Chinatown Neighbourhood: Lillian H. Smith Library

It’s incredibly easy after an exciting trip to another country to fall in to a rut when returning home. It’s doubly easy when the weather is cold and wintry. And so it was that three days after I returned from India Daegan and I found ourselves on our way out in to the city.

Daegan had an errand to do for school that would take us downtown and so I chose a library close to downtown so we could get everything done at once. I was especially happy because it was edging toward lunchtime and so we would definitely get to go have something to eat.

We get off the streetcar at the intersection of College and Spadina near the northern edge of one of Toronto’s Chinatown neighbourhoods. Unlike some cities, the downtown part of Toronto has two Chinatowns – one on the east, and one on the west where we found ourselves today. Beyond that there are several more in the region – I’ve seen the number listed as six but it may be even larger than that.

We visit this area often but lately it’s been changing a lot. For the first decade or so we lived here, it seemed like only one side of Spadina, the north-south street we are looking at in the photos above, was successful. There were many restaurants and businesses on the west side, but the ones on the east side always seemed a little neglected. As real estate values and populations both grow, this is changing. And so we walked down the east side of the street looking for somewhere to eat. Lucky for us the east side was also the sunny side of the street. I’ll take all of the warmth I can get.

After some time nothing really is speaking to us. There are a number of dim sum and dumpling places but none of them really seems to be quite it. And then I remember. Back on the west side of the street, just a few steps from where we are, is Ajisen Ramen, one of our favourite ramen restaurants in the city.

If you’d asked me ten years ago if I wanted to go out to eat ramen I probably would have laughed at you. For decades, most of my experience – and that of many other North Americans – was the same. Whether “Top Ramen”, “Nissin” or “Maggi”, ramen was cheap food for university students – five packages for a dollar, just add hot water and wait two minutes. The reality, though, is that it is based on something delicious and restaurant worthy.

There is nothing like walking in to this restaurant on a day like today. The air is warm and humid thanks to all of the broth being cooked and eaten and my glasses fog up instantly. We’re seated at one of several long benches. There is space left between us and other people eating but when it’s busy that may not always be the case.

Hot jasmine tea is brought over and we are already beginning to warm up as we decide what we want to eat.

The menu is enormous and has something for everyone from vegans to the most dedicated meat eaters. Even those wanting to eat something other than soup can find something here. (Sage is very fond of their grilled sardines, for example). We are hungry so we decide quickly and just as quickly our orders are brought to us.

Daegan has ordered a “Spicy ‘ma la’ Chicken Ramen”. It is tasty but I find it neither particularly spicy nor ‘ma la’ – a combination of spicy and numbing that is characteristic of Sichuan cuisine and is thanks to the presence of Sichuan pepper. It’s still quite good, though – it just seemed toned down for the bland Canadian palate.

Daegan’s choice

There’s a special menu with a lot of new options and I am intrigued by a black garlic beef soup. Black garlic is a fermented product – garlic is left to ferment for a long time under specific temperature and humidity conditions until it turns black and the flavours get milder. A couple of years ago it was a very popular ingredient on several of the cooking shows I like so I am intrigued.

The black particles are part of the garlic

This is a tasty broth and really good on a cold day like today: extremely hearty and filling. Half way through the bowl I’ve forgotten that I was so cold when I walked in. I’m not usually a fan of hard boiled eggs at all but in this case the yolk is still a bit soft and even that is delicious. As for the garlic flavour: it’s OK but not as strong as I’d like it. I’m glad I tried it but will definitely look for something with bolder flavours next time. Their spicy ramen choices are generally quite good – especially if you specifically ask for them to be extra spicy. (Daegan forgot!)

Sufficiently warmed up we head back up to the library.

The library is named after Lilian H. Smith, hired by the Toronto Public Library in 1912 to head the Children’s department. Once hired, she would be the first professionally trained Children’s Librarian in the British Empire.

She would stay in the system for 40 years, retiring at 65. By that time children’s services would be available in 16 branch libraries, 30 schools and two settlement houses. She created story hours at various libraries that would attract as many as 100 kids and created children’s reading clubs – all things we take for granted now but were new at the time. How many lives did she impact? It’s hard to say, but it’s easy to understand why a library would be named after her.

The main area of the library is pretty standard with a decent selection of adult and children’s books and materials in English as well as Chinese. The library is arranged around an open central area. The first two floors are devoted to circulating collections and public computer workstations.

With a number of homeless shelters nearby this library is one of several that has the added challenge of supporting people in need. This is particularly necessary in the winter when people may not have a warm place to spend the day. As a result it is not unusual to see a person or two having a nap in a chair. This can, at times, present a challenge to librarians as well. While most of the time there are no problems, there can occasionally be an issue. As a result, this is one of the few libraries where, in addition to the librarians behind the desk, I also see a Toronto police officer sitting. Throughout our visit we run in to him in various parts of the library as he does his rounds.

On the second floor we stop by the science fiction section. Daegan is happy to find a number of books he is interested in and grabs them to bring home. I’m feeling particularly fussy when it comes to books today and so nothing looks quite right to me. I will leave empty handed.

Go up to the third floor and you see the first of two special collections:

Here you’ll find a reference-only selection of science fiction books. Some are rare and therefore backpacks are not allowed. There are lockers right near the door that require $1 to lock. I don’t have any change but I am able to leave my backpack anyway. There is nothing particularly valuable in it and it’ll be in sight the whole time.

There are several people studying and doing research here. A number of books are on display on the current theme: fairy tales retold. I take down the name of a few titles – I can’t check any of them out from this room, and head out.

The fourth floor houses another special collection:

I remember visiting the Osborne collection of Early Children’s books several years ago for a special exhibition of Edward Gorey’s artwork. He was known for rather dark children’s stories and illustrations and was, in my opinion, ahead of his time. Today he would be considered normal but back in his day he was truly on the edge.

An example of Edward Gorey’s work

The arrangements for backpack storage were not so good this time so unfortunately we weren’t able to go in, but I did get some photos through the windows:

It really looks like a fascinating place to spend another winter afternoon – without a backpack (or with some change to lock it up)

Before I leave I take a look down from the top of the library.

We leave the library and back in to the cold, and head off deeper in to the city to finish the day with Daegan’s errands. I’m glad to be back home and exploring my city again. Watch for another entry soon – the visit has already been completed and only needs to be written up.

6 thoughts on “Chinatown Neighbourhood: Lillian H. Smith Library

    1. Thanks. I am glad you enjoyed it. I agree with you. Libraries are wonderful. Not only is it a collection of much loved books, it attracts other book lovers as well. So when you go there you are surrounded by books and the people who love them. Heaven.

  1. This is one of my favourite libraries — I was lucky to do a lot of research there when I was doing my MLIS degree, and there were often events held there (perhaps still are) related to the children’s literature community in Toronto.

  2. Aww what a shame the ramen wasn’t spicy!! It definitely looks delicious though and I agree about a hot bowl being so perfect to warm you right up. ❤ The photos you captured of the library are gorgeous. Your photography keeps improving in every post, wow. Looking forward to your next library visit!

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