Rooting library services in the people

One thing that I’ve learned from my ongoing research into Toronto’s settlement house libraries is that libraries that thrive are libraries that:

  1. Have passionate, dedicated staff members who are always ready to champion the cause of the library.
  2. Don’t focus so much on judging people for what they pick up and read, but ensuring that good — albeit sometimes overlooked — literature is available for when readers are ready to discover those works;
  3. Have staff who observe first-hand the wants — and needs — of the community they serve. This means keeping eyes and ears open at all times, really listening and watching what is happening.

An observation that brings me joy as a current-day librarian is that early settlement house workers valued professional librarians, and wanted them as a partner for managing the settlement house libraries.  When the Toronto Public Library initially declined one of the settlement house’s invitation, board members decided to send one of their settlement workers to professional library school, so that they could have a knowledgeable, informed, and skilled librarian — rather than a volunteer, however well-meaning and educated he/she might have been — making decisions regarding the library collection and its services (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1484, Series 1670, File 8).  This was the position of social workers, not librarians!

The last settlement house library in Toronto (based at St. Christopher House, now renamed West Neighbourhood House) closed in 1959.  The official explanation from the Toronto Public Library, as found in their annual report for that year, was that St. Christopher House’s renovations no longer allowed for space for the TPL.  The official explanation from St. Christopher House was that it could not offer as much space as the TPL requested.  Who initiated the end of the settlement house/public library partnership is unclear, but what is clear is that by mid-20th century, the TPL had set its sights on expanding and strengthening its system of neighbourhood branches.  In the case of the St. Christopher House library, the TPL integrated the collection into the new Manning Boys and Girls Branch, which the TPL had organized in partnership with the Board of Education.  (Side note: School libraries operated by the TPL also seem to have fallen out of favour.)

For their part, settlement houses in Canada and the U.S. were overhauling their mission and programs.  In some cases, as in Hull House in Chicago, the board in charge of the settlement decided to disband the house altogether, compelling its community to accept a decentralized model of participation in social services.

When I think about the settlement house workers’ determination in the late 1910s to engage professional librarians to set-up and run their libraries, I think of how much has remained constant.  Yes, technologies and societal norms change, but libraries still need information resources. Simply gathering information resources into a space does not, however, make a library.  A space without the types of information resources that support the people it purports to serve is no longer a library, just as a space without librarians is not a library, however co-opted the latter word may be.


Upcoming poster presentation at OLA 2018

In a couple of weeks, I will be returning to the annual Ontario Library Association Super Conference, presenting a poster on the early days of Toronto’s settlement house movement, but more specifically, on the beginnings of the partnership between the settlement houses and the Toronto Public Library.

Needless to say, the challenges of presenting on a topic that I am still in the midst of writing were many; thus, focusing on a specific time period–the start of the partnership–seemed to be the most practical.  Distilling pages of textual notes onto an (albeit large) poster, while saving room for visual content, turned out to be the most challenging, but once I had decided on the look, sketched out the design on paper, and discovered how simple Microsoft Publisher was to use, the poster project became much more manageable.  In the process of putting the pieces together, I also learned that requesting copyright permission from the City of Toronto Archives is far less stressful than asking for copyright permission from other bodies, and that maps can convey a lot of information within a space that’s too tiny for a paragraph.

For those planning to attend the OLA conference, a preview of my poster is now up:



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: