City Librarian's Report for March 2023

March 16, 2023 | Vickery Bowles

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Below is my report for the March 2023 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

Black History Month at the Library

Rita Cox collage
Collage of Dr. Rita Cox created by Maria A. Shchuka branch staff. Images of book covers were used to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection

TPL presented 45 fantastic programs to honour Black History Month. Some highlights included interactive drumming circles led by Dr. Isaac Akrong, where participants learned about the history, traditions and culture of West African drums, as well as author talks, performances and discussions on mental health grounded in diverse African Diaspora cultures.

Staff created 2023 Black History reading lists for adults, teens and children, as well as French reading lists for adults and youth, to help the public find their next great read!

Our Black History series continues year round with programs, reading lists and podcast episodes that shine a spotlight on Black heritage and culture.

Pleasant View Branch Capital Project Designs Shared at Community Open House

PV Community Open House Group Photo w Councillor and Staff
Library staff, the project architects and Councillor Shelley Carrol display plans for the new Pleasant View branch

On February 23, Pleasant View branch hosted a Community Open House showcasing the latest design for the branch capital project which includes:

  • an expansion from 7,000 to 10,000 sq. ft
  • an improved program room
  • quiet study rooms
  • accessibility enhancements such as the addition of a universal washroom

Councillor Shelley Carroll offered remarks about the beautiful design of the new space, as well as how funding was secured. Representatives from Architectural Firm Lebel and Bouliane attended and provided an important perspective on the technical elements of the design. Overall, the event was a success with nearly 30 people in attendance (despite the ice storm) and positive feedback about the design. Next steps on this project are to finalize the design and begin seeking City approvals. Updates and timelines will be shared on the renovation page on the TPL website

Design-a-Bookmark Contest 2023 Winners

Group of children and staff standing on stage in front of a sign with text "congratulations and welcome to the 2023 Design-A-Bookmark Contest winners!
Design-a-Bookmark Contest 2023 winners with Jonathan Hoss (TPL Board Vice-Chair), Soyeon Kim (Judge and Toronto-based Illustrator) and staff.
Five booksmarks
Five of the 16 winning 2023 bookmarks

This year's contest was a terrific success with 5,223 entries submitted across the city from children in three age categories: birth-6, 7-9, and 10-13 years. Four winners won the Elizabeth Cleaver Design Award for outstanding artistic merit and twelve Grand Award winners were chosen for theme, originality and design.

An Awards Ceremony was held on February 25 at North York Central Library where the top winners were acknowledged and celebrated. Special guests included Toronto Public Library Board member Jonathan Hoss and contest judge and artist Soyeon Kim, who presented a wonderful workshop on paper collage.

These 16 winning designs can be viewed online on tpl:kids website. Printed bookmarks are available for pick up in branches.

Building pathways for workforce development

TPL’s Let’s Learn Tech Receives Cisco’s 2023 Above and Beyond Award

Cisco Systems has recognized TPL’s Let’s Learn Tech with its 2023 Above and Beyond Award. This award celebrates the positive impact instructors have within the Networking Academy community in the areas of innovation and leadership.

TPL became a Cisco Networking Academy in 2017, and since 2018, we helped Torontonians build ladders to quality employment in the IT industry. Let's Lean Tech offers eLearning courses such as IT Essentials and Python Essentials to youth, newcomers and adult underemployed/unemployed learners. Collaborations with community partners like Toronto Employment & Social Services (TESS) and WoodGreen help recruit learners from equity-deserving groups who face barriers to entering the IT field.

The Let’s Learn Tech team leads through their dedication, excellence and innovation in providing Torontonians with the skills and knowledge they need to pursue their career goals. In addition, TPL has been invited to present on Let’s Learn Tech at Cisco’s 25th Anniversary Event this June in San Jose, California.

Broadening Toronto's digital access and inclusion

An update on TPL’s biggest device rollout yet! 

New public computers at Toronto Reference Library
New public computers at Toronto Reference Library

Last year, TPL launched the Public Computing Realignment and Replacement project as part of our Digital Strategy to provide customers with a consistent and standardized technology experience in our branches. The project is an important initiative of our strategic commitment to provide customers access to modernized technology, which meets their evolving needs.

We completed rolling out new Windows desktop computers, expanding access to better software and assistive technology for public use. We also provided all branches within the expansion program with Neighbourhood Tech Kits, a set of equipment to enhance staff-led digital literacy classes. Apple devices for services such as Adult Literacy, Digital Innovation Hubs, Pop-up Learning Labs and Youth Hubs will roll out this spring. The Play and Learn STEM kits expansion will continue into early summer. At the end of the project, branches will house 4,000 new devices, representing the largest device rollout in TPL’s history.

The impact has been seen and felt by our customers and branch staff. Here is what we’ve heard:

  • "Faster and opens files without complications" –​ customer
  • "Customers love the bigger screens, calling them ‘bright’ and love the video editing software” – branch staff
  • “I’ve had a few seniors say they liked the enlarged keyboard keys and trackballs.” – branch staff

Providing the vital ingredients for a democratic society

Storybook Parents: Incarceration, family connection, and the power of reading

Inscription from Storybook parents program
The Storybook Parents program helps incarcerated parents to be reading models for their children, promoting reading and strengthening their connection while the parent is incarcerated.

