Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Library worker by day, library socialite by night: The TPL is cool for more than its Air Con

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By Becky Toyne

This month, I am coming at you from my local library. Well, from one of them, for my local libraries are many. The Toronto Public Library (TPL) has 99 branches in this fair city, so chances are, whatever postcode you’re lurking in, there’s a TPL very near you.

I confess that “The Library” is not a place in which I’ve spent much time since I was an undergrad. It became inextricably linked, perhaps, with essays, exams and revision. And yet, this summer, for the first time in 10 or so years, I find that the library is a place I rather like to be. Making a decision to quit your day job and tough it out as a freelancer comes (cue montage music) with images of hours spent in some sort of hipster-cum-bohemian laptop-and-latte heaven, your co-workers an assortment of creatively minded folk powered by their caffeine addictions and the music blipping from their MacBook Pros. Sadly, I was unsuited to my new office environment. Too much caffeine makes me anxious. Caffeine-induced low blood sugar makes me a) inarticulate, and b) ravenous for high-trans-fat muffins. All that fluid intake makes me need to pee, but, thanks to the caffeine anxiety, also paranoid that my MacBook Pro (OK, it’s a Sony Vaio) will be gone when I return. And taking your laptop to the loo is, frankly, a pain. In any case, the bohemian creative types turned out to be mostly students using the Web to cut and paste research their next assignments. So back to the thief-free confines of my apartment I went.

When you’re a top-floor city-dweller with no A/C, however, and the summer is hitting records for overnight “lows,” buckling down at home is a sweaty and sleep-inducing chore. So here I am, availing myself of this city’s marvellous, fully air-conditioned and wi-fied public library system, basking in the subliminal hum of brains hard at work all around me (well, mostly: the dude beside me right now has been live-streaming a baseball game for the past hour).

Mayor Miller has long extolled the virtues of the TPL — “The world’s busiest urban public library system” — and has put his name (and indeed his pen) to a number of TPL projects to promote reading and literacy in Toronto. There can be a tendency to think “library” and picture stern, grey-haired ladies in florals reigning over musty Patricia Cornwell collections with an iron ruler. I have no doubt this scene is to be found in certain corners of the system, but the TPL’s brand (starting with the fact that it actually has a recognisable brand) is very much sexier. It recently launched a new website, and its canvas tote bags (yours for a princely $3) are getting around. In the past year I have dispatched them to book-toting types in London, England and in San Francisco.

Eschhhewing the “Shhhhhhh” library mentality, TPL has an impressive selection of sociable programming for people with all kinds of literary MO to get together and talk — and not even in a whisper. A lunchtime reading series in the spring has catered to a particular kind of free-in-the-middle-of-the-day crowd. Toronto has its own One Book programme, in which city folk are encouraged to read the same book, making it water-cooler fodder in the same breath as last night’s SYTYCD elimination. Toronto is in good company here, with cities such as Edinburgh and Chicago boasting similar reading programmes. TPL also partners with the City of Toronto to present the annual Toronto Book Award, and plays host to a bevy of press conferences and awards ceremonies through the year.

The most exciting addition to TPL’s programming lineup came with the opening of the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library in fall 2009. Spying a niche in the market in this well-read town, they quickly moved to roll out a series of ideas-based programming that for my money is the smartest and slickest in the city right now. Doug Saunders in conversation with Mark Kingwell on September 27? Yes please. I feel my dinner-party banter much improved merely at the thought of attending. The Globe and Mail Open House Festival held many of its most high-profile events there this past spring, and you can expect to see some more-than-moderately well-known writers there through to the end of the year (Antonia Fraser and Salman Rushdie anyone?). I would tell you to book your tickets, but almost all the events are free. At the very least you can dust off your backlist copies in anticipation.

One of the great things about working in publishing has always been that the hours, though long and underpaid, are boosted by after-work socializing with all your smart, well-read colleagues. Now I am discovering that you don’t even need to work in an office to have that “leave work desk, proceed directly to work party” pattern. TPL is cool for more than just its freelancer-friendly air conditioning: it offers the chance to be library worker by day, library socialite by night. And anyway, who doesn’t want to work in a room furnished with thousands of books?

Becky Toyne is a freelance editor and publicist based in Toronto. Since embarking on a career in publishing in 2002, she has worked as an editor at Random House UK and Random House of Canada; as a bookseller, event planner and publicist for Toronto’s Type Books; and as Communications Coordinator for the International Festival of Authors and Authors at Harbourfront Centre. She is a member of the communications committee for the Writers’ Trust of Canada, and tweets about life in book land as @MsRebeccs.

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