How Toronto’s Leading the Way in Library Innovation: A Conversation with Pam Ryan
If you still think of libraries as musty, quiet places filled with books and little else, then you likely haven’t been to one in quite some time. In cities around the world, as free public spaces become rarer, libraries have become critical pieces of what writer Eric Klinenberg calls “social infrastructure.” Families go there to play or do homework; seniors to take classes or send a vital fax; teenagers to hang out. And in the digital era, libraries are stepping up to provide critical digital infrastructure — free internet, access to software, digital literacy training — too.
The Toronto Public Library (TPL) has been at the forefront of this trend. From creating “innovation hubs” in its branches that provide access to cutting-edge technologies, to partnering with organizations around the city to start a conversation around responsible data use, to spearheading new models of learning, Toronto’s branch libraries are innovating and responding to the needs of the communities they serve. To learn more about the library’s successes — and where it could be headed in the future — we sat down to talk to one of the people at its helm: Pam Ryan, TPL’s Director of Service Development & Innovation.
How did you become a librarian?
Well, I actually started off as an academic librarian. I loved the academic environment, and I wanted a job. So I did a master’s degree in library and information studies and then worked in academic libraries, for 15 years. But then I got an opportunity to work for a year in a director role at the Edmonton Public Library, just as a secondment from my secure tenured academic job. And after four months, I was like: ‘This is way better.’
What was better about it?
You really see the impact of your work on a daily basis. And that community involvement, that city building role, that partnership with other city agencies in making the city work … it just aligned with where I wanted to be working.
Do you have any personal memories of libraries that may have influenced your career choice?
Well you know, if you ask librarians, we all have a library-oriented origin story. I grew up in Toronto. The Deer Park branch was my local branch, and it was the very first place I was allowed to go on my own independently, by just saying: ‘I’m going to the library’ and walking out the door. And I can remember, I was probably about 10 years old, reading an encyclopedia of explorers, and it had a story on Amelia Earhart. It was when I learned girls could fly planes. I remember being so incensed because I didn’t know who she was before that. Somehow I had lived to be 10 years old and not known that. So the better story would be that I became a pilot, but I still think it’s a pretty great story that I became a librarian. I went for the bigger story of providing independent access to information and exploration for people.
About 70% of Toronto’s population uses the Toronto public library. What do you attribute its success to?
Well, I think it’s a number of things. First off, it’s remaining relevant, ensuring that you’re meeting community needs. We cannot understate the importance of the hundred-branch network of the Toronto public library. Because that means we are a hundred libraries, not one library, and each library knows their community well, gets to know their community members, is an embedded hub where they are in touch with the pulse of what’s going on. So that really helps feed into that continued relevance, being part of people’s everyday life. From that understanding of the different communities we serve, we’re able to package and create services in all channels and all formats to meet those needs.
How have you seen the communities’ needs change over time, and how do you think they’ll change in the future? Increasingly, it’s about access to technology, access to learn new technologies, to play with new technologies, and even just developing basic digital literacy skills that so many take for granted.
We have a tool called the “bridge toolkit,” which assesses people’s use of library technology, and for a good number of people, we are their only access to a computer or to the internet. We are that place for everyone, we ensure that equitable access. We have a Wi-Fi hotspot lending program where folks without home internet access can loan a Wi-Fi hotspot and bring it home for their families for six months. We ask all those folks about how they used it, and upwards of 40 percent are using it to help find employment or increase their employment prospects. But we also hear family stories — it means that the family can be home together at night, because the kids don’t need to go to the library to do their homework.
You said about 40 percent of the people in this program are researching employment opportunities. Do you see libraries potentially taking on more of a role in job searching and workforce development?
Absolutely. I mean, every single day across the city, libraries are helping folks, from how to get an email address so they can apply for a job, to how to create a resume, to how you join job search websites and create accounts. And I mean that’s everyday work in public libraries.
Increasingly we’re involved in helping people develop their digital skills so they are more employable. We have a suite of user education courses where people can learn how to use a computer, how to use the internet, how to use Word, Excel, PowerPoint. And we also have courses on how to use Photoshop and more advanced softwares like that. Those are all free, and people definitely report that the number one reason why they are taking these courses is to increase their employability.
