Toronto Public Library gets in on the rebirth of records

The Toronto Public Library is getting in on the vinyl trend by adding 100 new records to their collection.

For librarian Beau Levitt, choosing 100 records to add to the old collection was a 'dream come true'

Librarian Beau Levitt spent a lot time researching which albums to add to the library's record collection. (Ieva Lucs/CBC)

Vinyl is having a major comeback, and the Toronto Public Library is getting in on the trend by adding 100 new records to their collection.

The collection of more than 15,000 records is the largest of any public library in Canada. And librarian Beau Levitt had the honour of adding the new albums to the shelves at the Toronto Reference Library.

"This was kind of a dream come true to be asked to do the selection. It was a lot of fun," Levitt said in an interview during his morning break at the library.

Last year, because of the uptick in the interest in vinyl, the library staff decided to resurrect and renew the old collection. Before then, Levitt estimates the last album was bought in the late 1980s.

A record, Music for Subways, is from the old library collection. (Ieva Lucs/CBC)

Levitt, a huge record collector himself, describes a time in the '80s when every branch in the city had vinyl. When he goes hunting, he still finds albums with library due date cards in local thrift stores.

According to Levitt there was enough money in the budget to invest in approximately 100 records — 25 each from four categories: Canadian, jazz, rock and pop, and hip-hop and R&B.  

Librarians Will Charbonneau (left) and Beau Levitt show off the album artwork for the Beastie Boys record Paul's Boutique. (Ieva Lucs/CBC)

"No new music had been added in so long there were a lot of fairly big holes that needed to be plugged. The hip-hop and R&B was the biggest one because there was basically none of that kind of material in the collection," said Levitt.

A multi-generational thing

Anyone interested can go online and choose what they want to listen to. The librarians at the desk on the 5th floor of the Reference Library will pull the album and bring it to a listening booth nearby.

Patrons request albums and sit at the listening stations on the 5th floor of the Toronto Reference Library to enjoy them. (Ieva Lucs/CBC)

"In the last few years, with the revival of the records, we have a multi-generational thing happening — parents come in with their kids who want to introduce them to records and show them how they play," said Levitt.

Album as artwork

Aine Guiney is the marketing and sales manager of Microforum Vinyl, a Toronto-based company that started pressing new vinyl at the beginning of this year.

Guiney said it's not a coincidence that the rise of vinyl happened around the same time digital music streaming became ubiquitous. She describes a need for a tangible item to go with the listening experience.

Microforum Vinyl often has requests for unique vinyl pressings to turn the albums into artwork. (Aine Guiney/submitted)

"All of the sudden people wanted to own a record again — to hold music in their hands. They wanted to see it, touch it, look at the art work. I think that's a big part of the comeback," she told CBC Toronto.

Guiney said the "album as artwork" is a way for record labels to add value for the buyer.

Microforum Vinyl is currently trying to work out how to make a record look like it's been splattered with blood, for Stomp Records out of Montreal. The company is experimenting with two different coloured vinyls pressed together.

What's on your shelf?

Sonic Boom, the largest independent record store in Canada, is bustling with customers on a Friday afternoon.

Blair Whatmore, a vinyl buyer for the store, started collecting vinyl in the 1990s because it was a cheap way to get his hands on music when he was a kid.

Along with his work at the store, Whatmore also runs an all-vinyl wedding DJ business with a friend, called Vinyl Vows. He says there is a huge curiosity in seeing the DJs playing actual records on turntables.

Although records are his life, he admits he never imagined the vinyl industry would make such a big comeback.

Vinyl buyer Blair Whatmore fires up one of his favourite records at Sonic Boom in Toronto. (Ieva Lucs/CBC)

One of his theories is that teenagers and people in their early 20s, who grew up after the age of CDs, are drawn to having a physical representation of the music.

"I think there is a generation of people who have a hunger for something that's a more engaging experience than scrolling through your iTunes," Blair said, surrounded by crates of records at the back of the sprawling shop in Chinatown.

Whatmore added that every record in a collection has a personal story that goes with it.

"What you have on your shelf says 'this is who I am,'" said Whatmore.

The sound of anticipation

Back at the library, Levitt describes his own collection of 700 records in much the same way.

"People walk into my living room and the first thing they see are my records. I admit that I carefully lay them out in the best light possible because I want it to look good — that's part of the appeal."

Beau Levitt thumbs through the library's record collection. (Ieva Lucs/CBC)

And the sound? Although the sound quality of digital music is getting better Levitt says a record has a warmth and presence that an MP3 can't top.

"The little dusty crackle of the needle drop. That's the sound of anticipation...when the lights go out before the movies starts and everybody quiets down and gets ready to experience something."