Way Employee Campaign of the Year for City agencies and corporations. TPL was selected thanks to the contributions and support from our staff for the United Way Greater Toronto. The commitment from our staff to helping our communities through these tough times is truly remarkable.

Staff Recognition 2020

In 2020, 112 Toronto Public Library staff reached a milestone of 25, 30, 35, 40 or an amazing 45 years of service. All together, these staff represent more than 3500 years of dedication to TPL. Traditionally, a luncheon is held to celebrate their achievements. As that was not possible this year, staff were recognized with a letter of thanks, certificate of recognition and restaurant gift card. I also reached out to them in a short thank you video that included a humorous look back at the years they began working at the library.


Edited January 18, 11:30am. A previous version of this report incorrectly identified Vanessa Vakharia as Maya Corbic.