Toronto , Canada

The Great Equalizer: Toronto Public Library

Toronto Public Library

April 16, 2013

Public libraries reach out new immigrants with tailor-made settlement services.

Immigration to Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is staggering – in 2006, 46% of people living in Toronto were born outside of Canada, and, of these, 20% were recent immigrants who arrived in the last five years. Torontonians trace their roots to many different places in the world, and more than 30% of residents speak a language other than Canada’s official languages (English and French) at home. The most frequently spoken home languages are Chinese languages, Tamil, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.

Few institutions reflect and serve the diversity within the community better than the Toronto Public Library (TPL). TPL is the busiest urban public library system in the world, with 98 branches, 1.3 million card-holders and a collection of 11 million items. In 2011 alone, TPL users borrowed 33 million items and made 23 million online visits. Recent immigrants are among the library’s regular patrons – in fact, more new Canadians are logged as “frequent users” than the overall Toronto average.

Why? Because TPL has worked hard to reach out to new immigrants, building a collection of materials in more than 40 languages, hosting English as a second language (ESL) classes in library branches, dedicating a section on their website to newcomers to Canada, and publicly posting a list of the library’s multicultural service goals.

Library Settlement Partnerships

For all Torontonians, the public library is an open, free and accessible community space that has been called “the great equalizer.” For recent immigrants, the library is also a space to meet others and access the resources that can help them settle into their new home.

In particular, TPL hosts a Library Settlement Partnership (LSP), which places settlement workers in public libraries. The settlement workers provide multilingual one-on-one information and referral services, as well as group information sessions to new immigrants. These workers provide information on a range of topics, such as how to get provincial health insurance and driver’s licences, register children in school, and where to find job search help and programs. Settlement workers can also connect clients to library staff for assistance with library programs and special services, such as TPL’s Business Development Centre or income tax clinic.

LSPs are funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the federal ministry responsible for immigrant selection and integration. The program builds on the itinerant service model demonstrated by the Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS) program, which reaches out to immigrant parents through their children’s schools. Both programs are founded on the principle of delivering settlement services where immigrants already are, rather than forcing immigrants to seek out those services.

Partnership is a key component of the LSP program. The settlement workers are employed by local settlement agencies – in Toronto, nine agencies place settlement workers in 19 library branches. The workers bring settlement expertise, cultural knowledge, and multilingual skills, while the library provides space for the settlement worker and access to clients who might not have been aware of settlement services, or how or where to find them.


TPL was one of three public library systems selected by Citizenship and Immigration Canada to pilot LSPs in 2007. Following the success of the pilot programs, LSPs have expanded to include 11 public library systems in the province of Ontario – including Hamilton, Kitchener, London, Ottawa, Waterloo, Windsor, and four systems in the Greater Toronto Area.

Further, the itinerant model demonstrated by SWIS and LSPs has been applied in other municipal institutions. In 2011, the City of Toronto piloted a program to place settlement workers from local agencies in city facilities, such as recreation centres, children’s services centres, public health clinics and city-run shelters.

Despite challenging economic times and cuts to both TPL’s budget (City of Toronto) and federal funds for integration programs in Ontario, the LSP continues to serve newcomers in Canada’s most diverse city through the world’s busiest library system.

Making it Work for You:

  • Design services and programs to make them easy for your target audience to access them. For example, go to where your clients already are, rather than making them come to you.
  • Set service goals and make them available to your clients.
  • Ensure that partnership have adequate coordination at the outset and throughout the project, so that services and programming are delivered as efficiently as possible.
  • Develop, test and refine your service model. Then replicate or adapt it to new audiences and service environments, and share its success with others.

For this Good Idea contact:

Library Settlement Partnerships , Toronto Public Library
789 Yonge Street
Toronto, Ontario, Canada,
M4W 2G8

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