Culture

Musical instrument loans, embroidery classes and more amazing free things at your local Canadian library

Get to your library ASAP because you’re probably missing out.

Get to your library ASAP because you’re probably missing out

(Courtesy of Vancouver Public Library)

A few months ago, I convinced a friend to sign up for her first public library card in decades, to check out some board books for her toddler son. As a former part-time page (I used to file books at the Toronto Public Library as a high school student) and more-than-weekly library user, I'm always surprised to learn how few of my friends ever visit their local libraries. Aside from offering book, music and video loans — plus digital access to popular local and international newspapers, magazines and e-books — many libraries today also function as cultural hubs, accessible co-working spaces and educational centres where you can learn skills and hobbies like machine embroidery, and use recording and studio spaces for your audio, video, and design projects. And, did I mention that it's all free?

(Courtesy of Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec)

"We do have books, still, but we offer much more than that," says Danielle Chagnon, director general of the Grande Bibliothèque, a facility operated by Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ). Over the last few decades, Canada's local libraries — like many public libraries around the world, particularly in the United States, Europe and Australia — have made a concerted effort to develop and offer a host of unique, pragmatic programs that benefit local communities and draw users to the library.

"We want visitors to the Vancouver Public Library to be inspired and engaged, and feel connected within Vancouver," says Dawn Ibey, the VPL's director of library experience, adding that the library conceives of itself as "a vehicle for collecting and sharing" community stories. "If you think about a traditional library, you think about having stories on shelves, and people come in and borrow books. [But here,] it's really about a partnership with the community, where they bring stories to us, create stories and become connected."

These days, in addition to more traditional offerings such as children's storytimes and income tax workshops, many city libraries have started to open "maker" spaces; host arts-related festivals, creative residencies and artist-led events; and run countless courses targeted at patrons of all ages. Last year, the Toronto Public Library (TPL) alone offered a staggering 42,400 library programs attended by more than 958,700 participants. "Our programming teams work diligently to engage guests … and offer what we think is an interesting topic or point of view that our public will find engaging, useful and informative," says Gregory McCormick, the TPL's cultural and special event programming manager.

Members of the public and community groups can also suggest programs at their local library. "Many of our programming projects or series come out as a result of our relationships with other organizations," McCormick adds. "And we do occasionally look to other libraries to ensure that we're aware of things that are working in other library markets [and] that Torontonians are getting as wide a range of topics, personalities and formats as they expect."

(Courtesy of Vancouver Public Library)

While each city or region's library system works with slightly different budgets and priorities, and offerings do change seasonally, here are eight of the coolest programs currently available across Canada. Maybe it's time to sign up for that library card?

Enjoy storytime

At the Grande Bibliothèque in Montreal, there's storytime with a drag queen, as well as storytimes held in languages such as Spanish and Russian (in early 2019, they'll host Inuktitut and Innu language storytimes, too). "Storytime with a drag queen was very well-received," says Chagnon. "It was a way to talk about [the social issue of] gender … and we wanted to address that issue with kids and their parents."

Get technical

Whether it's called an Inspiration Lab, Digital Innovation Hub, Makerspace or something else, libraries have been creating spaces in their branches where you can learn to use, and gain free access to, everything from 3D printers to sound booths (materials and printing fees do apply). "Our Inspiration Lab [offers] free spaces dedicated to digital creativity, collaboration and storytelling," says Ibey, adding that the VPL's space includes everything from recording booths to video editing and e-book making stations.

Start planting

Mississauga, Ont., residents have access to a seed library at two branches. These libraries contain envelopes of organic and non-GMO seeds that are available for planting, and members are encouraged to donate and return seeds at the end of the growing season. Similar programs exist in Victoria, B.C., Westmount, Que., and a host of other cities.

Design a robot

At Toronto Public Library branches across the city, robotics programs for kids often fill up and have a long wait list, according to Ana-Maria Critchley, the TPL's manager of stakeholder relations. In these hands-on classes, school-age children can learn about coding, circuitry and even build their own robots.

Make music

(Courtesy of Vancouver Public Library)

In Vancouver, library patrons can check out instruments from electric guitars to mandolins at the VPL's Sun Life Financial Musical Instrument Lending Library. "We have about 280 string and percussion instruments that are available for people to borrow, the same way that they would borrow any other item in our library," says Ibey. The program is also available in nine other Canadian cities.

Sew something

The recently revamped North York Central Library branch hosts the TPL's first Fabrication Studio, where visitors can access professional sewing equipment and a vinyl printer/cutter, and take courses in topics as diverse as Sewing Basics and Introduction to Armoursmithing with EVA Foam.

Write a romance novel

For the first time, the VPL's Writer in Residence is a romance novelist. This fall, Stella MacLean, author of nine Harlequin Superromance books, will be offering workshops to help novice writers start and complete their romance manuscripts for submission to a publisher.

Bake, cook and taste

Many libraries offer hands-on cooking and baking workshops for both adults and kids. For example, Halifax Public Libraries run classes on topics such as Instant Pot cooking and shortbread baking, and offer teen- and kid-friendly cooking classes.


Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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