Fixing the Browsery

(UPDATED) The Browsery at the Toronto Reference Library is the highest-profile piece of real estate in the entire Toronto Public Library system. It’s as mediocre as the rest of this city is – and that really hurts because the only other Browsery, at North York Central, is fabulous.

I’ll get to that parallel-universe Browsery in a moment. But let me run through the problems first. (I talked these over with the head of the entire ground floor a couple of weeks ago, a sour meeting neither of us enjoyed. The following statement, uttered at 10:24, sums it up: “Are we almost done? I have a meeting at 10:30.”)

Inside the entrance of the Reference Library

What is the Browsery?

If you’re new to the building, nothing tells you what the Browsery is. Nothing! Trust me.

It’s a brilliant idea. Brand-new books and DVDs, music, and recent magazines under one roof. It all circulates, nobody can put a hold on anything, and you can renew most items twice. That means – and this is the best part of all – you can take nine full weeks to read a book. You can actually finish your book!

Yes, you have to schlep to Reference or North York, but if the book you want is there, you’ve scored big.

North York doesn’t explain things any better, but the manner of presentation is worlds different and invites you to explore. Basically everything is shelved face-front, even new CDs. Somebody’s obviously doing some pruning so that really interesting stuff is front and centre. A lot of the time there’s somebody hovering around ready to answer questions.

New DVDs are on one side of a display case, while classic Hollywood films (viable at NYCL) are on the other, thereby solving one of the Reference Browsery’s problems.

And on that topic: Who uses the Browsery? I have strong evidence TPL doesn’t understand its own audience. These categories encompass practically every user at Reference:

  • ESL students and their tutors (75% of the people seated at ground-floor tables)

  • Transients wandering through Yonge and Bloor, plus a few residents (they’re the ones whose holds arrive there) and people who work nearby

  • Library experts and nerds

  • People who came to Reference for other reasons and dared to browse on the way in or out

People who positively are not the Reference Browsery’s audience:

  • Seniors or anyone with a taste for ancient movies

  • Teens and children

  • Average random people of any other description

Welcome to the Toronto Reference Library, thief

Half-assed, homemade, totally bullshit paper signage is festooned all over the crown jewel of Canadian public libraries.

Here’s the second thing you see coming in (after a superfluous sign telling you where the entrance is – that one’s a 500-word post in itself):

Welcome to the Toronto Reference Library. Bags will be inspected upon exit

Please! Make yourself at home. We’ll cavity-search you on the way out. (And we’ll randomly Capitalize.)

This sign is posted inside the entrance, so you have no meaningful chance to read the sign and decide to turn around and leave. (A false alternative of an invasive TSA-style culture of rights violation, but I’m just anticipating the defence of this sign from, say, Palacio, Foderick, or Ainslie.) You also don’t need to be warned that your bags will be inspected because there is no escape from it. It’s going to happen and warning you does nothing.

What is the possible argument in favour of this piece of paper on an aluminum stand that blocks your path inside?

Signage is like a shantytown’s even with an artifact from the Coliseum standing right there

Just to the left of, and further in from, that ridiculous homemade sign is this monolith:

Seven-foot-tall white-glass sign with appliqué letters

This stela has a few features I could quibble with (it’s quite reflective, and it doesn’t use the official Gill Sans, and arrows have to point away from type), but come on: It’s a magnificent object in keeping with the grandeur of the Reference Library.

The manageress disputed that this stela was permanent, but had the presence of mind to shut up when I asked her if the rest of the signage was remotely in the same league. Particularly these.

Frayed paper signs taped on either side of elevator buttons

The Arial and Helvetica or Myriad type (take your pick) and ESL grammar are almost as delicious as the Scotch tape and frayed edges.

Everything about signage in the Browsery is wrong.

  • Nothing explains what the Browser is, how it works, and why you should like it. (Nine weeks!)

  • The returns slot is completely unmarked. I have witnessed people wait endlessly in line just to hand a few items in.

