Toronto’s living library

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It smells like home in the Agincourt library, which boasts the highest circulation among all 98 library branches in Toronto. The branch, with its wide collection of books in Mandarin and Cantonese, claimed this honour in 2012 when more than 1.18 million materials were checked out. 


Patrons eagerly lining up to get a copy of the day’s news…the sound of papers rustling as they page through their preferred sections… librarians ambling about in anticipation of responding to inquiring eyes: this is how weekends typically unfold at Agincourt library, practically a communal living room where many recent immigrants across the cultural spectrum come to roost.

“A lot of people come to the library to read newspapers, particularly newcomers. It’s not that they can’t afford to buy their own. They come to feel part of the community, to meet people,” says Suk Yin Ng, the warmhearted senior branch head at one of Toronto’s most diverse public libraries.

It’s a place that reflects the depth of diversity, where people conversant or fluent in Chinese, French, Hindi, Japanese, Tamil, Tagalog, Spanish, Gujarati or Korean can still embrace their heritage language.

Agincourt library, with its circular front and glass pyramid affixed at the top, also boasts the highest circulation among all 98 library branches. It claimed this honour in 2012 when more than 1.18 million materials were checked out.

Situated in a block alongside townhomes, the bulk of the library’s community base are first-generation immigrants who belong to Ward 40. According to the 2006 census, about 73 per cent of 61,000 residents identified as being born in another country. Of these, the top three minority groups are Chinese, Tamil and Filipino.

The library serves different purposes for many people: it’s a spot to unwind after school, a replacement for the now-defunct video rental store, and apparently it’s better than any tourist attraction in Toronto.

For recent immigrants, having a library card is equivalent to becoming a card-carrying member of Canadian society. “I’ve seen newcomers who, as soon as they land and before they apply for their health card, try to get a library card,” says Ng, a veteran librarian who was worked for Toronto Public Library for over 20 years.


For newcomers, it’s the first assured step to integration. The support network offered by the library is vast: language classes, ready-made social circles through book clubs, computer training, business seminars and other programs to help people acclimate to their new environment.

“We also invite speakers to our women’s support group to help them understand the Canadian legal system, to address issues of domestic violence and discuss their well-being,” explains Ng.

Settlement workers are also onsite, as part of the library’s partnership with Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

At Agincourt, there’s always a beehive of activity, whether it’s a free session on financial literacy or a circle of young readers rapt with curiosity as a story is told.

“We constantly do community outreach and let people know we’re here,” says Ng. “We listen to what they need and want.”

The library, with its endless shelves of books on every conceivable subject—kung fu fiction, biographies of past presidents, self-help parenting books and more—is a passage to other worlds, the abandoned and yet undiscovered. To that end, it fans people’s curiosities about where they came from, what their parents or grandparents left behind.

“I’ve come across a lot of people in their 20s who want to learn Chinese now,” shares Ng. “Before, their parents wanted them to learn their heritage language, but they resented it.”

Luckily for anyone wishing to kick-start their self-education, the branch has a wide collection of books in Mandarin and Cantonese.

Books also make a reliable companion for people who are socially excluded because of language barriers. A young teenage girl came up to Ng once and confided in her that before she had discovered the local library, she felt lonely and miserable, and had a tough time fitting in at school.

The library soon became her refuge, where she could borrow as many cookbooks as she could carry home. On Sundays, the only day her family could spare to spend together, she would experiment with different recipes for them to enjoy.

Ng recalls the girl’s exact words: “Friends come and go, but books are always loyal.”

Exchanges like these remind Ng of the importance of making library resources as accessible as possible for everyone.

More than just a living room where books furnish the area, the public library is one of Toronto’s greatest cultural treasures.

BY THE NUMBERS: Toronto Public Library

Toronto Public Library’s video campaign, narrated by Asian-Canadian author Vincent Lam. 

1883 – the year Toronto and Guelph became the first cities in Ontario to launch free public libraries

19 million visitors on average visit a library each year

98 branches are scattered across the city’s grid

¢2 out of every dollar in the city’s purse are allocated for the library’s budget

$167.727 million – the proposed 2014 operating budget, to be voted on at City Council on January 29 and 30, 2014

32 million materials were borrowed in 2012

1.3 million Torontonians out of 2.6 million own a library card

57.5 per cent of registered cardholders are women

$5.20 per month – the amount Torontonians pay to keep their local libraries functional, or ¢17 cents a day

3.1 percent – of the library’s budget is contributed by the provincial government, a figure that dropped in 2011 from 6.3 per cent in 1992

The library carries materials in 40 languages

1.18 million items were checked out at the Agincourt branch

15,680 people participated in over 675 programs offered at Agincourt library

28,075 library programs were on offer in 2012, with about 769,534 attendees

Source: Toronto Public Library, Agincourt library, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives 

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  • […] It’s a place that reflects the depth of diversity, where people conversant or fluent in Chinese, French, Hindi, Japanese, Tamil, Tagalog, Spanish, Gujarati or Korean can still embrace their heritage language. Read more  […]