University of Toronto Library gives public the cold shoulder

Within the first week of arriving in Toronto, I decided to hit up the University of Toronto’s library. After all, wasn’t this the one-time stomping grounds of the father of Canadian Communication studies, Marshall McLuhan? And his contemporary and fellow luminary, Harold Innis, has a residence and a college named after him. As a Communication-reared undergrad, how could I resist? So I went with a skip in my step, glowing at the prospect of all that new-old knowledge, just waiting to be discovered–only to find my nose smashed against several glass doors of technology and information access policies.

Maybe I’ve just been drinking too much of that “information wants to be free” juice, hearing too much about the role of the library and the university in public life and its vital role in the health of a democracy. There’s a part of me that looks back on that whole experience that goes, well, the University of Toronto, as an organization and an institution, has the right to make whatever rules it wants to about its facilities, regardless of what I think of them. Nevertheless, I still feel somewhat miffed about how it all went down.

What did go down, you ask? I made my way through the revolving doors of Robarts Library and found myself in the middle of the Scotiabank Information Commons. Um, thanks, Scotiabank. I heartily appreciate the whopping two machines you’ve given for public access to the library catalogue. Except that only one of them even worked. Over at the Commons helpdesk, I asked the dude about the dead catalogue machine; his response consisted of asking me, without shifting a foot to even look at the computer, to cold-reboot the computer, which did nothing. I decided to leave him in his post-exam stupor, and waited for the gentleman at the other computer to finish.

I found a Marshall McLuhan book that I hadn’t read before, copied down the call number, then decided to see about getting a library card for myself. Naturally, I did that thing where I didn’t read the page very carefully, and stood in line like a gimp before being snottily told by the woman working the Loan Services desk that they don’t give library cards a) to undergrads of other universities, or b) to the general public. at. all.

This, admittedly, blind-sided me a bit. I’m used to libraries being relatively open places. The SFU Library has policies for external borrowers that are not directly affiliated with the university. I remember using the SFU library to do policy-related research on salmon farms when I was in grade 10. Through the COPPUL system, I was also able to get a community borrower library card at UBC (otherwise valued at $100 CAD). Between that card and interlibrary loan with SFU, I’ve had my hide saved on more than one assignment. I do notice that U of T does give “research readers” the ability to borrow, to the tune of $150 CAD a year.

There’s something much more insidious about the way it’s done at U of T though. After napkin-blogging the previous experience, I went in search of my McLuhan book, determined not to leave before having had my share of the intellectual experience that I consider the social contractual obligation of any library that stocks books in a language in which I am literate. I found myself outside the stacks, after pacing up and down the elevators for a good 5 minutes. “Finally!” I sigh. And stop.

Mounted on a piece of purple paper, in front of a desk with a curt-looking woman sitting in front of turnstiles, it says something about…having no access to the stacks without a UTorStID?

I pull out my camera to take a picture of this. Curt-looking woman, naturally, pulls out some non-existent policy about me not being able to take pictures except on the first floor. I humor her, ask to see on paper the policy about stack access. She tells me to go to the reference desk, so I do, and repeat my request: show me, on paper, where it says that members of the public cannot have access to the stacks, and cannot get a library card. She grants my request by going to the U of T website and printing off a copy of their stack retrieval policy. So I go downstairs, fill in the little form, and am told that the next stack retrieval occurs at 3:00, and that the book will be available for me at 4:00. I look at my watch–it’s currently 1:30.

This is what miffs me: these policies aren’t set down on paper. They won’t tell you explicitly about these policies, or that they’ve made such aims to exclude you if you’re a member of the public and not either a) paying tuition, b) being paid by them, or c) contributing to their closed academic system by being a visiting grad student or faculty member from another university (and thus affirming that system). Because these policies are nothing to be proud of whatsoever–that U of T is essentially washing its hands of its responsibility as a public respository of knowledge? That it did and is denying me, both as an undergraduate of another Canadian university as well as a Canadian citizen, even physical access to their information? I can hardly imagine what kinds of problems they must have had in the past in order to create such restrictive policies. Were there immigrants hanging out in the stacks polishing off Rousseau by the hundreds? ESL students crowding around the children’s literature parts? Even UBC and SFU let you just look. Their main campuses, perhaps, have the advantage of 45-minute bus trips from the city centre to keep out the deviants, but their open policies have managed to make it to their downtown campuses.

