City Librarian's Report for March 2021

March 12, 2021 | Vickery Bowles

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Below is my report for the March 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

grab & go bags a Success

Grab and go window at College Shaw Branch
Grab & go window display at College/Shaw Branch.

Since February 1, TPL has been offering grab & go bags at most of our branches. These bags contain a selection of materials on different topics, curated by our staff. Grab & go bags allow customers to discover items in our collection that they may not have thought to borrow while browsing is unavailable. Hundreds of bags have been borrowed so far, and customers are thrilled. Here’s some of what we’ve heard:

“When I got home and checked out the mystery books I was absolutely thrilled as I had not read any of the books that were in the bag. Once I have finished this recent batch of books I will be back looking to see what surprises await me.”

“The grab & go bag of themed books has provided much needed excitement. It has introduced my children to books they would not have otherwise explored, during a time where browsing is simply not possible.”

We will continue to offer grab & go bags through contactless pick-up at our branches.

Broadening Toronto's digital access and inclusion

Seniors Check-in Calling Service Surpasses 15,000 Calls

Emoke, one of our librarians and check-in callers

For the past 7 months, a dedicated team of 20+ TPL staff has been calling our senior customers, who are often vulnerable due to isolation, to let them know we’re thinking about them. This month, the service reached a milestone – more than 15,000 seniors, aged 70 to 100, have received a friendly wellness call. Staff have found the experience to be extremely rewarding. They provide assistance with library resources, make referrals or just talk about anything and everything, including the weather.

Feedback from our customers has been overwhelmingly positive. Customers are pleasantly surprised to hear from us and express great appreciation for library services. One customer captured the sentiments of many when she said, “I’m happy to hear from the library and appreciate the call. I’m very touched that you took the time to check in and offer assistance."

Just as TPL was inspired by the work of other libraries, we are now sharing our experiences with libraries across North America, as well as with educational institutions that are interested in how libraries engage with older adults. This includes an upcoming presentation to the University of Illinois iSchool and a collaboration with McMaster University’s Department of Health, Aging and Society.

This heartwarming story has also captured positive media attention from the Toronto Star and CTV News.

Digital Innovation Online Programs Showcased at OLA Super Conference

In February, members of the Digital Innovation Hub and Pop-Up Learning Lab teams presented at the Ontario Library Association (OLA) Super Conference. With over 300 registrants for the Learn and Make Online: Digital Innovation Virtual Programs During Physical Distancing session, team members shared their experience and lessons learned with piloting online programs during the pandemic. From April to December 2020, TPL staff delivered nearly 120 programs to over 1,700 learners on a broad range of topics that included web and 3D design, coding, photo and video editing, podcasting, digital photography, and more, attracting a loyal following of participants from around the world. Information about upcoming programs can be found on the TPL Live and Online Programs page.

Donor-supported TPL Internet Connectivity Kit program featured in Toronto Life

Thanks to the generosity of donors, TPL’s Internet Connectivity Kit program, launched in May 2020, continues to help bridge the digital divide in our city. The program provides some of our city’s most vulnerable residents with a free laptop, Wi-Fi hotspot and data plan. Thus far, community agencies have referred more than 420 families/individuals who have each been provided a kit to help them stay connected and engaged during the pandemic. An additional 247 kits will be ready for distribution through March.

The response from participants, including Roseline and her daughter Stella, has been overwhelmingly positive. 

Thank you message from receipient of Internet Connectivity Kit

Toronto Public Library and the TPL Foundation’s efforts were recently recognized in Toronto Life’s March 2021 cover story entitled: The Miserable Truth About Online School. This is a powerful account about the challenges many students face while learning from home during the Covid-19 pandemic. We are grateful for support from the City of Toronto’s  COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund and Community Funding Unit resources. Those interested in supporting the ongoing need for Internet Connectivity Kits can learn more by contacting  the Toronto Public Library Foundation.

Building pathways for workforce development

Career Coaches in Residence (CCIR) Host Successful Reddit "Ask Me Anything"

Career Coaches in Residence
Career Coaches in Residence: Cindy Fruitman, Jennifer Gaudette, Ken Lee and Tharsheka Natkunam.

Our Career Coaches in Residence program is a wonderful initiative that connects our younger adult customers to the career and job help resources and information they need to build their careers. On Feb 23, our Career Coaches, along with TPL staff, hosted an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit . The session took place on the Toronto area section of the site, which has more than 318,000 members. Career Coaches and staff answered live customer questions and tackled topics such as best practices during the job application process, burnout and mental health, finding career fit and how to handle career transitions, as well as navigating challenging and uncomfortable employment situations. The response from Redditors has been overwhelmingly positive. The team referred library career and job help resources, including our Career Coaches in Residence program, which saw almost triple the number of new appointments.

Providing the vital ingredients for a democratic society

TPL Goes Fine-Free for Kids


Sue Graham-Nutter, TPL Board Chair, and Councillor Paul Ainslie, TPL Board member,  joined Mayor John Tory and Sarah Fulford, Toronto Public Library Foundation Board Chair, on March 2 for a virtual press conference to announce that TPL is going fine-free for kids . Media covered the announcement widely, with articles published in several outlets including Toronto Star, CP24 and BlogTO. With this announcement, TPL joins hundreds of library systems across North America in the growing movement to eliminate overdue fines. We look forward to welcoming more kids to the library, particularly when branches fully reopen. The Toronto Public Library Foundation raised funds from generous donors who helped make the elimination of children’s fines possible, including the Friends of Toronto Public Library, South Chapter, and the Haynes-Connell Foundation.

Investing in staff and an innovative service culture

Super Conference 2021

OLA Super Conference

The annual OLA Super Conference was held virtually on February 3-6 and provided 250 registered TPL staff with access to engaging and interactive sessions such as Difficult Conversations That Can Heal the Human Heart. There were live opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue with colleagues, and a virtual Expo of products and demonstrations from library vendors. This year, sixteen TPL staff also delivered conference sessions on an array of topics, including Lean on Me: Networking and Mentorship amongst Culturally Diverse Library Professionals; Starting a New Service During an Emergency: Live & Online Programming; and Don’t Stop Receivin’: How We Kept Collection Development, Acquisitions & Cataloguing Going During COVID-19.

TPL negotiated a registration package with OLA that includes on-demand access to the conference recordings and materials for a six-month period, allowing staff across the organization access to the sessions most relevant to TPL’s evolving services, or those most recommended by colleagues who participated in the live conference.