  • There is no real signage for the circulation desk or for the opposite side, the money desk. Such signage would have to hang from the ceiling (spot the other sign on that floor that already does) and use terms that civilians, not MLS librarians, would understand (“Check Out”; “Cash Desk”).

Paving paradise, essentially

Here is the Browsery’s idea of visually merchandising hundreds of brand-new books and audiobooks:

Three-shelf-high wooden shelving units arranged in a quarter-circle

What’s the most prominent feature in that photo? A massive expanse of bare wood.

TRL operates under a 1950s schoolmarm mentality in which a book is nice and safe, and a librarian has really done her job well, if it’s hidden away in a bookcase. That’s great for upstairs – or for stacks in any library, really – but not when your stock is the hottest stuff in the entire library system. Nope: It’s all carefully hidden away, and at a level only somebody in a manual wheelchair would find convenient. (Remember: No kids. And not many dwarves.)

Ever wandered through the Browsery and seen a dozen or so extremely interesting and well-chosen books standing up on the tops of these shelves? I put them there. (They would then be take down. I asked.)

OK: So why don’t they do this?

  • Understandable reasons: It takes somebody with a good eye and taste and an awareness of what’s really interesting to pick the titles. And you’d have to do that once or twice a day. They just barely have enough staff as it is, and several of them are so ESL you wouldn’t even bother asking them.

  • Bogus reason: Apparently one day somebody slid a book all the way across the top of a shelving unit, where it fell off and bumped some old lady on the head. (She was leaning over or something.) I openly ridiculed this argument, pointing out that the library has all sorts of bookstands it could use. I was asked not to demonstrate my point by sliding a book off the top of the shelf. I asked the manageress not to present that as a rational explanation for TPL’s failure to visually merchandise books.

More visual merchandising

  • DVDs are handled badly. Three-quarters of them are too old or irrelevant (episodes of Holmes on Holmes or MI‑5; catalogue movies) to even be there in the first place. The TRL Browsery is not automatically sent one or two copies of every interesting feature film, and it should. But it gets enough, plus some interesting TV series. These too have to be picked out by a knowledgeable person.

    Until the reno is over, DVDs are displayed on trucks. I can live with that. I can’t live with how incompetently they are presented – in random order. I told the manageress what I’d told staff before: Take the five or ten most interesting discs, make a space at the end of a top row (ideally front right when walking up to the trucks) that’s twice as wide as what they take up, and place these good DVDs at 90° to how the rest of them are shelved. You’ve just made a separate display segment with a buffer zone from all the other crap. Those five or ten discs instantly look exceptional and everyone will pore through them.

    Then there’s the separate wooden display case for DVDs and CDs, which doesn’t make sense. (CDs are a jumble. One Sunday last winter I pulled out 70 misfiled CDs, which I assume were later just plunked back en masse in the Popular section.)

  • The two island or standalone bookstands (one for Best Bets, one for regular items) are just completely mismanaged. I at least got the manageress to agree that this primo real estate is wasted on four Fodor’s travel books. Absolutely the most interesting and/or most popular items need to be placed on these stands. (Mix and match! I’m the one who put the fabulous Tina Fey audiobook of Bossypants up there.) This takes the same skills as before – an eye and an ear to the ground – and a few minutes every day.

    Everything has to be face-front or ‑up. Don’t just pack books in there like in every other bookcase in the building.

    Oh, and here’s the signage:

    • Laser-printed sign explaining Best Bets
    • Laser-printed sign explaining Browsery items
  • I just love shit banged out by amateurs in MS Word using whatever font they feel like. (But bold and caps for emphasis!)

Please try smarter

What we have here is a Toronto-scale mediocrity brought into existence by a lack of taste, a kind of stupefied inability to notice the obvious (why can’t I search the catalogue?), understaffing, and a willingness to make excuses.

The North York Central Browsery is 90% of the way there and is an exciting, well-designed experience. (See updated photos.) The Reference Library Browsery is an acreage of beige that tells you nothing and acts like it doesn’t want you there. Sort of like TPL management, now that I think of it.