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Toronto Library Dusts Off Its Massive Vinyl Collection

"You’ll have Bach next to Native American folk music next to some synth-pop record."

by Josh Sherman
Nov 20 2015, 5:03pm

Mike Carter

Watch THUMP's visit to the Toronto Reference Library's record collection with DJ Agile on Daily VICE here.

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Checking out the Toronto Reference Library's massive vinyl-record collection is about as convenient as lugging a crate full of 12-inch singles to a party.

To listen to any of the public institution's more than 15,000 slabs of wax, visitors need a librarian at the fifth-floor info desk to retrieve whatever they're looking for from rows of records cordoned off nearby.

After filling out a form that asks for a name, address, and phone number, listeners can retreat, record in hand, to one of two cubicles that house a plastic turntable and headphones.

Only a couple of records can be held at once, so listening to every side of the library's copy of Electronic Panorama, a rare four-disc anthology of synth music from 1970, requires multiple returns to the kiosk — as THUMP learned on a recent visit. Barring clandestine maneuvers, taking an album home isn't an option.

"The collection has some challenges," DJ Agile, a five-time Juno-nominated producer and turntablist, concedes to THUMP. He, in conjunction with journalists David Sax and Del Cowie, recently organized Vinyl 101, an event that showcases the neglected archive and the gems within Toronto's public library.

"I think the first thing we need to do is expose that it's here and it's great," Agile continues, speaking to the 100-plus audience who turned up at the third-floor Hinton Learning Theatre event. "And then the second thing would be organization and access."

Photo courtesy of Mike Carter

Accessing the collection today is a fittingly anachronistic experience, considering vinyl is a medium that has zero practical reasons for still existing. It's also the reason the archives have remained unknown to so many people. That's something Sax, who first learned of this record stash via a 2014 blog post, wants to change. "We're really hoping this shines a light on the collection and gives us the momentum to do more with it," he tells THUMP.

At last week's Vinyl 101 workshop, Eric Schwab, the librarian who manages the collection, Evan Doyle, a marketing manager at local audio-equipment shop Planet of Sound, and Rana Chattergee, a record aficionado from the Cratery collective, joined Agile in a series of talks and a Q&A session.

Conversation at the vinyl crash-course touched on topics like handling records, where to buy them — "You go everywhere you can, if you're a savage like me," says Chattergee) — and the collection itself.

Agile, born Ajene Griffith, spun several cuts from the library archives, including the Pointer Sisters' "Yes We Can Can," a down-tempo 70s funk track that's been sampled more than a few times, and the Miles Davis jazz standard "Half Nelson."

Photo Courtesy of DJ Agile

The evening's eclectic playlist hints at the library's offerings. Thumbing through the archives before the workshop, Agile's pickings highlight the hodgepodge of records housed in the library: some rock LPs, a recorded reading of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and formative electronic music.

Despite its diversity, the collection the library started around 1960 still has its shortcomings. "There's big gaps, which isn't perfect," Schwab points out. The library stopped purchasing vinyl in the late-'90s when it switched over to CDs, he tells THUMP, so it doesn't contain any records from this millennium.

"It is primarily classical and jazz, but it can lead you into different pathways," Schwab says. "We have a very large collection of world music as well as Canadian-specific content," he adds.

Schwab, an avid collector of picture-disc 45s himself, also brings up one of the challenges with making the collection easier to get at right now. "It's a big issue with the way we acquired the LPs," he explains. "They're organized by the number they were purchased in. It's just succession numbers. It's not divided by classical, or even jazz — it's numeric."

Photo Courtesy of Mike Carter

The arrangement today isn't without its charm. "You'll have Bach next to the Smithsonian recordings of Native American folk music of Louisiana next to some synth-pop record from the 80s," says Sax. "I mean, it just goes on and on like that. It's like shuffle."

For now, anyone curious about searching the collection can ask a librarian to look something up, or search for themselves using theToronto Public Library's website. With the advanced-search option, users can filter results to only include vinyl. The downside is that it still requires you to blindly search artist names or genres in the hopes of finding a match.

Agile says he and the other Vinyl 101 organizers want to eventually create more of a "record-store feel" for the collection. "You can't really discover the records if you're not touching them and going through them and your eye's catching a title or a cover or maybe a producer," he explains.

A librarian at the fifth-floor info desk says about one person a day comes in to listen to records, but that recently there's been more interest.

Based on Vinyl 101's turnout, Sax said there would "definitely" be a follow up event. "We've got a whole list of ideas," he says.