The role of public libraries is multifaceted - one of the only free civic spaces left, the library is a site of sharing, community-building, inclusion, and accessibility. Among other things, libraries offer free access to scholarly materials, programming, ESL classes that help introduce new Canadians to their communities, as well as Wi-Fi and technology. Perhaps most simply put, they're also a place to go.
Libraries are often at the forefront of new technologies, which they use to make sure their customers have equitable access to different knowledge bases. As libraries are municipally controlled, there are no Canada-wide best practices for accessibility. Instead, each branch is unique and responds to the needs of its community as they arise.
The Role of Libraries
"Libraries aren't just for books. They're often spaces that transform into what you need them to be: a classroom, a cybercafé, a place to find answers, a quiet spot to be alone. It's actually kind of magical."
-This American Life, The Room of Requirement
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, services such as curbside pickup, online material access and programming became more widespread - helping to expand what it means to make library materials accessible and showing how easy it can be to implement strategies that help all library users. Building collections with accessibility in mind is essential to this process - and there are many different and exciting ways to do this.
- Making assistive devices such as screen readers, braille writers, page turners, magnification software, full spectrum lamps, and book stands available for public access.
- Offering large-print books and dyslexia-friendly readers printed on thicker, printed pages for better readability.
- Making e-books available via the OverDrive app, where a reader can change the font size, style, page layout, and line spacing, and find the most compatible publications for their specific needs, including read-alongs (picture books with built-in audio players), audio comics, and audiobooks with different listening settings. OverDrive also offers children's stories and rhymes with American Sign Language (ASL), text, and audio.
- Offering audiobooks that can be listened to on a computer, DAISY player or mobile device, or on borrowed physical audiobooks. In addition, the TPL's Dial-A-Story service allows patrons to call any time of day and listen to a story for free.
- Making talking Books - full-length audiobooks in multi-disc CD or single-disc DAISY formats - available to people with print disabilities. DAISY Talking Books can be listened to on a DAISY player and allow listeners to change playback speed, bookmark pages, go directly to a specific page, and search within a book.
- Partnering with the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) to provide accessible collections to people with print disabilities as well professionals who work with people with print disabilities. CELA offers a collection of 700,000 works, both new and old, which can be delivered via online services, DAISY players, or mail delivery, depending on the user's needs.
- Adapted from Toronto Public Library - Accessible Collections
Toronto Public Library is the busiest urban public library system in the world. Key facts about the TPL for 2020 include:
- 5,557,751 visits to 100 branches.
- Over 32.3 million visits to tpl.ca.
- 68% of Torontonians use the Toronto Public Library.
- 1,047,034 people are registered Toronto Public Library cardholders.
- Over 10.5 million items in TPL collections, including books, CDs, DVDs, and e-books in 40 languages.
- Torontonians borrowed library materials over 21,000,916 times.
- Circulation of digital content surpassed 10.5 million, setting a global record with the download of 8.7 million OverDrive items.
- 1.7 million wireless sessions in library branches.
- 963 online programs with total views and attendance of 72,872.
- 70,000 people registered for a library card.
Profile: Emily Willan
"Accessibility is about recognizing the value and dignity of every human. Awareness and education on these issues are vital because fully serving human needs requires humans," says Brampton-based Emily Willan, whose neurological/autoimmune disability informs her work as an editor and writer. Willan helped create this Making Accessible Book module as a project assistant. "Learning about and working in accessibility has been empowering because it showed me that my experience of the world is valuable," says Willan. "I knew disability had grown my empathy, but I hadn't appreciated that it also gives me insight that can drive solutions. It's thrilling to be able to leverage my knowledge and perspective to serve people."
Willan works as a marketing and communications assistant at Brampton Library, where she is also an advocate for developing accessible mindsets and augmenting accessible services. She has drafted internal guides for web accessibility (including image descriptions, hyperlinking best practices, and plain language) as well as video captioning. She was honoured to attend the 2022 NNELS Accessible Publishing Summit, where she spoke on a panel about accessibility in publishing education. Her forthcoming essay "Living the Hobbit Life" reflects on lessons gleaned from J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional hobbits about living with adversity and marginality, both in the context of her experience of disability and experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The essay is published in the spring/summer 2022 edition of the Humber Literary Review.
Access to Literacy
For over 100 years, fees charged for overdue books have been a source of library revenue and an incentive for people to return borrowed books. In the past few years, however, attitudes to overdue fines have changed, the mission of libraries being to equitably serve the public with information and knowledge (The Atlantic, 2020).
On April 1, 2022, the City of Toronto eliminated all overdue fines at public libraries. At a press conference to announce this initiative, Mayor John Tory noted that overdue fines disproportionately impact Toronto's racialized and lower-income communities by creating a financial barrier to library use, since those who owe fines may be less likely to use the library system and all the supports, materials, and services they offer.
Librarianship.ca maintains a list of libraries in Canada that have fully or partially eliminated fees for overdue materials. The website includes resources including a variety of collaboration and information-sharing tools, studies and reports, a learning platform to support eLearning and a robust resource of existing information assets.
Libraries are monuments of knowledge and ideas, and as the guardians of books they contain worlds within worlds. But what happens when the doors close and the lights go out? What lingers at the edges of what is known and understood?
Inspired by Alberto Manguel's book of the same name, Robert Lepage's The Library at Night is an immersive virtual-reality journey that visits ten libraries, real or imagined, throughout time and across the globe: Admont Abbey in Austria, Hasedera Temple in Japan, Captain Nemo's library aboard the Nautilus from Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the National Library of Sarajevo in Bosnia, the Alexandria Library past and present, the Vasconcelos Library in a dry riverbed in Mexico, the library of Social Sciences of Copenhagen University, Canada's Library of Parliament, the Sainte-Geneviève Library in Paris, and the Library of Congress in Washington.