Life of a Library

Interior of library

Hiba Abdallah, 2021 Ontario Culture Days Creative in Residence, visited Toronto Public Library’s Eatonville branch in Etobicoke to reflect on the role of the library and its impact on staff and surrounding communities. Historically, Eatonville was once a farm owned by Peter Shaver, and the family-oriented nature of the neighbourhood still persists today.

A text and design-based artist, Abdallah focuses on the intersections of collaboration and community in re-imagining public agency. In this blog, she reflects on her decision to investigate this particular space and her final Ontario Culture Days festival installation.


As a socially engaged artist and educator, I have spent my artistic career working in a vast number of communities, cities, and spaces with many different people. I am curious about what makes a place, and maybe more specifically, what makes a place worth saving, or not. One of the more interesting parts of my work is being invited into spaces that I typically would not be allowed in: water sanitation plants, city planning meetings, restaurant kitchens, long-term care homes, and hospitals to name a few. All these places have provided me with a deeper understanding of how societal structures function, how they fail, and how they can change.

For this residency, I began by thinking about a community space that is very important to me: the library. As someone who has grown up as a book lover, I have often thought of libraries as being the epicentre of imagination and knowledge. As time and technology have advanced, people’s relationship to books and reading has changed significantly. Whether you prefer to read digitally or don’t read books much at all, it has made me wonder what role libraries play in everyday civic life. I started this residency with this question in mind and was introduced to a complex and layered understanding of the ongoing importance of libraries.

Eatonville

I had the pleasure of speaking with two librarians at the Toronto Public Library Eatonville branch: Vivien Canning and Monica Rai. Both worked as librarians for many years. What was evident from our initial conversation is that their job entails far more than I had initially thought. Community members use the library for everything from youth programming to taxes, and none of it would be possible without the dedicated staff. After a few Zoom calls, it was finally safe for me to do a site visit and get a glimpse inside their world.

Blue bins to organize book s inside of library
Book sorting machine Credit: Hiba Abdallah

Upon arrival, I was immediately struck by how many books were packed and ready to be picked up. Monica referred to this as “grab and go” bags, which are curated by the library staff and assembled according to age group. With the pandemic making it impossible to visit the library, the staff have found many creative ways to stay connected to the community. Indicative of the librarians’ connection to the community, engagement and communication has not decreased at all over the last year and a half. Community members will call in to chat with staff about everyday life. It feels as though the librarians have taken on the role of community counsel and support in a very deep and meaningful way.

We finished the tour with a walk around the building from the outside. Even there, I saw how the staff have found creative solutions to stay connected to the community. There was chalk set up for children to use to draw on the sidewalk, as well as this large printout of a story that children can read as they walk around the building.

Lawn sign of an outdoor storybook
An outdoor storybook. Credit: Hiba Abdallah

I left the meeting with Monica and Vivien inspired by their roles as librarians. They are part literary experts, part therapists, part teachers, part advocates. Something that stuck with me was when they shared that Eatonville is oftentimes the first place people go to as new immigrants in the community. For me, that solidified that the role of the library is, in fact, critical, and made me wonder if there was a way we could have this conversation publicly.

I have since come up with the idea for a project entitled, Letters to the Eatonville Library. It will involve developing a collaborative work that explores and celebrates Eatonville library as a beacon for community gathering and learning. For the first part of the project, I will be working with the library staff over the next month to create large text works that reflect their experience of working at Eatonville. These pieces will be installed at the library in the fall. For the second part of the project, I will work closely with Monica and Vivien to have the community write letters to the library. These letters will be collected and turned into a book that will become a part of the library collection. My hope is that the project can help capture the feeling of what this library means to the public—a place that has woven the community’s needs into the fibres of its very being.


If you have a connection to Eatonville Library and want to contribute to Letters to the Eatonville Library, you can visit Hiba’s website, here.

You can check out our full list of 2021 Creatives in Residence here.