Toronto's new city librarian pushes the digital envelope
Vickery Bowles plans to continue predecessor Jane Pyper's work bringing digital innovation to the 100-branch system — and vision of the library as a lifelong learning centre.
This week Vickery Bowles, 58, became Toronto’s new city librarian, succeeding Jane Pyper, who was lauded for pushing the system into the digital age. The Star sat down with Bowles, a 32-year Toronto Public Library veteran, in her office.
You have been handed the keys to the one of the world's busiest urban public library systems, with 100 branches, more than 2,000 employees and a budget of more than $170 million. What are you going to do with it?
It's about continuity and change — building on past success and identifying new ways to continue to improve service and deliver services in more innovative and creative ways. One of the big opportunities is to continue to lead the transition to digital. We have a large e-collection. Last year it grew 65 per cent, so it represents 3.5 million circulations out of 32 million, so it's almost 11 per cent of circulation. So we need to continue and develop that.
What specific digital innovations are you looking at?
We've just started to introduce digital innovation hubs, here at the Toronto Reference Library and at our new Fort York branch, where we have (video production) green screens, 3-D printers, other technology, and staff to help people learn how to use it. The library is a place to create, not just a place to come and consume and access information, although that's really important. It's also a place to collaborate, create and innovate, and that's an important part of the new public library of the 21st century. Also, e-learning is a big area of growth, where people can take courses online together at the library and there might be an instructor-intermediary who assists. That gives us an opportunity to reinvent the library and offer services in a different way, but continues to support a fundamental mandate of the library, which is lifelong learning. It’s an area I want to explore.
With digital information swirling everywhere, what’s the library’s role?
The way people consume information is changing, but the role of the library remains constant: children's literacy; preserving the past; offering opportunities for lifelong learning; equitable access to information; providing welcoming, safe public space in 100 different communities across Toronto. Libraries are not book repositories — they are literary and cultural destinations. An author reading, a puppet performance, story time for children, a session with teens about life-skills — all of those kinds of programs are happening in different communities across the city.
We had over 18 million people visit libraries in 2014, over 32 million items borrowed, including electronic items. In a world with this huge explosion of information, it is more important than ever that the library is a place to go to get the facts. We have professional staff who can guide people and point them to reliable sources of information, and help filter through what are the facts, what is opinion and what is speculation.
As a senior library manager, what has been your biggest surprise of the past 10 years?
With the public's adoption of e-books, the biggest surprise is the difficulty that we've encountered to access the content of publishers, and now to respond to their different terms and conditions — including price and caps on time and use.
I'm very sympathetic to publishers, I understand that the landscape is changing tremendously and I value their contribution to the literary and cultural experience in Canada. But I also know the value of the public library in making the printed word, whether e-printed or paper-printed, available to people and introducing readers to new authors. Really, that is the biggest challenge we are having — with the demand for e-content, it's putting a lot of pressure on our collections budgets because we are having to spend a lot more than we think we should be.
I hope we can come up with a business model that works for them and for libraries. We have made some progress, and acknowledge we should be paying more than consumer prices, but, in some cases, what we are paying is far too much.
Does this focus on collaboration and new uses mean that librarians can’t “shush!” us any more?
We have zoned our branches so there are areas of quiet study and there are collaborative work areas. All of those different aspects are important. No one does “shush!”
This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.