The streetcar drops me off at a cross roads. The signs say “Dundas” and “Parliament” but they might also say “Wealth” and “Poverty”. For many years, the Cabbagetown neighbourhood has been this way. On one side are multi-million dollar walk-up townhomes. There are fancy restaurants, and pet food boutiques, and high end bicycle shops. Sharing the same space are many people on social assistance, public housing, newcomers to Canada and many homeless people.
As usual, I take a walk around the neighbourhood before heading in to the library.
I’m happy to see a bit more street art down here than in my own, somewhat suburban neighbourhood.
There are a lot of stores and businesses with Bengali script in the windows and on the signs. I walk in to one of them to pick up the ingredients for kichdi that I intend to make tomorrow but also see many things I’m not familiar with including several kinds of rice I have never tried before – including “kala jeera” rice. Isn’t this ‘black cumin’? Clearly I have a lot to learn and haven’t cooked nearly enough Bengali food. To my Bengali friends reading this, what should I try cooking? What are your favourites?
Finally I make my way to the library. I’m struck by the beauty of the curving windows in its facade.
Inside, the library is as busy as any I’ve ever seen. People are using nearly every computer. People are sitting at tables, some people are just sitting on chairs wherever they can find them. For many it is clearly a place to relax and come in from the cold.
One thing this project is teaching me is that the sign of a good library is that it understands and caters to its patrons. While the browsing was really good for me and I found a number of great books, there are also a number of other resources here. There is a large adult literacy section as well as an equally large English as a Second Language section. Another large section offers a number of books about finding work.
Another section is devoted to whatever holidays happen to be in a given time of year. In this one, Remembrance Day, Diwali, Christmas, and, just out of the frame of the photo, Hanukkah.
A look at the bulletin board shows that the programs offered by the library also cater to all sorts of people. Seniors can learn to use their iPads, children can get help with reading, teens can learn about poetry and spoken word performance, and The Toronto Writers Collective is offering “creative writing workshops for those deprived of voice in our society. Writing with others in an atmosphere of dignity and acceptance, participants discover the value of their own stories.”
Whether you are coming to figure out how to get a job, look for recipes for your holiday dinner, or find resources to help tutor an adult learning to read and write, this library has you covered. I’m very impressed at how well they meet such diverse needs in what is a relatively small space.
I pack my books in my backpack and head toward the downtown core. Almost immediately I see another piece of public art.
There are a number of boxes like these for traffic switching or telecommunication that have been painted by local artists, often in ways that relate to where they are located. This one isn’t just book-related because of the library. There’s another reason and I only need to turn around to see it.
The Children’s Book Bank is one of my favourite programs ever. Books mattered so much to me as a kid. I learned to read when I was quite young, and though there were a number of problems in my later home life, reading provided a refuge from them as well as a way to learn so much. Being taught to read was the greatest gift I was ever given, and I always had so many books around me – books of my own that I treasured. But books cost money and in this city which has one of the highest costs of living in the country, books are, for many, a luxury. That’s why the Children’s Book Bank is such a great program. They started out providing free books to children living in the area and have moved beyond that to now provide books to children in many low-income neighbourhoods throughout the city. They have managed to get so much support that they’re now offering a number of other programs including story times, offering free dictionaries to newcomers, hiring local high school students, and more. I remember when they first started in 2007 and I am so happy to see that they have been so successful.
Heading west I realize we’re near somewhere I love but haven’t been in perhaps a decade: Allen Gardens. It’s one of the oldest parks in the city and in the middle of it is a classic glass conservatory that was built in the late 1800’s. Inside are examples of plants from all different climates from temperate to tropical to desert. On a cold grey day like today it is a real joy to visit.
I pass through the doors and go from a 0 degree near-winter day to a tropical rain forest. I’m surrounded by the smells of greenery. My mood lifts noticeably.
As I walk through the space, I am joined by many others. Some of us are taking photos, others are taking children through, still others are sitting on benches, reading and possibly imagining they’re on vacation somewhere warmer. I’m tempted to come back and do the same.
Because there are so many different habitats represented here, there are several rooms, separated by doors. I leave a cool room slightly warmer than it is outside and enter a room that feels like a humid summer day. I leave that room and enter a warm dry desert. Every time I change rooms I’m treated to the beauty of so many different plants.
When I leave the conservatory, I realize I’ve tricked myself a little. I, who objects, sometimes loudly, to going outside on a cold day, preferring to stay indoors until spring returns, have gone outdoors. I’ve not only gone out, but I’ve had a good time wandering the city on a walk as long as I might have taken on a beautiful June day. Perhaps it really is all in one’s attitude.
As usual, I’d like to end this with a bit of information about programs and offerings at the Toronto Public Library you may not be aware of. This week I wanted to share that I just recently learned that the library has hired a permanent, full time social worker. Their job is to help create programs for the homeless patrons of the library. They will also help train branch staff on how to deal respectfully and with empathy with some of the challenges that serving the homeless presents – issues like how to interact with people with mental health illness, deal with body odour or sleeping in the library. And of course, how to help connect them with resources they need such as emergency shelters or food banks. It just goes to show, that being a good library isn’t just about having great books, interesting programs, and cool resources. In the end it’s about giving your patrons not just what they want but also what they need.