Sunlight and snow accentuate the architecture of the Jane/Dundas Toronto Public Library, one of the ninety-eight branches that Catherine Raine has visited and blogged about. Photo by Stewart Russell.
You could fill a book with what most of us don’t know about the Toronto Public Library, but Catherine Raine is one Torontonian who wouldn’t need it. Raine has become a bit of an expert on the subject through her self-defined “library quest”: a mission to visit every single one of the system’s ninety-nine branches. She has documented her progress and each of her library visits on her blog, and we decided to learn more about her bibliophilic adventures.
Making it to this many locations would be an ambitious goal for a native Torontonian and it is even more so for Raine, who immigrated to Toronto from Scotland with her husband in 2002 and embarked on this project only two years ago. Originally from the U.S., Raine and her partner arrived in Toronto with few connections and no secure employment. She currently works part-time as an ESL teacher and stumbled upon the idea for the project while at a branch with some of her students, whom she had taken to sign up for library cards. “I saw a map with all of the ninety-nine branches, and I thought, this would be kind of a nerdy challenge,” she says.
Travelling to the far-flung branches allowed Raine to get to know Toronto better. “Because I wasn’t from Toronto, I wanted to venture out of my enclave. Sometimes you hear Toronto people say things like, ‘Oh I never go east of there,’ but I wanted to see all the parts of the city,” Raine says. “[Through the libraries], I found a point of community and contact for myself. Going to the library is an important part of becoming a citizen of Toronto, of Canada.”
Raine began by visiting the libraries in closest proximity to her job and her home. “The first one was the Deer Park branch at St. Claire and Yonge, and then I did the ones that I lived and worked near—so it was mostly in the Don Valley area and Scarborough.”
Raine admits that she was initially apprehensive about the expansive nature of her goal. “It’s overwhelming; when you think that there are actually ninety-nine branches, it’s like, whoa. And when my husband suggested I should write a blog about the project, I said, ‘Who would want to read that?’” But as Raine continued to write about her excursions readers flocked to her blog, and she was the subject of a feature on libraries in the Toronto Star not too long ago.
While Raine has covered up to five libraries in one day when necessary, she still enjoys researching and discovering each location. “Each branch has its own distinctive personality and history,” she maintains. Her personal favourite is the Humberwood branch in northwestern Toronto, where she was charmed by the natural surroundings. “It’s in the suburbs but it feels rural,” she says. “There are these beautiful tall grasses and a wooden footbridge. It’s not big and grand but it is very homey.”
Tall, wild grasses surround Humberwood, Raine’s favourite branch. Photo by Stewart Russell.
When pressed, Raine admits that there are a few locations that could use a little work. She mentions that both the Brookbanks and Palmerston branches are pretty battered, with people actually reading on the ground for lack of adequate seating. (She was glad to learn that the Palmerston branch just started to undergo renovations.) The money the City puts towards funding libraries is both essential and well spent, she argues; after her local branch, Kennedy/Eglinton, completed renovations, it became busier and more vibrant.
In the age of e-books and Kindle, Raine maintains that libraries have achieved relevance beyond simply housing books. “I think libraries have become more viable by not just being silent mausoleums where you sit and read,” she says. “I don’t think anything can replace the unique aspect of home that a library has; whatever you are doing, even if you aren’t talking, you are still a part of something when you are there.”
Raine also acknowledges that the people who could most benefit from a library system, such as students or those with lower incomes, often don’t know much about it. “I ask my [ESL] students if they have library cards, and many of them say no,” she says. “While it’s not hard to get, many people don’t really know about it…the library system could maybe benefit from more education [about it], more outreach.”
At this point, Raine is as knowledgeable about the Toronto Public Library system as you can get: she has currently managed to visit ninety-eight branches. The project remains just shy of completion due to renovations at the final location, Thorncliffe, but she has word from the staff that she will be allowed in sometime this spring. “It’s been kind of a library overload, but when I get to a new branch, I get excited,” she laughs. “It’s like an adventure!”
Thanks to Joe Clark for the tip.