One thing that I’ve learned from my ongoing research into Toronto’s settlement house libraries is that libraries that thrive are libraries that:
- Have passionate, dedicated staff members who are always ready to champion the cause of the library.
- 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;
- 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.