Douglas Coupland could have taken better stock of his surroundings before he spoke. The writer of Generation X and jPod was on stage in the Toronto Reference Library’s new event space, the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon, for the space’s inaugural event on September 23, the first of three planned installments of The Writer’s Room, a series of author interviews hosted by the Globe’s Ian Brown. The event was styled as a gala opening for the Salon, complete with a cash bar. The public had turned out in droves, drawn by Coupland’s celebrity, and also by free admission. But there were career librarians in the room as well, basking in the Reference Library’s beautiful new gathering space. And Coupland had to go and poke their collective sore spot.
“I used to live in reference libraries,” he said, but added that now he prefers staying at home and doing his research online. He said he’d recently asked a reference librarian what she’d been doing with herself lately. She’d said…”editing Wikipedia.”
Reference librarians are trained research specialists. For obvious reasons, mostly to do with the piece of equipment you’re reading this post on, lately they’ve been finding themselves with less and less to do. Even Toronto Public Library, one of the busiest public library systems in the world, has seen its annual tally of information requests drop, since 2000, by almost 2 million—though the system still handles slightly more than 6.5 million queries per year, according to 2008’s annual report.
What Coupland touched upon in his anecdote is a major source of uncertainty in librarianship today. The question is a big one:
What becomes of public reference libraries when research from home is so convenient, and so easy?
The Salon’s main dais.
Jane Pyper, Toronto’s city librarian, gave an analysis of this dilemma during an interview, last week, in her office on the ground floor of the Toronto Reference Library. When we spoke, it was still half an hour before opening time. The main reading area, ordinarily packed with people and laptops, was eerily empty.
“There are two parallel things happening,” she said. “In part, there’s this tremendous digitization of information, and this disembodiment from its original containers…But at the same time there’s this counterintuitive thing, which is that people need to be together to learn.”
This is precisely why the newly completed Appel Salon has the potential to be a great thing for the Toronto Reference Library, going forward. It capitalizes on a resource physical libraries have in abundance, that virtual ones will never quite be able to replicate: togetherness.
The Salon, located on the second floor of the Reference Library, could become a major cultural gathering point in the downtown core.
The space is large—16,800 square feet—and lined with windows, to admit natural light. The walls are clad in rich, finished slats of tan wood, inset with high-definition screens. The impression the room gives is more reminiscent of a wealthy interior designer’s sitting room than of a meeting hall in a library. And that, according to Pyper, is more or less what TPL and Moriyama & Teshima Architects, the space’s designers, were going for.
“We have a pretty strong philosophy here of respecting libraries as important public space,” she said, “so whenever we have the opportunity to do a renovation, we really look at it. Yes, we have to address our functional and service issues, and that includes bringing [a library] up to twenty-first-century library service standards and incorporating technology, but we also look at it as a cultural space, and a place for people to be together to have discourse.” She pointed to the recently completed renovation of the Bloor/Gladstone branch as another example of this design philosophy in practice.
The Salon is only one of several planned renovations at the Toronto Reference Library, all of which will be financed in part by “re:vitalize,” the Toronto Public Library Foundation’s ten-million-dollar public fundraising campaign. This ten million dollars will supplement the twenty-four million dollars TPL has already received from the province and the city. The Salon itself was financed by a three million dollar gift from the Bluma Appel Community Trust, hence the name.
Upcoming renovations will include a new, more inviting entranceway for the library, new group study spaces, a new cafe, and a display rotunda for the library’s considerable special collections. The hope is that all this will result in a flagship branch that is more conducive to gathering and lingering.
“People come to this branch, in particular, for the whole day. For the duration,” said Pyper. “And we want this space to be somewhere where they can relax.”
For the time being, however, the Salon is the big new thing. Already, it has a full slate of cultural programs scheduled, the next of which will be a panel on the topic of “what it takes to create a workable city,” hosted by Toronto Star urban affairs columnist Royson James. The panel will be held tomorrow, October 6, at 7 p.m.
This event and all those in the future will, of course, be free and open to all. Because that’s what public libraries are: free and open, no matter how beautiful they become.
Photos by Andrew Louis/Torontoist.