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Tips for making the most of the Toronto Public Library

| library, tips, toronto

The Toronto Public Library saves me thousands of dollars of book costs and opens up an amazing trove of knowledge. Here are some of my tips for making the most of this wonderful library system. What are yours?

You can borrow more than just books. The library has a wide collection of magazines, audiobooks, and videos. Check out the DVD shelves of your library for recent releases, or browse the periodicals to see what catches your eye.

You can request items online and have them delivered to any branch. You have access to all the circulating books in the system. With a library card, you can request items and have them delivered to a branch. The library will hold the items for a week. If you don’t pick up the items within the week, they will return to circulation. (Watch out for the new $1/item fines.)

Check out electronic resources, too. The library offers e-books, downloadable audiobooks, online journals, databases, and other resources.

Avoid overdue fines by returning items even after hours. When a library branch is closed, you can return items through the book drop slot. These items will be counted as returned on the last day that the library was open. For example, if a book was due on Saturday, but you put it in the book drop slot on Sunday while the library was closed, you won’t pay any overdue fines. If Monday is a public holiday, you can even return it then.

This is one of the reasons why I check out most of my books or renew them on Saturdays, so that I have Sunday as a grace period.

Renew strategically. If there are no other holds on an item, you can renew it, over the phone, or in person. It’s easier to renew items online than over the phone. Even if you can’t renew an item because of an existing hold, try again closer to your due date. Holds may be filled by other people’s returns, allowing you to renew your copy.

Books can be renewed for 3-week periods, and videos can be renewed for one week at a time. I believe the renewal period starts from the day that you renew the item, so don’t renew things too early or you’ll waste the extra time on your account. I usually renew my items on Saturdays (see above). I wrote a Perl script that checks items due in the next week and renews whichever items it can.

Associate other people’s cards with yours in order to pick up books for them, or to borrow on their account. Ask a librarian for a consent form and present both cards. My husband borrows items from the library too, so we pick up books for each other if needed. This has come in quite handy when I’m on a book-reading sprint, too, as I sometimes exceed the limit of 50 checked-out items.

Ask about passes to get free admission to city attractions. Some libraries distribute passes for museums and other attractions. There can be quite a line-up for popular places, so ask the librarians when the passes are released and plan accordingly.

You can find materials in many languages. Learning a new language, or pining for movies and books in your native tongue? Check out the library’s collections for books, videos, and other items in different languages.

Ask librarians for recommendations. Librarians are happy to answer questions and point you to more resources. There’s also a Q&A service that you can get to on the website. Talk to your librarians, and you’ll learn a lot.

Check out events at different libraries. Many libraries have regular events: book clubs, group exercise, even yoga sessions. These events tend to be free or inexpensive. Find out if any of these match your interests, and have fun!

Check out tech resources. The library offers computers, printers, photocopiers, and scanners. Check out the free WiFi, too.

Book meetings. The library has many meeting rooms that people can rent for reasonable fees.

Support your local library. You can get tons of value from the resources at your library. Give some of it back.  =)

Do you use your library a lot? What are your favourite tips?

Sketchnotes: Small business network meetup with Kristina Chau at the Toronto Reference Library

Posted: - Modified: | entrepreneurship, library, sketches, sketchnotes, toronto

Notes from the Small Business Network meetup with Kristina Chau

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

I attended the small business network meetup at the Toronto Reference Library. The librarian (Margaret Wigglesworth) explained that the Toronto Public Library started hosting these events after people requested more networking time in the business classes that the library organized. Each session was structured as a short talk and a networking discussion. There were twelve of us seated around a comfortably-sized table on the third floor of the reference library. Many were thinking about starting a business but hadn’t taken the plunge, although there was a high school senior who was the president of his school’s business club and made some money buying and selling phones through Craigslist and Kijiji.

Kristina Chau (, @notyouravgparty) shared her experiences in getting started. After working hard for someone else’s company, she realized that she’d rather work on her own. She did some freelance work as an event planner. At 29, she started her own event planning company. She applied to the Toronto Business Development Centre for the Although her application was denied, she found the rigor of the application process to be very helpful. She eventually funded her own company through the services she offered.