We’re also the only public library that is a Cisco Networking Academy, which is a fleet of online courses developed by Cisco. But we know that online learning completion rates are really low, like under 10 percent, so we developed a model where we provide learning circles for cohorts of learners who are using the online curriculum. They come together physically and support each other, facilitated by library staff. And we’re seeing completion rates over 50 percent. That’s a huge increase in people getting IT certifications for completing that work. And it’s all for free.
We also worked with Google [Sidewalk Labs’ sister company] last year to have the Toronto Public Library take a leadership role in working with three other public libraries, Hamilton, Surrey, and Edmonton, to adapt that learning circle model to the Google professional certificate. It’s an eight month program, and at the end of it you are ready to work in an entry level IT support role. They gave us over a million dollars to support these folks, and we’re just in our first cohort right now. So there’s 250 people across the country taking it, they come weekly. There are a few people, a couple dozen who finished the course early, and two of them are already employed in IT fields. We’re going to be doing more and more of that kind of work, where it’s free support of expert online curriculum that we haven’t created. The wraparound supports that are needed to help people be successful are definitely an increasing role for the library.
One of our most popular online resources is lynda.com, which provides quick learning on things you need in the workplace or in school. And increasingly we have other subscription products too. There’s a product called Brainfuse, which is online tutoring for students from K to 12. You connect and say ‘I’m doing the grade 10 math curriculum and I’m stuck on this concept,’ and you get tutoring realtime. Those are huge supports.
Another role that we’re playing is around helping people navigate their digital footprint and their digital privacy. When we talk about digital literacy, we talk about using computers and applications, but increasingly it’s understanding algorithmic literacy and understanding what people’s data means and what they’re giving away. So that is increasingly an area of focus for our programming.
We have a digital privacy series, which is a multi-part program where people can come in and learn different concepts about how to protect their privacy online and understand the impact of their online behaviors. We have a pilot installation of the Tor browser in one of our learning labs, where we can demonstrate to people tools that help protect your anonymity online. I think we’re the only public library in Canada I’m aware of that provides that Tor access. And that’s increasingly the work that libraries need to be doing.
Around algorithmic literacy, we actually worked with the Brookfield Institute here at Ryerson University to put on an AI stakeholders forum. So we pulled together a half day session to bring everyone together to say, what are you working on? And let’s not reinvent the wheel. Just to start creating those connections between folks who are trying to create either curriculum or public education campaigns. So it’s still early days for us. But we’re going about it in the way we always do. Finding out what’s going on out there, who are our potential partners to deliver services.
TPL has spaces with technologies like robotics kits or podcast studios. How do you choose which kinds of spaces you incorporate? And how flexibly can you adapt to what the community might need?
We can be pretty nimble. We have digital innovation hubs in a number of our locations, and we really just experiment. We see what’s going on with consumer trends, and we’ve got really creative staff who are excited about trying new things.
It seems like a lot of branches have been renovated recently. How are the spaces physically changing?
There’s more of a recognition of the role of the library as public space, and designing spaces for people. Collections are still super important, but so is balancing that need with flexible spaces for people. So whether it’s space for people to be alone with others — we know that’s a huge community need — or to get to together with study groups or to have bookable space for meetings or for the community. Whether it’s your condo board meeting or a parents group that wants to get together or any other sort of nonprofit community purpose, the space is theirs too. So flexible spaces, spaces for different types of uses, are increasingly informing how we design our spaces.
You also have bookmobiles, which have a lineage back to the 1950s.
There are always going to be folks who cannot get to the library, and we operate two bookmobiles that have routes that cover areas that are not close to library branches. If you want certain materials you can place holds on them and pick the bookmobile as the location where you’re going to pick it up. We do family shelter stops; library staff can go into the shelter and do some early literacy programming or some story times or some services for whatever the families need in the locations.
Do you consider libraries as social infrastructure?
We actually had Eric Klinenberg here some weeks ago. He did a session for library staff in Toronto, and his book, Palaces for the People is great. I mean, spot on. And the way that he’s framed it is perfect. So I completely agree that libraries are social infrastructure, but I also think that we’re knowledge and information infrastructure as well. I think it’s important that all three go together.
But in terms of social infrastructure — Klinenberg was investigating resilience in communities following environmental crises. And the most resilient communities were those that had libraries, because people already had a place where they came together as a community to do normal everyday things, like go to story time, use a computer, take out books, take some courses, it was already part of their fabric. So they knew where to go when they had a crisis. And that is such a telling message, the key message that really resonated for me out of his book.