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marcus gee

When you walk into the bright atrium of the updated Toronto Reference Library near Yonge and Bloor, you have to wonder: What would John Hallam have thought? Hallam was the alderman who led a campaign to establish a free public library in Toronto.

Some argued against supporting an institution that might encourage the public to read (horrors) novels. Hallam himself said the library, approved in a plebiscite in 1883, should include among its collection of serious tomes only a careful selection of light reading, keeping out "the garbage of the modern press."

Today's libraries would take his breath away. They offer not only novels and periodicals of all kinds but DVDs, audiobooks, e-books, Internet access and free WiFi. Their accelerating transformation is on full view in the reference library, now in the final months of a comprehensive, $36-million renovation begun in 2008.

The library's latest bit of razzle-dazzle is a pair of 3-D printers and scanners. Visitors to a new digital innovation hub can get coaching on how to use the desk-top devices, which copy three-dimensional objects by constructing them with layer after layer of plastic. The Toronto Public Library is opening similar hubs at two other branches later this year, offering gizmos like high-definition video cameras and audio mixers.

"Technology is so much a part of learning," says Toronto's chief librarian, Jane Pyper. "If we were to adopt a kind of pristine stance that if it's not in a book it's not our business then we would be out of business."

Books themselves are changing. The number of e-books borrowed from the 98-branch Toronto Public Library has been roughly doubling each year, and e-books made up six per cent of the 32 million items borrowed in 2012.

In keeping with changing habits, the modernized library has lots of screens. On one side of the atrium, people sit in rows watching the figure skating from Sochi on a lecture-hall-sized display. The sound is on, at a modest volume. No one says shhh. In fact, visitors are allowed to use their cell phones, though signs ask them to put the ringer on silent and talk softly.

On the other side of the atrium, dozens of people sit at banks of computer screens. A snoop who wanders among them finds that not all are studying for research papers on hermeneutics. One guy is watching The King of Queens, a sitcom. Another is taking in funny videos in Korean. Others do their tax returns, watch foreign-language news sites or check Facebook.

In another corner, a wall of a dozen TV screens shows various news and specialty channels. To listen, you stand under an umbrella-like pod of clear plastic that corresponds to the screen you are watching.

Screens and 3-D printers are not the only signs that the modern library is about more than books. At ground-floor desk, a woman hands out advice and brochures to new immigrants. In a glassed-in classroom, a teacher gives a career-guidance course in French. Upstairs, a new exhibition, Coffee, Beer and Mosh Pits, invites visitors to "Relive Toronto's music scene from the 1960s to today."

Even a modern visitor has to wonder: what does all this have to do with reading? Ms. Pyper argues that today's libraries are community hubs where people come to learn from each other as well as to read or borrow books.

"The common thread here is experiential learning," says Ms. Pyper of the new digital hub. "It is about providing equipment and technology and letting people learn themselves and learn by talking to other people."

In addition to the old rectangular study desks, the library now boasts C-shaped study bars and circular glass study booths that look like space-age transporters.

But don't worry, the spruced-up reference library still has books, lots of them. Its literature collection alone, newly installed on the fourth floor, takes up 2,000 shelves.

A brief ramble through upper floors reveals a stash of beautiful old maps stored in sliding shelves, a collection of Ontario cemetery records in traditional steel filing cabinets, and in one lonely corner, sitting on a swivelling wood reading platform, a huge old book full of definitions for words, arranged from A to Z, by someone named Webster.

Hallam would be reassured. For all the changes overtaking them, libraries still have the written word at their heart.