TPL’s Storybook Parents Program connects incarcerated adults to the little ones in their life through reading. With the help of a librarian, participants are recorded reading an age-appropriate book out loud; the book and recording are then mailed to the child to listen and read along.

Storybook Parents resumed programming at the Toronto South Detention Centre in May 2022 and the Toronto East Detention Centre in September 2022. During these eight months, we recorded 49 participants, reaching 73 children with 77 recordings. The program supports family literacy and connection during a period of separation, benefitting both incarcerated individuals and their families.

One family said: “The children lost their mother one month after their grandfather was sent to jail; so they were quite grief-stricken to ‘lose’ two family members so close in time. The sound of grandpa's voice delighted them and they trust he still loves them even though they can't see him.”

Personal Care Bank Pilot

Cabinet outside the branch with painted art of hands holding different personal care products and text that reads: “leave what you can take what you need” and “TPCB."
Cabinet outside Sanderson branch

TPL is committed to supporting vulnerable populations by breaking down barriers and increasing inclusion for Torontonians. As part of this work, last November, we launched a new one-year pilot in partnership with The Personal Care Bank. The program provides complimentary, barrier-free access to personal care products (shampoo, deodorant, toothbrushes and more), 24 hours a day and year-round through outdoor cabinets at three of our branches: Cedarbrae, Downsview and Sanderson.

The Personal Care Bank and their network of local volunteers manage and stock the cabinets with free personal care products. Those interested to volunteer and/or donate are encouraged to contact The Personal Care Bank directly.

Charlene Lee, Branch Head at Sanderson branch, was so excited to have their ‘beautiful’ cabinet in place and reported that within 24 hours of installation, it was already being stocked by community volunteers and used by community members in need.

Local artists beautifully decorated each cabinet to be a vibrant, yet functional, art piece outside our branches! See the other two cabinets by visiting

Intellectual Freedom and our new book sanctuary

Book Sanctuary collection at TRL
The Book Sanctuary Collection at the Toronto Reference Library highlights 50 books that have been challenged, censored or removed from a public library or school in North America.

During Freedom to Read Week (February 19-25, 2023), TPL highlighted the increase of intellectual freedom challenges across North America and reaffirmed the important role public libraries play in protecting this freedom. TPL joined the Book Sanctuary movement, started by Chicago Public Library, recommitting the library to protect and defend Torontonians’ rights to freely access a broad range of diverse materials – including those that have been challenged or banned – online and at its 100 branches across the city. A physical book sanctuary display is now on the fourth floor of Toronto Reference Library.

We’re also launching a new programming stream to explore and discuss intellectual freedom challenges, topics and ideas as part of our On Civil Society series. This new series is generously supported by the Toronto Public Library Foundation.

To kick off the series, Lisa Radha Vohra, our Director of Collections and Membership Services, and Richard Ovenden, Director of the Bodleian Libraries and Head of Gardens Libraries and Museums at the University of Oxford, streamed a lively hour about the importance of intellectual freedom. More than 200 people tuned in – including staff from public libraries in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Hamilton and Victoria. Ovenden was also a guest at the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library for an in-person discussion hosted by Nahlah Ayed from CBC Ideas.

Our public announcement about joining the Book Sanctuary movement and the new programming stream got a lot of great response and widespread media attention including CTV, CP24, City News, Global News, National Post, Toronto Sun and the Toronto Star.

You can learn more about intellectual freedom, challenges, the Book Sanctuary collection and all of our initiatives at

Investing in staff and an innovative service culture

Third annual Innovation Symposium

Innovation Symposium
Staff from our Service Development & Innovation division joined Gene Tan ( Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Librarian, National Library Board, Singapore), Marcellus Turner (Chief Executive Officer and Chief Librarian, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library) and Liz White (Head of Public Libraries & Community Engagement, British Library) for an interesting discussion as part of Innovation Symposium.

On February 14, TPL hosted its third annual Innovation Symposium. This virtual event celebrated library success stories and learnings from the past year and looked ahead to the coming year. Nearly 120 library peers from around the world attended, including from Singapore, the United Kingdom and across North America. This was a wonderful opportunity for our staff to learn more about innovative public library initiatives along with a chance to celebrate success stories and learnings and connect with library peers from across the globe.

Pam Ryan, TPL’s Director of Service Development and Innovation moderated a panel discussion with library leaders from across three continents. During lightning round talks, Brooklyn Public Library highlighted its award-winning Books Unbanned initiative. Brian Bannon, Director of Branch Libraries & Education at New York Public Library delivered the keynote address on the Branches to Recovery project.

Participant feedback was positive and several attendees noted how interesting it was to see that despite geography, libraries around the world are all thinking about and addressing similar issues relating to equity and inclusion, pandemic recovery and intellectual freedom challenges.

Knight Foundation Library Leaders Conference

I attended the Knight Foundation Library Leaders Conference on February 20, speaking on a panel with other public library leaders about lessons learned from the pandemic.

Other conference sessions included speakers from across public and academic libraries and from funding foundations and organizations. Topics included: 

  • increased demand for digital content and the growing digital divide;
  • increased challenges to democratic values;
  • responding to social issues associated with increased poverty and homelessness and mental health challenges; and
  • funding challenges and opportunities.

I spoke about all the work we’re doing at TPL to promote equity and intellectual freedom, highlighting Canada’s Freedom to Read Week. It was so nice to return to having in-person conversations with our peers on important shared topics.