Asylum vs. deportation

One of the things that I had not sufficiently prepared myself for, prior to beginning my research leave project, was the emotional weight that would come from reading accounts of past injustices endured by marginalized people.  Since my research revolves around the library services offered through Toronto’s settlement houses, I have looked through settlement house records at various archives and special collections, in the hopes of finding textual and photographic references to libraries.  In the process, I have encountered passages, upon passages, of reports and minutes that seem innocuous on the surface, but which, upon further consideration, are quite horrific.

Take this excerpt from the April 8th to May 13th, 1924 report written by the head worker of St. Christopher House; it reveals that, despite the gradually improving economy, the financial benefits did not trickle down to the poor:

“There is still a great deal of unemployment in the district and resulting hard times. Our donation of groceries from Dovercourt Rd. Presbyterian Church vanished very quickly. Three families threatened with eviction had to have loans and cases of undernourishment come to our notice frequently. Away last November Judge Mott sentenced four boys living in a Leonard Avenue rear house to Orillia or as an alternative that the entire family be deported to England. The family chose deportation but up to date nothing seems to have happened and those boys are a distinct menace to the neighbourhood.” (p. 5)

(City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1484, Series 1673, File 2)

Although the head worker does not explain what “Orillia” is, by my deductions, it was most likely shorthand for the Orillia “training school”, or the Orillia Asylum for Idiots (later renamed the Ontario Hospital School, and later again, the Huronia Regional Centre).  Asylums in the early twentieth century were meant to isolate and remove from society people of all ages who exhibited behaviours that deviated from the norm (Leung, 2014; Rossiter & Clarkson, n.d.).  Aside from committing those diagnosed with some form of mental illness or intellectual disability, the Orillia Asylum regularly admitted children and youths that the Children’s Aid Society, the Toronto General Hospital, and orphanages sent over as a last resort, in the absence of other welfare options.  Indeed, advocates of asylums, such as the prominent eugenicist Dr. Helen MacMurchy, justified the practice by arguing that juvenile delinquency, crime, prostitution, sexual deviancy, and illegitimacy were all evidence of feeble-mindedness, which they felt was best treated through institutionalization (Rossiter & Clarkson, n.d.; Samson, n.d.).

Having to choose between checking into an asylum versus being deported to another country is not a real choice.  It seems that to the family living behind Leonard Avenue in 1924, it was not a real choice either.


Leung, E. (2014, March 18). “Orillia Asylum for Idiots” opens in Ontario. Retrieved December 15, 2017, from

Rossiter, K, & Clarkson, A. (n.d.). Opening Ontario’s “Saddest Chapter:” A Social History of Huronia Regional Centre. Retrieved from

Samson, A. (n.d.). Helen MacMurchy publishes The Almosts: A Study of the Feeble-Minded. Retrieved December 15, 2017, from




5-month check-in

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly five months since I went on research leave.  I’m now in the midst of writing the first draft of a manuscript that I hope will shed light on the role of Toronto public libraries in the work of settlement houses in the first half of the 20th century.  It’s been a struggle.  After years of writing technical reports and co-authoring library science papers, it’s been challenging getting back into the style of writing a history paper.  And, because I’ve been around academics for a long time too, I have found myself constantly questioning the sentences that I’ve put on paper, wondering about how many other interpretations could be made of the same primary sources that I’ve found, and asking myself, “is there anything that I’ve missed, and if so, what?”

Primary sources are such tricky pieces of evidence, and perhaps that’s part of the reason behind my misgivings.  The original sources don’t give the full picture of what went on, and sometimes, an expression or a term used by the author, or a discernible silence on an issue, gives way to my suspicion that politics was involved: that a particular decision was not made simply on the basis of financial and usage data, but on a specific assumption and value judgement about libraries that the author won’t articulate.

For all the research output from the library science field these days, I’d love to see more history projects that not only disseminate information about a chain of events, but that re-examine our profession.  I’ve love to see more history-based research that approaches our past from a non-Western-centric feminist perspective, given that Canadian libraries have come in contact with culturally and economically diverse people since the early days of the public library movement.  It makes me wonder if part of my writing struggles is because I lack (and need?) a critical theory framework for my paper.


