The Plague-Ground – Librarians are first-responders

No other public library system in the world is bigger and busier than Toronto’s.

Not New York. Not London.


Nearly 70 per cent of Torontonians use the Toronto Public Library.

During the pandemic, with every one of its 100 branches closed, online demand has more than doubled. The Library has even launched a digital library card which has over 14,000 takers so far.

Years ago, libraries shifted from being places to borrow books, to being that and gigantic internet cafes. Librarians followed suit, but now they also dispense citizenship and job information, and have even been pressed into being social workers and even paramedics, administering naloxone to overdosing street people who are sheltering inside the safe place that libraries are. Not happily, but they do it.

But the pandemic has called on libraries to do even more.

In Toronto, more than 30 per cent of food banks were closed just as demand for emergency food services spiked. Food banks need volunteers and space. Hmmm…….and what are librarians everywhere great at? Picking and sorting.

So in early April, the Library converted nine of its branches into food banks and since then has increased that to 11. Even better, over 150 library staff are working and dozens more have volunteered at these pop-up food banks, offering 13,000 food hampers to families across the city.

Next, they offered food for thought. Recognizing that many of these families have young kids at home, who aren’t in school and can’t get to a library to get a book, the Library decided it would provide free books for these kids in the food hampers. These aren’t old library books, but brand new age-appropriate ones. Given that one in three food bank clients are children, this is a lot of books.

The Toronto Public Library Foundation raised some money to buy some new kid’s books. This prompted Penguin Random House Canada and Scholastic Canada to donate more of their own.  Soon, the Azrieli Foundation and an anonymous family made it possible to buy even more.

Many Canadian big-city libraries don’t have foundations attached. Maybe they have individual and corporate patrons. But the view generally is, I pay for the library through my taxes. Libraries are a municipal service. Why should I pay twice?

Well, I’d suggest that one reason Toronto’s library is the biggest in the world is precisely because it has a foundation out there beating the bushes for extra funds. Just as Toronto’s ‘best in the world’ hospitals only keep the lights on via our tax dollars, with their greatness purchased almost entirely via private philanthropy, so too is our public library in the same boat.

But the Toronto Public Library is more than big, and even more than biggest.

It’s great and possibly even greatest.

The Library quickly saw that with the city and the world moving online, some Toronto families would be lost and forgotten while we all sheltered at home. These are the families that have no Wi-Fi at home, no computers, no nothing when it comes to connecting with the outside world.

So the Foundation fund-raised to buy laptops plus Wi-Fi service for 300 families.  As of today, it’s raised enough for 200 of them.

Years ago, a friend told me her story: she was a child, a Jewish refugee after the Second World War. She failed in school because she could barely speak English. So her mother took her every day to the Lillian H. Smith Branch on College east of Spadina where she learned a new language. She got so good that years later she became one of the country’s top lawyers.

Stories like this are happily all too common in Toronto where the library, its librarians and foundation can teach us all about agility and relevance.

* * * * * * * * * *

If you want to help all of the above, go to: or contact Jennifer Jones, the Foundation’s President, at


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12 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Librarians are first-responders”

  1. Portia Leggat

    Hi Bob,
    The Libby app is a great addition to the public library scene. Download Libby and enter your TPL card number and browse the 1000s of (free) e-book and audiobooks in the TPL system. You can borrow up to 10 books at a time, most for 2 weeks. Due to the high demand for e and audiobooks here in Kingston, the public library has migrated from Libby to the CloudLibrary app which has a more extensive collection of books to borrow. Not sure if TPL has done the same.
    All the best to you and Jean,

    1. Portia — Ohmygawd! Jean is completely and absolutely hooked on Libby…she races through boos at 2 x regular speed IN ORDER TO get her next audiobook sooner.
      I trust you two are safe and sound, high and dry?

    2. Thanks so much, Margie. Yup, there are so many ‘best in the world’ organizations in the city, that we have to fight to preserve them all.


  2. I really enjoy your daily blogs, Bob, although I don’t love your championing of philanthropy/philanthrpists as the mechanism to addres a broken system. Perhaps if the corporations that these fabulously wealthy people built their fortunes on were paying their fair share of taxes, and our tax laws were overhauled such that they couldn’t practice legal but problematic tax avoidance strategies only available to them, we wouldn’t have to rely on the whims of the filthy rich or their scions to decide what gets funded appropriately? If you’re looking for a great pandemic read, take a gander at “Winners Take All” by Anand Giridharadas – lots of food for thought that addresses these issues.

    That said, yes, our libraries are a treasure, and as people continue to work remotely library science professionals are going to be even more in demand as they attempt to capture the knowledge and wisdom of organizations that won’t be being informally shared in fully-populated offices.

    1. Ian – A while back I was hoping to bring Giridharadas to Toronto for a sponsored Ramsay Breakfast.
      Sadly, my traditional sponsor walked very quickly away when I approached. Point made.

  3. Many memories of the dear old Edmonton library and many from Toronto and on to Caledon. Great writing and great subject.

  4. Penelope Fridman

    Many thanks for bringing this amazing work to my attention. I too went immediately to the site and donated!

    Much love to you and Jean.

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