Written by Thomas Guignard
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With its 100 branches (and counting) and 25 million loans a year, the Toronto Public Library network is one of the largest and most active in North America. At the centre of this universe stands the iconic Toronto Reference Library, a place so much engrained in the Toronto cityscape that it repeatedly makes it way into local pop culture, such as in a music video by The Weeknd or as the epic battle setting in Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World.
Visitors come for the books, of course, although being a reference library, the 2 million volumes collection is largely not circulating, or to find a place to study, relax, meet or find a respite from the city’s sometimes unforgiving climate. But they also come for the myriad of events, classes and vital services offered in the library’s three conference rooms. Studios are available for music students to practice or to record themselves. The Reference Library is home to several special collections, such as the Arthur Conan Doyle collection which boasts its own quaint reading room reminiscent of 221B Baker Street. Treasures from the special collections are displayed in showcases strewn around the building, as well as in the onsite art gallery. Countless computer terminals connect patrons to the Internet and provide them with the tools they need to get on with their lives, while a makerspace is busy churning out prototypes of the next big innovation and a café provides the caffeine to fuel it all.
Next to the café, the library also sports its very own bookstore, Page and Panel, specializing in comic books. The store is the all-year extension of the immensely popular Toronto Comic Arts Festival that takes place in May of each year. Since 2010, the festival is held at the Toronto Reference Library, filling in every single corner of the massive building with vendor booths, workshops, author signings, masterclasses and industry meetings. A few months later, in early July, the library makes room for another massive festival, the Toronto Maker Festival. Both festivals are entirely free, like the vast majority of events run at the library.
Whether you are coming for a festival, for a research project or just to visit, the architecture of the building is certain to wow you. Built by local architect Raymond Moriyama in 1973, the building is as discreet from the outside as it is impressive in the inside. Thanks to its roughly pyramidal shape, the brick building blends in with its surroundings and doesn’t overwhelm the few remaining examples of Victorian architecture left in this rapidly developing part of the city. The true majesty of Moryiama’s design is revealed after crossing the entrance doors. The building’s five levels are terrassed around a generous atrium, its smooth curving shapes and the two cylindrical elevators the hallmark of the funky futurism of the early 1970s.
The onsite WiFi network is free to use and doesn’t require registration. A library card is available for free for all residents of Toronto, but also to those who study, work or own property in the city. Visitors can sign up for a temporary card to access in-library services such as computer use and printing, or purchase a 3 or 12 month pass to borrow materials and access online resources.
Once you finish your visit of the Reference Library, consider checking out some of the 100 other branches in the Toronto Public Library network. If you’re feeling adventurous and plan to visit all of them, don’t forget to pick up your copy of the Toronto Library Passport, or the colouring book available at the bookstore. Have fun!
Thomas Guignard is a librarian and photographer based in Toronto, Canada. He has been traveling and photographing libraries for more than 10 years. His images can be found on Instagram under the handle @concretelibraries and on his website
All photos are CC-BY-NC-SA Thomas Guignard