As the Toronto Public Library’s new top librarian, Vickery Bowles has a vision for how the library – which she regards as an important part of our democratic society – can give anyone an opportunity to enhance their learning. “The public library is the people’s university,” says Bowles (BA 1980 Victoria, MLS 1982).
As she prepares the library’s new strategic plan, Bowles is intent on providing access for all. She’s including preschoolers in the children’s programs, for example, and she has joined the board of the Centre for Equitable Library Access to ensure that library doors are swung wide open for Canadians with disabilities such as low vision or dyslexia. “What I’m interested in is making a difference in people’s lives, and that’s one of the privileges of leadership,” says Bowles, who became the city librarian in January.
One of her priorities is to bridge the digital divide. “Libraries aren’t just about books anymore,” she says. “Libraries now provide Wi-Fi and high-speed Internet, lend laptops and offer all sorts of programs to enhance technical skills.” Families living in poverty may not have access to the Internet or the chance to hone the digital skills needed to succeed in our knowledge-based world, she explains. And not having access to email and social media can silence the individuals who may have the most to say.
The library’s first priority, though, will remain the same: to foster literacy and a love of reading. “The heart and soul of the library is still books,” says the Jane Austen enthusiast.
“About half of all Torontonians are library-card holders. We are a city of readers, reading authors from around the world,” says Bowles. She should know. As the library’s former director of collections management and city-wide services, she has a keen understanding of what’s in Toronto’s 10-million-piece collection.
Bowles believes that public spaces are crucial to communities and will ensure that libraries add beauty to them. “We knit together private experiences and public spaces,” she says, gesturing to the gigantic window in her office at the Toronto Reference Library. “We reach people where they live.” The Toronto Public Library has one of the largest number of branches of any library system in the world. In May, it opened its 100th branch, at Scarborough Civic Centre.
“Libraries have become about more than consuming content, they’re now also about creating it,” she continues. “Self-publishing has become huge.” Not far from her office door is an “Espresso Book Machine” that, for a small fee, allows patrons to transform their manuscripts into paperbacks. If your creativity can’t be captured between two book covers, try one of the library’s 3D printers.
Working on a collaborative project? Bowles would encourage you to step inside one of the soundproof study pods that allow library-goers to boisterously engage in the creative process in what was formerly hush-hush space.
In her plans for taking Toronto’s readers into the future, Bowles wants to build on the library’s partnership with U of T. Already, our graduate students and professors are in the branch libraries presenting sessions that pose intriguing questions such as: Is being too clean making us sick? Is there extraterrestrial life? What’s out there, anyway?
Bowles hopes Torontonians of all stripes will use their libraries to ask their own questions – and just maybe find some answers.
A U of T lab is working with actors, writers and directors on how they could harness AI and other emerging technologies to generate new ideas and – just maybe – reinvent theatre