Research leave update

I started my first year-long research leave last month, and although the first two weeks of it were taken up by vacation and moving homes, I’ve spent the last 2 1/2 weeks focused on the project of my leave: investigating the history of settlement house libraries in Toronto.

In spite of being a librarian, and knowing archivists, my recent visits to the University of Toronto Archives, the City of Toronto Archives, and the Lillian H. Smith Library’s Osborne Collection have really driven home the importance of keeping organizational records of public institutions and social agencies, no matter how insignificant some of those papers may seem.  I’ve also had renewed appreciation for a thoroughly detailed finding aid.  I can’t help but wonder how future generations will study us in our current times, when we are producing fewer print artifacts, and when many of the discussions that take place may only be recorded in a digital format that we may not necessarily have the technology to access in the future.  Projects to preserve digital communications, from reports of governments and public agencies to research data sets to the chatter of social media platforms already exist, but I am less concerned for those “things” that were produced for public consumption than I am for the internal records that actually help to shed light on organizational culture and directorial vision long after the institution’s demise.  How many organizations have the time, capacity, or interest in preserving their digital records for the purposes of allowing others to study, inspect, and scrutinize them?

Please help save Toronto’s public libraries

If you believe in keeping public libraries just that–public–then lend your voice to the fight to save Toronto’s public libraries.

I cannot stress enough how important the local branch libraries have been in my personal growth. I have gone from being a child who could barely speak English, to winning history and English prizes in high school, to winning scholarships and awards in university and becoming a full-fledged librarian. If those weekly Saturday visits to my local library as a child had not happened, and if I had not been invited to get my own library card, I would not have found myself today doing work that I love, and that I know is contributing to the good of society. The library was the key that unlocked a life-long affair with words, information, and knowledge.  The most amazing thing about my personal experience is that I am not alone. My story is not in any way unique. Barring a few details, it’s practically identical to the public library story of other Torontonians.  That’s what makes the TPL so special!

To learn more about the threat against our local treasure, and to sign the petition to save it, visit:

Digital Odyssey 2011

Last Friday I attended Digital Odyssey 2011, the annual one-day conference organized by OLITA (Ontario Library and Information Technology Association). The theme of the conference was E-book [R]evolution, and the program was packed.

The opening keynote was delivered by Eric Hellman, who talked about “Why libraries exist: transitioning from print to e-books”. He began with some background information on the e-books industry, then went on to talk about the economics of lending libraries, and why he felt that e-book lending programs will not be able to exist forever. (His argument: publishers have used DRM to create artificial scarcity, as well imposing what he calls the “inconvenience barrier” by making it far easier for individual consumers to buy an e-book than it is to borrow an e-book from a library collection). He expressed the opinion that libraries must look to space, people, and community, rather than obsessing over e-book collections.

After the keynote, I attended a panel discussion on the popularity of e-book readers. Crystal Rose, a librarian from the Memorial University Library, shared her library’s experience with its e-books pilot project. It was a nice follow-up to Hellman’s keynote. Rose observed that there is a real disconnect between the commercial success of e-books versus the dissatisfaction of academic e-book users, probably because many publishers and vendors of academic e-books simply aren’t, or won’t, make their products available or easy to use in a mobile platform.  Yet, the convenience of getting popular reading material for mobile devices from an individual consumer’s perspective has spillover effects into academia, as library users expect e-book access from library collections to be just as simple as e-books on mobile apps or dedicated readers.

Then there were the thunder talks presented by a number of different librarians and teacher librarians across Ontario. I learned that OLITA actually ran a technology lending library program, which makes devices like dedicated e-book readers available to libraries. I heard about the Oakville Public Library’s eReader lending program, which makes 5 e-book readers, with unique sets of e-book titles preloaded to the devices, available for signing out. I also learned about one of the schools in the Niagara District School Board implementing an e-books and e-book reader program in a bid to encourage reluctant readers to pick up a book through the draw of technology.

In the afternoon, I attended the workshop “Creating ePub documents”, led by Diane Bédard and Walter Lewis of Knowledge Ontario. We worked with Dreamweaver and Calibre to modify text files into HTML files, then converted the HTML files into ePub books, complete with metadata and basic features like book covers, illustrations, and hyperlinked table of contents. Although I was already familiar with basic HTML, Dreamweaver and Calibre prior to the workshop, I learned that there were elements of Calibre that I had never exploited before, and that HTML and ePub shared more similarities than I had thought. Now I can’t wait for an opportunity to put my new-found ePub creation skills to work.

