Judging a Branch by Its Cover
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Judging a Branch by Its Cover

Toronto Reference Library. Architectural rendering by Moriyama & Teshima Architects Inc.

For too long, the aging 1950s-style architecture of many Toronto libraries has stood in stark contrast to the fantastic materials and services available within. But, finally, with the TPL’s Renovation and Revitalization program, new and sleek designs are ending the disparity. Since amalgamation, the library has renovated sixteen branches, reconstructed eleven branches, and built two new branches. So far, the redesigns and relocations have been a success. When Jane and Sheppard opened earlier this month, the new building was met with immediate praise. Previously, the Jane and Sheppard Branch had been a small ugly little thing tucked away inside the Jane and Sheppard Mall, but now the library shines like a glass beacon of literary enlightenment. “Jane and Sheppard has a good feeling now; very light and open,” explained Anne Bailey, director of Branch Libraries, when we talked to her about the renovation project.


Bloor and Gladstone Branch. Architectural rendering by Rounthwaite, Dick, and Hadley Architects Inc.; photo by Stephen Michalowicz/Torontoist.

Almost all of the newly designed libraries feature glass facades that emphasize community and openness. The Bloor and Gladstone Branch, which is set to re-open in June 2009, is an excellent example of the new design philosophy. Instead of trying to replicate and expand upon the old architectural style, the library and the architectural firm, Rounthwaite, Dick and Hadley Architects Inc., opted for a ROM-like approach. “The building is such a classy, beautiful building,” reasoned Bailey. “We wanted to see its four corners, and the best way to do that was to let the old building stand, proud as it is.” We went down to the construction site to see how the renovation was progressing, but it looks like the $6.39 million project still needs a lot of work if it’s going to be ready for the grand re-opening.
A similar approach has been taken with the Toronto Reference Library. The $33 million project, which the library hopes to complete by 2016, will significantly alter the exterior of the building. Instead of expanding upon the branch’s old brick design, Ajon Moriyama, the lead architect and the son of Raymond Moriyama, the building’s original architect, has opted to use glass to open the structure up. When complete, the TRL’s defining feature will be a large glass cube that will sit atop the library’s entrance. So far, several improvements to the interior have been made, and in the fall of 2009, the library plans to open a new second-floor event space with an adjoining outdoor patio.

Brentwood Branch. Photo by Stephen Michalowicz/Torontoist.

Aesthetics aren’t the only thing the TPL is working to improve. Each branch is also receiving new material and amenities. For instance, the renovations to Etobicoke’s Brentwood Branch, which will start in October, will add an extra four thousand feet of floor space. The branch will also receive a new computer lab, teen zone, express check-in and check-out service, meeting room with kitchen facilities, and handicap-accessible elevator. Almost all of the slated renovations and relocations are receiving similar upgrades. The redesigned branches are also environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, the library has been unable to obtain LEED environmental certification, due to the extraordinary cost of compliance with the stringent accreditation system. But according to Bailey, the library has worked to ensure that all of the buildings are “LEED like.”
Throughout the process, the library has been highly responsive to the needs of the community. The plans for each branch have been made open to the public, and members of the community have been invited to public forums and encouraged to communicate their ideas and suggestions. According to Bailey, one of the largest challenges of the design process has been meeting the public’s high demand for study spaces and meeting rooms.
The TPL is also providing support for areas where branches are currently under renovation through extended hours at nearby branches and its bookmobile service. Thorncliffe, Cedarbrea, and Kennedy and Eglinton branches, all of which are currently closed for renovations, are serviced by the library’s two bookmobiles. While the bookmobile might sound like a sorry replacement for an actual building, it’s actually very impressive. The library’s two vehicles share a rotating twenty thousand–item collection, from which each bookmobile draws three thousand items at a time. Anything a patron can do at a regular library, they can do from a bookmobile. Patrons can place holds, pick up materials, and make renewals. The bookmobiles are also equipped with a series of laptops that can be used to browse the library catalogue and access library resources, though they don’t have public internet access just yet. The bookmobiles aren’t a substitute for a real branch, but as a stopgap, they’re quite effective.

Although the Jane and Sheppard Branch is now complete, the green space has yet to be installed. Architectural rendering by Cannon Design.

Toronto’s public libraries are needed now more than ever. In the last half of 2008, visits to TPL branches increased by 8%, use of materials increased by 12%, and use of library computers increased by 13%. The TPL is also widening their scope to include job-hunting advice, and with a collection of more than eleven million items, including books, CDs, and DVDs, cash-strapped individuals are likely to continue using the library as a free form of entertainment. “I think it’s meeting a need,” responded Bailey, when asked about increased library traffic. “When you see people using the space and enjoying the library, you know that you’ve struck a good chord with the community.”
All architectural renders courtesy of the Toronto Public Library. Thanks to Anne Bailey, Director Branch Libraries, Eda Conte-Pitcher, Manager of City Wide Services, Mobile Services, and Edward Karek, Communications Officer, for interviews and materials.