Incredulity would definitely be a good word to describe my current state. With less than three months of research leave to go, and less than two months before I present a short version of my research paper at the Canadian Historical Association annual meeting (part of Congress 2018), there is still so much to do. I now understand why faculty and librarians who have gone on sabbatical/research leave often say that the last couple of months is when everything shifts into high gear.
Here’s the abstract for the paper that I will be presenting at CHA, for those who are interested in library history:
Title: Story Hours in the ‘Slums’: Re-examining the Toronto Public Library’s Participation in the Settlement House Movement, 1910-1959
In the popular discourse, Canadian public libraries are frequently represented as the great social equalizer — a description shaped by the library’s history as a gathering place for diverse peoples and mythicized by the legacy of Andrew Carnegie. Public libraries, from the Victorian to Edwardian era, symbolized cultural and intellectual progress. They were meaningful to a young immigrant country that was seeking to establish a national identity. Nonetheless, social equality was not an intrinsic goal for municipalities that erected free libraries. Using Toronto as a case study, this paper argues that the public library’s role in furthering social equality was the result of a deliberate course of action and risk-taking, driven by the desire for growth and professional recognition. Although the Toronto Public Library (TPL) opened under fiscally and socially conservative municipal leadership, its expansion was made possible because it re-positioned itself from being an “apostle of culture” to becoming one of Toronto’s modern public social services. One such tactic was the TPL’s participation in the settlement house movement, significant for being TPL’s debut into services for immigrants and the poor. By piecing together archival records from three settlement houses and the TPL, this paper re-examines the motivations behind the library’s settlement work. Several themes emerge from this study: women’s professional struggles; competing views on immigration and social welfare; and finally, the challenges of maintaining public support in a socially conservative landscape.
 Dee Garrison, Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920 (New York: Free Press, 1979).
And now, an aside.
When I started my research leave last July, I had entertained high hopes of accomplishing more during my time away from the library. I had even expected to do a preliminary literature review for a second research project that would continue as my ongoing research when I returned to my regular posting at my library.
That second project was supposed to investigate how cataloguers talk about their work in order to advocate for the profession. Ironically, as my research leave progressed, real life began to mirror my research interests. Suddenly, I wasn’t just thinking about advocacy for cataloguers, but advocacy for academic librarianship more generally. I pondered over questions related to access, equity, power, professional practice, and the ethics and values of librarianship, not only within the scope of my research paper on settlement house libraries, but more broadly, across specialized libraries such as my own. Following advocacy campaigns such as Save the UT Libraries felt strangely surreal given the timing.
I am still processing it all. No conclusions yet.
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.
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: http://www.olasuperconference.ca/poster-sessions-thursday/