A great column in defence of libraries

The Globe and Mail published a great column online by Ian Brown on Friday, called “Don’t discard the librarians”. (The column was also published in Saturday’s print edition.) In the opinion piece, the author begins by outlining recent challenges against the library as an institution. These events include the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board’s decision to cut its school libraries, the University of Denver Library’s decision to move 80% of its collection into storage, and a verbal public statement made by the McMaster University Chief Librarian that he would be hiring only IT staff and post-doctoral fellows in lieu of librarians in the foreseeable future. Not having been part of these communities, I don’t know all the details behind these decisions; I can only hope that the local administrators were doing what they felt, at the time, to be the best solution for their institution.

Ian Brown goes on to write about his visits to various branches of the Toronto Public Library, and his interviews with librarians at the University of Toronto Libraries (my home system!). More importantly, he talks to a random user of the library. I thought the latter conversation yielded one of the most moving arguments in favour of keeping libraries:

On my way home from the library I encountered a young woman about to graduate high school (social niceties of high-school life prevented her from letting me use her name), who loves to do her homework in the newly renovated Gerstein science library at the University of Toronto because she loves to be surrounded “by other people who love school work” – a lovely, lonely longing that found solace in a library. Why is that deemed a luxury by digital boosters who insist on a shrunken, depopulated data hub? Information is abstract, but the mind is ultimately physical, human (Brown, 2011).

It was also good to see Ian Brown include facts that those who work outside of libraries don’t always know. Subscriptions for online resources, the ones that Google can’t provide for free, are extremely expensive (over tens of thousands of dollars for some titles), and require huge budgets and good systems in place to maintain. Even if an institution can afford to buy or subscribe to a good collection of digital material, users still need to learn how to navigate through them–how to assess and choose the most appropriate resources for any given context. Teaching people how to do all this, as he points out, has always been the librarian’s domain, and this role is very much still needed as the universe of information expands.

The column is eloquently written, and ironically brings me back to a refrain that I hear a lot nowadays–that an academic library that wants to remain relevant must stop trying to protect “the institution” and, by corollary, redundant, antiquated traditions. While I appreciate the concern over irrelevance, I don’t think we will reach that point so long as we continue to prove through words and actions the reasons for preserving our places of learning; our collections, be they print, online, or some other format not yet prototyped; the people, who keep the operations running smoothly; and defending the public’s right to access learning and acquire knowledge. Certainly, streamlining practices in the name of progress cannot be done in one fell swoop (or even a few swoops). At the heart of progress, we have to think about who we are serving, and what society stands to lose when the future scholars, entrepreneurs, and leader we educate no longer know how to assess information for credibility and authoritativeness. What kind of thoughtful, democratic society would we then be nurturing?

One thing that is probably not so evident from Ian Brown’s column is that librarians don’t work in isolation from other professionals. My co-workers are a mix of librarians, library technicians, and IT staff. Cliché-ed as this sounds, we bring different perspectives to meetings, contribute unique strengths and skill sets to projects, and collaborate in the teaching experience, whether as guest lecturers, course associates, presenters, or behind-the-scenes assistance.

At the library that I work, my co-workers and I try very hard to create a space that is welcoming for students with a variety of study needs, from those who require a more social atmosphere, to those who want to study individually while sitting in groups, and those who need absolute quiet. We also try hard to be physically around, to get to know the students and faculty who pass through our doors, and to support them as much as we can through their research and classroom activities. We are always listening for user feedback, not only because we want to know what we might be doing wrong so that we can correct our ways, but because we also want to know what we are doing right so that we can do more of it. Specific comments change from year to year, but certain themes resurface perennially. For instance, one theme that has cropped up again and again is that our students appreciate us because we make time to show them how things are done (or can be done better), we listen, and we care about their success. They also appreciate the physical space because they know it is their space, and they know that everything that we have put in there have been put in for them.

For further reading, please check out:

Brown, I. (2011). Don’t discard the librarians. The Globe and Mail, Friday, May 20, 2011 online edition. Retrieved from