Unseen City: The Toronto Reference Library
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Unseen City: The Toronto Reference Library

Alone among the city’s large indoor hangouts, the Toronto Reference Library (TRL) has the distinction of being publicly-owned, and publicly-minded. In accordance with the building’s mandate, it has a friendly public face: a tremendous central atrium and soothing ground-floor fountains give its study areas a characteristically relaxed, uncluttered appearance, and a $34 million renovation, already in progress, promises to make things even more inviting. The TRL is an enormous free Wi-Fi hotspot, a popular event space, and the administrative hub of one of the world’s largest public library systems. Aside from all that, it’s also a repository for a massive collection of printed material. You wouldn’t know it, though, unless you’d paid a visit to the floors between the floors.
Though the TRL keeps some of its more-than-1,600,000 items on open shelves for the public to browse, about two-thirds of its holdings are in closed stacks. These stacks are located in locked areas on the southeast and northwest ends of the building, which visitors seldom see.
We meet Liya Shi and Dale Page at the TRL’s front security desk. Liya is an operations supervisor who has been with the Toronto Public Library for over twenty years. Dale is a librarian with almost twenty-five years at Toronto Public Library, though not all of those were spent at the Reference Library. We’re joined by Edward Karek, a Toronto Public Library public relations officer.
We’re led past the familiar rows of internet terminals on the ground floor, which people line up to use throughout the day, through a nondescript door with an electronic lock. Suddenly, we’re in a hallway that doesn’t look like it belongs in the same building as the TRL’s cushy, magenta-carpeted sitting area. The walls are plain white brick, and the lighting is harsh. We cram into a steel elevator and Karek jabs a button. And then, moments later, we enter the closed stacks.
The rooms in which the closed stacks are housed are cramped and have very low ceilings, for good reason. Starting on the second floor of the TRL, there are two floors of closed stacks for every single public floor: one level with the floor itself, and the other a “mezzanine level,” positioned between two floors. This arrangement makes it possible for the TRL, a five-storey building, to have nine storeys of closed stacks—and all without violating any laws of space-time.
“Do you know how many of our staff get lost?” asks Shi, rhetorically. New hires are under instructions to call for help over the phone if they lose themselves in any of the TRL’s interstices.
To save space, the shelves in the closed stacks have no room between them for a person to enter. They’re on tracks, and at the end of each shelf is a large wheel or handle, which workers use to temporarily slide the shelves apart. Since the shelves are loaded with hundreds of books each, they’re extremely heavy. Under questioning, Karek, the PR officer, assures us that it’s impossible for a person to be crushed to death while performing stacks retrieval.

The TRL, as seen from the west side of Yonge Street.

In the basement of the building, there are more closed stacks, dedicated mainly to periodicals, including the TRL’s collection of newspapers, dating back to the nineteenth century. The papers are stored in archival containers and stacked on metal shelves, like meat in a cooler. They’re behind a locked chain-link fence, and neither Karek, nor Shi, nor Page knows exactly who has the key. “I don’t think any of them have ever been retrieved,” says Karek. The papers have been viewable as microforms for decades, so there hasn’t historically been a reason to take them out of storage. Now, users can read them online.
The internet hasn’t had much of an effect on the popularity of the newspaper archives, but it has had consequences for the closed stacks as a whole. Patron requests for materials from the closed stacks have decreased over the years. Toronto Public Library communications staff say this is partly a result of non-internet-related factors like amalgamation (books became easier to find at branch libraries), and partly a result of the availability of online research tools. Pre-amalgamation numbers aren’t available, but, to the best of anyone’s recollection, the library likely handled several hundred requests per day during the heyday of print. Now, they handle about one-hundred. Shi says that ten years ago, there were six staff who dealt with closed stacks retrievals. Now, only one position remains.
The closed stacks are in no immediate danger, but the encroachment of constantly improving digital alternatives to print has many librarians contemplating the enormity of the vacuum their physical collections would leave behind, if one day users no longer valued books. “I think it’ll sort of turn around,” says Page. “Print will always be very important.”
“You can’t just cut off the connection with books,” says Shi.
Toronto Public Library does, in fact, still value its print materials—and, what’s more, some of them have intrinsic, monetary value. When these materials are damaged, either through mishandling or neglect, they eventually find their way to a room in the TRL, and into the hands of Johanna Wellheiser and her staff.
Wellheiser is a manager of the Preservation and Digitization Services Department, which occupies a suite of rooms behind a set of doors marked “Authorized Personnel Only” in the basement.
Preservation work happens in a room outfitted with a large worktable, a fume hood, and a heavy-duty microscope. When we arrive for our pre-arranged visit, Wellheiser and her staff have covered the worktable with examples of rare items, one of which is Les Hindous, a leather-bound volume from 1808 that is literally coffee-table-sized. It’s full of hand-painted illustrations depicting life in what the artist probably would have referred to as “The Indies.” It’s a treasure, but it’s in imperfect condition. The pages are mottled with the brown spots book aficionados call “foxing,” and the binding is covered in white smears, possibly the result of a homemade leather treatment, applied years ago by an amateur conservator. Erin Dawson, one of the TRL’s three professional conservators, has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to remove the smears with things like erasers, solvents, and even human saliva, which is apparently good for removing certain kinds of protein- and starch-based stains. (The TRL’s conservators use their own. They have Q-tips set aside for the purpose.)
Toronto Public Library collects materials in many different formats, so Wellheiser and her conservators treat not only books, but maps, prints, drawings, and other types of documents. Using tools like wheat paste and mulberry paper, their job is to fix damage while leaving as much of the original item intact as possible—all so that Toronto Public Library’s most valuable assets remain available for use. “Preservation and access,” says Wellheiser. “That’s what we’re all about.”

Old periodicals are stored in archival containers.

While the TRL’s conservators deal with the frailties of physical materials, other employees spend their days helping information transcend its printed forms. In the TRL’s basement digitization lab, technician Susan Schillbach fires up the APT-2400, which flies into action with robotic precision. “APT” stands for “Automatic Page Turner,” which is all the explanation the machine really requires. Two 16.8 megapixel cameras continually snap pictures of each side of the APT’s “V”-shaped book cradle, enabling it to digitize pages two at a time. It processes about three pages per second, and is currently being used to put a large chunk of Toronto Public Library’s Canadiana collection online. Some of the results are shared with Amazon.com, who print paper editions to order, for a fee.

The library has also been using its digitized materials to do some of its own web publishing. Photos from their archives are available on Flickr, and they’ve developed services like the Ontario Time Machine, which enables users to flip pages in digitized replicas of antique Ontario-related books.
It’s a different approach to preserving print materials. “We’re trying to be more proactive, in a timely way,” says Wellheiser.

Unseen City goes where the public can’t. Have ideas for a future installment? Send them in.