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A haven for children’s literature

September 16th, 2015 · No Comments

Lillian H. Smith library branch celebrates 20 years

By Annemarie Brissenden

Can you remember the first book you ever read?

Picture cracking open its spine and tracing the letters with your finger, as you try to make sense of the words. Remember your delight at the illustrations, giggling as the brilliant colours leapt off the page. If you discovered that book in your library, at your school, or even in the children’s section of your local bookstore, it was likely thanks to Lillian H. Smith.

A champion of children’s literacy, Smith (1887-1983) was a library science pioneer whose profound influence on generations of librarians had a global reach. She was the first trained children’s librarian in the British Empire, taught children’s literature courses at the University of Toronto’s library school, created a classification system for children’s literature that was used well into the 1970s, and established library branches in public schools. In 1922, Smith founded Toronto’s first free-standing children’s library, the Boys and Girls House, which was located on St. George Street and would become a flagship for children’s library services available in 16 branches, 30 schools, and two settlement houses across the city.

And this October, the Toronto Public Library branch at College Street and Spadina Avenue that bears her name, and – thanks to Smith’s legacy – is home to one of the foremost collections of children’s literature in the world, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. There will be Alice in Wonderland themed events (in honour of the book’s 150th anniversary), the launch of a digital stories project, and a special birthday celebration.

“On Oct. 17, Saturday, there will be a giant book sale from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The funds raised will support Toronto Public Library’s literacy programs,” says branch head Sarah Bradley. “We also will have a puppet show, followed by a scavenger hunt, craft making, and refreshments.”

The focus on children’s activities is a fitting tribute to the branch’s heritage and the woman for whom it’s named.

“This is a descendant of the Boys and Girls House, the first freestanding children’s library in the Commonwealth,” explains Leslie McGrath, a senior department head, who has been working at the branch since it opened in 1995. “When [the Boys and Girls House] opened in the 1920s, it was so well loved. The children literally wore the building out…that heritage of being a children’s library, belonging to the children, is quite wonderful.”

Bradley, who has been at the branch since 2009, also highlights the branch’s history: the building “holds a lot of history. [It] is beautiful. Architecturally, it looks like a castle and we have the griffins out front.”

For today’s readers, those griffins may have an added significance. The branch’s unique collections, which include the Osborne Collection of rare, early children’s books and the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy, not only attract students of all ages but also special guests.

“Aside from our regular visitors, we have authors come in as well. You’d be surprised,” says McGrath, opening a guest book at a page signed by J. K. Rowling, who left a message alongside a drawing of the Hogwarts sorting hat. Leafing through to another page, she points to Empress Michiko of Japan’s signature, a memento of an imperial visit to the Osborne Collection.

The library is a full service branch and its uniqueness extends from its collections to its programming.

“Recently we started our literary speed dating event, [which] went really well,” relates Bradley. “People brought­ one of their favourite books as something to talk about if they needed to and spent five minutes with each person. They had literary pseudo names like Harry Potter or Jane Eyre.”

As the branch head notes, “It’s a lively space.” Her favourite yearly event is the big lion dance on the ground floor for Chinese New Year. It’s a marked difference from when she first started working there, when “the library was about the physical collections, like the books, that took precedence. But now people [use] this library to gather, study, use the free wi-fi, borrow e-books, and use apps…a lot of our collection development is around the e-services.”

One special on-line initiative launching in conjunction with the branch’s anniversary is the Digital Stories Project, the brainchild of page Christina Wong. She is collecting stories and memories of the library, the Boys and Girls House, and the neighbourhood, which will be collated into an on-line exhibition.

“I want to encourage regular citizens to be local historians,” says Wong, who hopes to develop a toolkit that can be used to create the same exhibition at other branches.

Although she grew up mostly going to the Palmerston branch, she does have vague memories – “mostly I remember the smell of it” – of visiting the Boys and Girls House as a child.

She’s still collecting stories, but her favourite so far is from a newcomer to Canada, who recorded how the branch helped her to adjust to life in Toronto.

“We take for granted what a library is,” reflects Wong. “[The story] affirmed the role that libraries can play in a community.”

The Lillian H. Smith branch (239 College St.) of the Toronto Public Library celebrates its 20th anniversary on Oct. 17 with a birthday party from 2 to 4 p.m. For further information, please visit www.torontopubliclibrary.ca. To share a story with the Digital Stories Project, please contact Christina Wong at cwong@torontopubliclibrary.ca or 416-393-7746.

—with files from Axile Gerona

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