I think of the not-uncommon sight of Downtown Eastside residents catching up on the Globe and Mail in front of those large windows at the SFU Harbour Centre Library in Vancouver. I eventually went back to U of T for the book at 4:00 and chilled with it on the couches behind the printing station, entirely not enamoured or impressed by this ivory tower approach. If nothing else, the Toronto Public Library will be my friend, even if you won’t, U of T.


  1. carolyne

    I’m alumni and I cannot get in either.

    Posted December 31, 2005 at 2:21 pm | Permalink
  2. Tim

    I studied at U of T and worked at Robarts for 7 years or so. The policy dates back to the time when Robarts was meant to be a research library exclusively for the use of graduate students and faculty. Another main library, Sigmund Samuel, served the needs of the undergraduate population. There are also many college libraries, some as large as other university’s libraries (Vic, SMC). Sometime in the 1990s Sig Sam had its collection partially moved to Robarts and became a Science Library. For most members of the public and undergraduates at U of T Robarts is “the libary” but it is just one of about 50 or so. Almost all the others provide easy access to the public. I am not trying to excuse the policy but just offer some context. The privatization of access to electronic information is another story. I agree that it is outrageous that one needs a UTOR ID to even look at the catalogue. Additionally I know of quite a few publications that are now only subscribed to in electronic format and no longer available to the general public as a result.

    Posted January 26, 2006 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  3. As a high school student, I had no problem accessing the Kelly Library in order to do research on some mandatory religion class something or other. I couldn’t borrow of course. I’m now a finishing undergrad, soon to be grad student, as well as an employee of the University of Toronto, so maybe I’m not the most objective source, but I’ve found that outsiders seem to have no trouble getting into (and sometimes causing trouble in) all parts of a number of other libraries, including Sigmund Samuel previously mentioned. So I think it’s probably fair to say that Robarts is fairly unique in this attitude. On the other hand, there’s a lot to protect in there.

    Posted May 24, 2007 at 3:41 pm | Permalink
  4. Sajjad K

    uToronto’s library isn’t a public library. It doesn’t need to be open to the public. It’s the same as a library in someone’s home. You simply can’t walk in and borrow books simply because they lend books to their friends.

    Kelly library is St.Michæls Collage’s library, and has it’s own rules, as do Trinity and Victoria’s libraries, so you can’t compare them to Robarts.

    Posted December 20, 2009 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  5. Thanks for comment, Sajjad. It’s been almost 4 years (!) since I wrote this entry, so it’s interesting to re-visit the comments that have accrued here since.

    As I mentioned in the post, I was (and have remained) ignorant of the history of why Robarts restricts physical access (and thanks to the Tim for providing some of that), the bottom line is, the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University (where I did my undergrad) somehow manage to make it work for both their suburban campuses and their central city locations — one of which is next to one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the developed world. It’s something I’m grateful for and enjoy, on behalf of those who might otherwise not get to access it but who do derive benefit.

    Public access says a lot to me — about what the role of education is, who it’s for and who’s entitled to it. For those who might take an interest in U of T’s mandate as a public educational institution, it might be interesting to ask what barriers exist to providing public access and what it might be able to learn from other universities who are able to NOT have turnstiles near the stacks.

    Turnstiles at the subway station are another matter altogether. ;)

    Posted December 20, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  6. Kamath

    I have been to Robarts library as a visitor, and I was given the cold shoulder as well. I think its very high handed of the University of Toronto to not even allow visitors to have a look at their catalogue of books. Its not as if the public is in the even vaguely interested in stealing the books.
    I graduated from the University of Windsor, and although they do no allow the public to borrow the books, the public is free to enter the library and make use of the books as long as they remain in the library, which I think is a decent way of doing things.
    The library does not have worry about losing their books yet at the same time they allow the public a measure of access to books which otherwise they might have difficulty finding.

    Posted November 19, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink
  7. Catherine M

    The cost for a U of T Research Reader charge has gone up to $250! I paid $150 last June. Does anybody know why the increase is so much ?

