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Power tools and paperbacks now under one roof in Toronto as libraries unite

Last Updated Apr 30, 2015 at 8:10 pm EST

TORONTO – There’s a place in Toronto where you can now borrow a power drill and a paperback at the same time.

It’s the result of a new partnership between the Toronto Public Library and the Toronto Tool Library — thought to be the first such collaboration in Canada and considered by some a sign of things to come.

“The library is always innovating, trying to do different things, it’s not just about books anymore,” said tool library co-founder Lawrence Alvarez. “It’s completely logical.”

Tool libraries aren’t new in Canada, the Toronto Tool Library itself already has two other branches in the city, but housing its newest division at a public library branch in a north Toronto neighbourhood is being seen as a big step forward.

“It makes sense to put them in these community hubs,” said Alvarez. “It can be just so prohibitive, the cost of these tools….we’re eliminating these barriers, the public library does that with media and information, so it’s just tacking on this other sort of avenue now with tools.”

Membership to the tool library costs $50 per year, but public library card holders get a $5 discount.

For the head librarian at the public library’s Downsview location, where the latest branch of the tool library opened Thursday, the collaboration is a welcome development.

“We’re hoping to encourage more people to come in,” said Luidmila Cibic, noting that the branch hopes to boost membership in the late 20s to early 30s demographic in particular with the new initiative. “We’re hoping to engage the community on a different level.”

The combined libraries already seem to be having the desired effect — Cibic issued new membership cards to customers just this week who said they came into the branch only after hearing about the tool library.

“Possibly they wouldn’t have come otherwise. Then they saw all the DVDs, the magazines that we have,” Cibic said. “We want to engage and involve the community because we are a community hub.”

The tool lending initiative is one way the public library has been adding to its offerings — a constant endeavour but one of the most creative parts of a librarian’s job, Cibic said.

“That’s the best part, where you can think of ways of involving people,” she said. “A lot more things are happening. We’re not only a book lending institution.”

Indeed, many public libraries in Canada now offer far more than stacks of books and academic databases.

In addition to rapidly expanding ebook collections, helping customers with job searches and providing patrons with Internet access, libraries routinely host workshops, house high-tech facilities like 3-D printers and even rent out equipment like fishing rods and tackle in some branches.

“Good public libraries meet community needs, which change over time,” said Wendy Newman, a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s faculty of information who was also once president of the Canadian Association of Public Libraries.

“Libraries do this in all kinds of ways — they facilitate the sharing of ideas and discussion through their community rooms, the programs that they themselves put on, the resources and services they provide both physical and digital.”

While making sure residents are aware of all that libraries offer is an ongoing challenge, public libraries continue to be spaces that are used, Newman said.

“No matter how highly digital our society becomes, we do not outgrow the extent to which we value community spaces,” she said. “There is in society some shrinkage in community spaces, in civic spaces, the evidence suggests people value that more.”

But not everyone is a fan of new collaborations such as the one recently seen in Toronto.

Siobhan Stevenson, an associate professor at the University of Toronto who studies the changing role of the library, worries that having a public library lend out tools, tackle and other equipment may take funding and resources away from other areas.

“Given all the pressures on budgets, more enhanced technologies, quality monograph collections and more professional librarians is what I’d be putting my money into,” she says.

While Stevenson is worried that the trends in having libraries lend out more “things” is taking the institution away from its mandate, she thinks that the role and function of public libraries currently appears to be in flux.

“One of its major functions has been to ensure equal opportunities for everyone to participate in the economy and in civil society,” she says. “(Libraries) do need to come up with some re-imagining, but not at the expense of the public good they’re there to provide.”

With libraries constantly trying to stretch budgets and prove their value, Stevenson says, the quality of the institution needs to be preserved.

“A community hub is something very different from a community information centre,” she said. “Time will tell, and in the end the community will get the library they want.”