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Lillian H. Smith Library

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The Toronto Public Library system is one of the best in the world, and the Lillian H. Smith branch is one of its prized locations. Located in the heart of the Discovery District, on the cusp of both Kensington Market and Chinatown and right in the outer boroughs of the University of Toronto, Lillian H. Smith gets a lot of traffic.

The traffic is not just comprised of the students that populate the hip area, but also children and those interested in children's literature. The building has a long history as a children’s library, and though it is not strictly such today, it remains true to its roots. It is home to the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books.

The library is named after Lillian Helena Smith, who was born in London, Ontario in 1887 and studied at the University of Toronto. After graduation in 1910, she went on to train as a children’s librarian at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was subsequently offered a position with the Children’s Department of the New York Public Library and was placed in charge of the children's room at the Washington Heights Branch Library. A year later, George H. Locke, chief librarian of the Toronto Public Library system, approached her with an offer to organize the children’s department for the city. Upon taking the post, she became the first trained children’s librarian in the British Empire.

Smith worked with community groups and others concerned with children while organizing the department. She set up book displays and publicized the importance of reading, carrying out most of her work in a section of the adult department until 1922, when a separate children’s library, called Boys and Girls House, was established in a converted home with Smith as head librarian.

During her time working for the Toronto Public Library, Smith worked to grow the collection of children’s books, which consisted mostly of gifts and remainders, created a new classification system (in use from 1930-1999), and consistently reached out to schools in order to teach the students about the library system and its importance. She was also a champion of establishing library branches in school, and at the time of her retirement in 1952, the public library had set up and was operating libraries in 30 schools.

Smith was instrumental in the creation of the Canadian Association of Children’s Librarians, taught children’s literature courses at the University of Toronto and is the author of the book, The Unreluctant Years: A critical approach to children's literature (American Library Association), a highly influential work for children’s librarians. Lillian H. Smith died in 1983.

A new building was erected in 1995 to replace the Boys and Girls House, and is the one that remains today (now called Lillian H. Smith library). Perhaps in an attempt to keep with the site’s history and appeal to children, architect Phillip H. Carter designed the building to resemble a medieval castle. Two enormous bronze griffins flank the entranceway, and wall torches can be found outside and in.

The building is designed as though it is two towers, with checkerboard masonry as decoration. Inside there is a circular stairwell that continues up all five floors, creating quite the view looking up or down, as if you’re in the outer shell of an empty tower. It is rotunda-like, and best viewed from directly inside the library, so don’t hesitate to take a trip down. It is an exquisite building, and only when they are libraries do buildings this exquisite have such exquisite a function.

In addition to being a district library, Lillian H. Smith is home to two of the Toronto Public Library’s Special Collections, the aforementioned Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books and the Merrill Collection of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculation. It is located at 239 College Street, in Toronto, Ontario.

To find out more about hours and amenities, you can visit the Lillian H. Smith Library website here.

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