Jack Bennett may only be five, but he probably knows the city of Toronto better than you do. This past year, Jack and his dad, Lanrick, visited all of the city's 100 library branches in the span of six months.
“To me it was really surprising that there were 100. We went to libraries as small as my office right now, [and] to libraries that were behemoth,” says Lanrick Bennett Jr. They discovered that each branch is unique to its community, he says, and feels like a local outpost. “You don’t want to jump into your car and drive an hour,” he says. “You’d like the ability to just walk or take public transit.”
And that’s what Lanrick and his son did. They took public transit to all of the branches, whether it was raining or sunny.
Lanrick was at a work event, where he picked up a book called All the Libraries Toronto by local artist Daniel Rotszain, which features sketches of every branch in the city. He showed it to his son, who approved: “It’s a great colouring book, daddy.” Some time passed and one weekend morning, Jack flipped through the book and asked to see the library he was pointing at, Fort York.
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“It’s a beautiful library,” Lanrick says. “It’s the 99th library that was built in Toronto. It’s just stunning. We toured [for two hours], got some books, and walked out. Then Jack said, 'I want to see the rest.'”
In the moment, Lanrick said yes, though he wasn’t really serious. It was only when Jack insisted that Lanrick realized his son had meant it. By the end of the fourth library tour, Lanrick got into it, too, excited at the opportunity it would create for him to spend time with his son.
“[Every] Saturday morning, he would literally be on top of our bed, [asking] 'Where are we going?'” says Lanrick. “That was it. I could not say no.”
Lanrick created a schedule so they could visit four to seven libraries every weekend. They started with the ones on major streets, so they could travel by streetcar or subway, and then they moved to the regional locations. They spent anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours at each branch, depending on how far away it was. After each visit, the librarian would stamp their copy of All the Libraries Toronto.
“It was a lot of connection with my son. I really got to spend some quality time,” says Lanrick. “I didn’t think it was such a big deal at the beginning, but the more times we would go to these libraries, the more times we’d be able to sit on the streetcar or the subway and talk … Toronto is his world. He hasn’t flown on a plane yet or been on a ship, but he knows his city inside and out.”
It's something Lanrick emphasizes: it wasn't just where they were going, but how they got there. “We couldn’t talk if I was in a car. That’s not where you have conversations … but you can do that on public transit. He saw the world in 100 libraries.”
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Although he's glad they used public transit, he says it also showed him how different the state of transit is north of Bloor Street, in comparison to the downtown core. “To get out to Malvern, to get out to Rexdale by public transport, it takes a long time. You see a lot of the city. It’s vast. It’s big. It’s expansive. You feel a bit of the disconnect … When it takes you 45 minutes to get out to north Etobicoke, you feel like you’re in another city.”
Mayor John Tory has asked Toronto's library system to shave 2.6 per cent from its budget next year. Lanrick is surprised because of the need he’s seen at branches across the city.
“There were mornings when we would get to the library at 8:45 a.m. [We would] wait there for 15 minutes and there’s 15 to 20 people behind us,” he says. “I took pictures at every library we went to and the majority of them [don’t have] the librarians because they were busy … Right after the doors opened, people would immediately ask the librarian for help.”
Lanrick cites Richview Library as the kind of special haven a library can offer: after its basement flooded, it was re-imagined as a creative space for children, sectioned off by age group to meet the kids' individual needs.
While their Toronto tour is over, Lanrick and Jack will be visiting another 100 libraries in the new year, in various GTA communities and beyond. This time they will travel by GO Transit — Jack is excited about that, as he’s never taken it before. They will continue to travel on the weekends, starting in Kitchener-Waterloo and wrapping up in Ottawa in time for Canada Day and the Canada 150 celebrations.
“My father couldn’t have done this for me," Lanrick says. "He was an immigrant from Jamaica … and he worked six days a week.” Lanrick says he doubted his father’s love, because his father didn’t spend time with him. He says when he had children, he wanted to be different.
“I didn’t want to feel in any way that I couldn’t at least give something to my children,” he says. “My daughter is eight years old, and she’s probably had the most fun an eight-year-old can have as a first child. Having Jack, I wanted to make sure that he knew that I loved him.”