Toronto Public Library forges new space for makers as core to its digital transformation

Picture this: a video studio with a green screen that you can book, an array of Raspberry Pi devices, and 3D printers complete with lessons on how to use them. Am I describing Toronto’s latest Maker Lab space or one of its public libraries?

It turns out the answer is both. The Scarborough Civic Centre is the latest branch of the Toronto Public Library to host a Digital Innovation Hub. The aim is to provide free access to technology and the training needed to make use of it. Now located in three libraries across the city, the hubs offer the ability to book digital design workstations that could be used for a range of multimedia creation. Or card-carry members of the library can sign up for a class on how to design a 3D model and have it printed. If you’re looking to pursue a DIY hardware project over the weekend, you can use Arduinos or Raspberry Pi devices on location.

The hubs represent the Toronto Public Library’s big innovation push, according to Abraham Velasco, manager of innovation at the Toronto Public Library.

“Libraries are traditionally early adopters of technology,” he says. “We were one of the first places to offer public access to the Internet. These innovation hubs are just continuing that work.”

As laid out in its strategic plan until 2019, Toronto Public Library’s digital strategy calls on improving access to technology for card holders, refreshing its website and mobile presence, and build out a digital platform for its special collections that will be accessible across Ontario. At the centre of it all will be a new Innovation Council advisory group, which so far has eight volunteer members and has met twice.

But Velasco says the plans are to ramp up that council’s membership and make it more integral to how the library operates.

“A lot of organizations use advisory groups because they bring new perspectives,” he says. “It’s important to look towards your staff to get that internal perspective, but it’s important in the spirit of innovation to look outwards and get the best practices from other people.”

The council has eight members so far:

  • Ramtin Attar, senior principal research scientist of Autodesk Research
  • Jeremy Bailey, creative director for product at FreshBooks
  • Eric Boyd, founder of Sensebridge and president of
  • Zahra Ebrahim, the co-leader of Doblin
  • Sarah Goodman, a filmmaker and writer
  • Pamela Robinson, associate dean of graduate studies and special projects, faculty of community services, Ryerson University
  • Greg Wilson, co-founder and former executive director of Software Carpentry
  • Bianca Wylie, head of the Open Data Institute Toronto

The library is using its council as an opportunity to partner with different “maker” communities in the city. It’s already hosted three Maker Festivals and is preparing for a fourth this July. Billed as “Canada’s largest maker event” it brings together more than 10,000 participants to build drones, program augmented reality experiences, and race robotic boats among other activities.

The festival is co-directed by Boyd, a member of the innovation council.

“We want to be able to implement programs and strategies that really energize staff,” Velasco says. “We really want to create an ecosystem of ideas from our staff and foster an agile and nimble way of realizing and incubating those ideas.”

Wylie, another of the eight founding council members, has been collaborating with the library since 2015. She helped host the first hackathon at the library, and a follow-up event the next year. The first competition challenged participants to help the library better serve its membership, and the second focused on poverty reduction.

She says the role with the library is a perfect complement to her mandate at the Open Data Institute.

“Being part of this council is a chance to keep thinking about ways to extend and connect the open data and civic tech community to the library and all of its stakeholders,” she says. “There is a ton of enthusiasm within the civic tech and open data communities to get work with the library.”

Culture change within public organizations is a challenge because things are always supposed to work – you can’t afford to just fail when you have a responsibility to citizens. Documenting the success and failures with the new innovation push will help achieve a more open approach to government, she says.

Or at the least, it will see more happy robot hobbyists at the library.

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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