Kristina shared examples of the evolution of her brand: the business card versions she went through, her current website, even the Starbucks cookie bag on which she and a friend had brainstormed the business. It looked like a lot of people were reassured by the idea that they didn’t have to get things right the first time around. Kristina also mentioned that getting her website together took a long time and a lot of investment, and people had many questions about that.

In the discussion, a few people shared that they had lots of ideas they wanted to work on, but they didn’t know where to start or what to focus on. If I can figure out these micro-experiments for entrepreneurship, maybe that’s something I can help people with.

I’ve read Work the Pond, the first book that Kristina recommended. It has a particularly good chapter on tag-team networking (see my linked notes), and is overall a good networking book. I’ll check out the other two books she mentioned and post my notes as well. In terms of books on entrepreneurship, Lean Startup is one of my current favourites, and I’m looking forward to trying the ideas.

I’m planning to attend the next meetup on March 13. Got any favourite small business events in Toronto? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

On libraries at school

Posted: - Modified: | library

Some of my fondest memories at school are of libraries, of devouring whatever caught my eye from the stacks. It was a quiet haven from the rush of the outside.

Are libraries still relevant in the age of Google and Wikipedia?

For me, yes. I borrow dozens of books from the Toronto Public Library each week, browsing their online catalogue for books to request for delivery. There are few better ways to spend an afternoon than curled up with a stack of books.

It’s an amazing thing, to be able to borrow more books than you can buy, to take home more books than you can carry. I haven’t really taken advantage of reference librarians’ services, but that’s because I enjoy diving into books.

Libraries are the first taste many people have of freely learning from neatly structured knowledge, more interest-driven than textbooks, more comprehensive and more reliable than the chaos of the Web. In places without public libraries or where not everyone has broadband, school libraries are even more important.

It takes work and space and money to make a library. I have the greatest respect for librarians, who have to decide which books will be the best use of a limited budget, how to arrange the space in order to invite people in and encourage them to read, and all sorts of other things I take for granted when I read a book.

Librarians are awesome in other ways, too. They care a lot about privacy and freedom. They’ve thought about how to organize digital information and keep things accessible. Many of the Web 2.0 tools I’m excited about benefited from the thoughts and insights of librarians.

What would I like to see in libraries of the future? Social recommendations, like the way Amazon does it. I use libraries heavily, and I’d love to see recommendations of books based on things I’ve checked out in the past. Even someone who’s just starting out might get lured in by all the great books out there.

Other people have thought a lot about how libraries can stay relevant and show the value they provide. Me, I’m just a fan. =)

Thanks to dmcordell for the nudge to think about this!

Oh, the library…

| learning, library

I have a confession to make: I stalk the Toronto Public Library.

The library publishes a list of new acquisitions online every 15th of the month. And every 15th of the month, I check out the new releases for business and other topics I’m interested, pick the ones I’m interested in, and hand my list off to an assistant who then performs my place-hold-on-book task for each and every book on that list. This takes more time than just reserving the books myself, but it saves me lots of clicking back and forth through the list.

Then the books slowly filter in. Some books already have a backlog of holds, fortunately, so I don’t (usually) have 50 books descending on the Annette branch all at once. We’ve set aside a shelf for library books, although they usually spill over to chairs and tables as well.

I snack on the books, browsing through them to find the nuggets of insight that distinguish books from the numerous others written on the same topic.

When my three-week window is up, the popular books go back, and the less-popular ones might either be returned or renewed. Then it’s almost the 15th again, with a fresh new batch of books waiting to be picked over…



Posted: - Modified: | library, life, reading
Toronto Reference Library interior, Toronto, C...

Image via Wikipedia

As I write this, my shelves hold 50 books from the Toronto Public Library (the maximum you can have out at a time), and I’ve placed holds on 46 more (four away from the maximum for that, too).

I really, really, really like libraries.

It’s a great improvement over standing in bookstores, trying to figure out which one of ten books I would get, furtively skimming through books to absorb the content and writing style so that I could pick the keepers (or simply slurp the ideas from the book, and move on).