    Posted December 15, 2010 at 6:57 am | Permalink
  8. Michelle

    This is probably another blast from the past for you when you read it, but I am also currently a student at another undergraduate university. My problem is that I am living more than 200km away from home and in residence, so if I can’t find what I need in my school’s library, it isn’t like I have easy access to information.

    After checking on the U of T website, I found that they had ALL of the books I needed, but of course they are all in the Robarts Library Stacks. And to even get to U of T takes an hour and a half for me, I don’t want to wait for the stack retrieval. The library on my campus is open to the public, and they are allowed to walk in a read whatever they want. I really wish U of T was like that.

    Posted March 3, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Permalink
  9. Forugh

    Visitors to the Robarts Library can use LIRA workstations using a temporary 24-hour login and password.The LIRA computers are reserved for academic research only. Email, chat, games, gambling, programming and recreational Internet searching are not permitted. Patrons are requested to restrict use to 30 minutes .

    Michelle, you can Request Books and Journal Articles in RACER( Interlibrary Loan)
    UofT’s interlibrary loan management system allows registered users to search for items in all Ontario university libraries (and other collections) using a single search interface, and to conveniently place borrowing requests for items not found in the Home University Libraries’ catalogue.

    Posted May 10, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink
  10. ceitidh

    I realize this is an old post, but I came across it as I was trying to wrap my head around the stack access policies for Robarts. As a staff member, I can say that even 7 years after this post, the access policy is definitely unclear, but I wanted to dispel a few myths for the individuals who are still finding their way to this information:

    -As Tim stated, the closed stacks policy dates back to the 70s, when Robarts wasn’t even going to allow their own undergraduates access, though due to a major protest this was reversed

    -alumni can pay a one-time fee of around $22 for stack access; they can also buy other types of cards that provide them with borrowing privileges

    -Anyone can view the online catalogue, and anyone can request a book to be retrieved to view in Robarts; the information is still free to everyone, it’s just more awkward to access

    -A significant portion of older, less often circulated U of T books are now stored in an offsite facility and these items have to be requested by EVERYONE through the catalogue–it is only open to the staff who work at this storage facility; while I understand the principle behind serendipitous discoveries browsing enables, my point with this statement is that maintaining a significant collection of items within a huge space is difficult, which is one of the challenges at Robarts given its physical layout. Hell, Robarts can’t even keep the books organized now with restricted access, nevermind if it was fully open to the public!

    -the reason the fees for external graduate students/faculty/ have increased and why undergraduates from other universities are excluded from access entirely is because although U of T is a partially publicly funded institution, the primary populace that Robarts and other U of T libraries serve is U of T students and staff. The monetary resources to serve everyone do not exist–whether that includes providing public access computers, study space, books, staff time etc–and as you can imagine as one of the best research library’s in North America, a lot of people want access; thus, U of T students who actually contribute directly to the funding are prioritized over the students of other institutions

    -there are 44 U of T libraries, and to my knowledge all except Robarts stacks would be open to the public to use, though they are certainly not as large or have such an extensive collection

    -if librarians had their way, information, particularly electronic resources that are based on publicly funded research would be accessible to everyone with ease; unfortunately, libraries and universities are hog-tied by conglomerate publishing corporations who force them into extortionate contracts to access research in its published form, even if the university funded it in the first place;

    Posted April 11, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink
  11. Tom

    ceitidh, thanks for your apologia. It’s not without reason that Robarts has been dubbed Fort Book.

    For the University of Toronto, information is business, and books and journals are the currency; hence the barriers to the stacks and the price of an access card. It makes no difference that the university receives millions from taxpayer dollars.

    Posted November 15, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  12. fdss

    “although U of T is a partially publicly funded institution”

    In view of the current policies in place towards the public (that are also increasingly restrictive), it would only be fair to stop taking public money altogether, no?

    Of course not, take what you can and give back nothing.

    Posted May 13, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  13. eg

    A lifetime ago I was a Grad student at UToronto and spent rather more time at Robarts than I care to recall.

    Their antediluvian library access policy even for graduates is the primary reason why all of my alumni donations go to other institutions.

    Posted December 10, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

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