I still buy books. I buy them to give to friends, or to turn to for handy inspiration.

But oh, the library…

My first memory of a library outside the bookshelves that lined our house was the Learning Resource Center (or LRC) at my grade school. In addition to rows and rows of shelves, it had colorful books in a small carpeted play area. I’d often curl up there with random things I’d pull off the shelves: classic fiction alternated with Disney stories, reference books matched with fairytales.

My high school library had the largest dictionary I’d ever seen, reference books galore, and a decent collection of science fiction and other novels. I remember coming across a list of phobias and manias in a psychology reference once, and being absolutely fascinated by the names that people had given all these concepts. My favorite was trichorrhexophobia, the fear of splitting hairs. But Google can only find one page that has that term (aside from this one, once it’s indexed). Was it a figment of my teenage imagination, or have the years warped the spelling in my memories?

My university library had a computerized system. While I loved the ease of searching the catalog from my own computer (and even wrote a Perl script that scraped the search results into my database), I missed the familiarity of running into the same scrawled names on library check-out cards. But it was a huge library that spanned several stories, and it had so, so many books. I read and read and read.

And now this. Toronto. One of the largest library systems in the world. As a graduate student, I had access to the towering Robarts Library as well. I thought I’d miss the stacks a lot after I graduated, but the Toronto Public Library is immense and I can find almost everything I need (aside from scholarly publications, which I sometimes wish I still had easy access to, but ah well).

Someday, I want to build a library. There’s something about coming across books I would never have searched for, and I want to share that with the future.

Library shortcuts

Posted: - Modified: | library

Matt Price e-mailed me about this wonderful piece of wizardry he added to YubNub (which is kinda like a command line for the Web). He set up the tpl command, which searches the Toronto Public Library. This prompted me to finally make YubNub the default handler for my Mozilla Firefox address bar, which you can also do by going to about:config and setting or creating the keyword.URL option to

This is good stuff, and one of the many reasons why blogging saves me time and lets me hear about all sorts of interesting things. =) Matt, thanks for sharing!

Ruby code to quickly convert titles to ISBNs

Posted: - Modified: | book, library, reading, ruby

I love the Toronto Public Library system. I can’t say that enough. I particularly love how I can go on a reading spree, place holds on a gazillion books, and have them delivered to the library branch that’s about three blocks away from the house.

Ideally, of course, these books would arrive suitably spaced apart so that a new batch arrives just as I’ve finished another. This happens when I request popular books. Most of the time, though, the books that I want to read fall in the Long Tail–obscure titles, books that have fallen off the New York Times bestseller lists, and the occasional random find.

All of these books tend to descend on the unsuspecting library branch at the same time.

There were 27 books waiting for me earlier. The librarian thanked me for clearing the shelf. J- greatly enjoyed piling them into the shopping cart we had the foresight to bring. Yes, I’ve got presentations to prepare and things to do–but reading is fun, and I’m somehow going to find time to read all those books before my three-week loan period is up. I’ll probably be able to renew them, but hey, might as well try.

So I decided I might as well try tracking them on LibraryThing. Instead of typing in all the details manually, I grabbed the list of titles from my account on LibraryElf (good reminder system for books), used ISBNdb to convert the titles into ISBNs (best guess), and imported the list of ISBNs into LibraryThing. Now my profile lists 163 books–a small fraction of the books that have passed through my hands, but it’s better than nothing. Someday I might even get myself a barcode scanner so that I can just pick up the ISBNs from the book jackets.

Anyway, I promised the Ruby code I’d quickly written to convert the titles to ISBNs:

require 'net/http'
require 'CGI'
require 'open-uri'
require 'rexml/document' 

while (s = gets)
  url = "" + access_key + "&index1=title&value1=" + CGI::escape(s)
  xml =
  if (xml.elements["ISBNdb/BookList/BookData"])
    puts xml.elements["ISBNdb/BookList/BookData"].attributes["isbn"]

Takes titles as standard input, prints out ISBNs. Enjoy!