History of Libraries in British Columbia

The Times Colonist had this review of a new book being published on the history of libraries in British Columbia

The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia by Dave Obee, and published by the British Columbia Library Association.

“Andrew Carnegie never visited British Columbia, but he had a great influence on its public libraries. By providing money for library buildings in Vancouver, New Westminster and Victoria, he established the importance of libraries in a province that was still quite young.

In all three cities, Carnegie helped move libraries from crowded, second-floor spaces to buildings erected specifically to serve their patrons. The libraries built with Carnegie’s money served for more than half a century. Two of the buildings are still standing, and one is again providing library service as home to the Carnegie Centre, a beacon of hope in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, on Nov. 25, 1835, the first son of William Carnegie, a linen weaver, and his wife Margaret. In 1848, William and Margaret Carnegie moved to Allegheny, Pa. The next year, when Andrew was 13, he began working as a bobbin boy in a cotton factory and later as a Western Union messenger boy and a telegraph operator. When he moved to Pittsburgh, he began borrowing a book from a free library every Saturday, and said later that the experience inspired his love of libraries.

Carnegie rose to become superintendent of the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad and invested in a company that manufactured railway sleeping cars and built bridges, locomotives and rails. In 1865, he established the Keystone Bridge Company, and in 1873, a steel factory. The steel business prospered, and when Carnegie sold it to John Pierpoint Morgan in 1901, the Carnegie Corporation was valued at more than $400 million.

After the sale he devoted his life to giving away his fortune, in keeping with a theory he expressed in his 1889 book The Gospel of Wealth. Carnegie said the rich were merely “trustees” of wealth and had a moral obligation to distribute that wealth to promote the welfare and happiness of the common man. Carnegie created several endowed trusts and institutions bearing his name.

His first public library gift, in 1881, was to his native Dunfermline. In the years that followed, he gave library gifts to 2,508 other communities in the English-speaking world, including 125 in Canada. In British Columbia, three offers from Carnegie were accepted in 1901 and 1902. His money was to be spent on buildings, not library collections, and Carnegie would not provide funds unless the recipient municipality agreed to provide an annual amount equal to 10 per cent of his donation to cover salaries, maintenance and book purchases.

Some municipalities balked at that requirement and rejected his offers. In other cases, his money was turned down because of his reputation as a tough businessman. Many labour leaders condemned Carnegie because of his role in the Homestead strike in Pennsylvania in 1892, which escalated into a battle between strikers and private security agents.

By the time he died in 1919, about $350 million of Carnegie’s fortune had been given away. Through trusts and institutions, his legacy continues to provide benefits -almost a century after his death.

Victoria was the second B.C. city to ask Carnegie for money. His offer of $50,000 was received in March 1902, but it took three months for council to say yes. The problem was that the book budget had to be approved by voters. As Mayor Charles Hayward noted, the Carnegie deal would require $5,000 a year for books and maintenance, but the city could spend no more than $1,600 a year. In June, the $5,000 annual expenditure was approved in a plebiscite, but a bylaw to provide $15,000 for the purchase of a site was turned down. That meant the library would have to be built on land already owned by the city.

The choices were narrowed down to lots on the northwestern end of the Inner Harbour causeway, where Government and Wharf streets meet; at Yates and Blanshard streets; and at Pandora and Chambers, which had been purchased for use as a water reservoir.

The cost of developing the Yates site was estimated at $700 more than the Government Street site. Stephen Jones, the proprietor of the Dominion Hotel on the south side of Yates at Blanshard, offered to cover the difference so the library would be built across from his hotel.

His strategy worked. In April 1903, voters chose the Yates site, which had previously been home to a brewery, a grocery store and a second-hand store. “There is a very strong desire on the part of the people to see the last of the grimy hole which at present is the only temple of polite literature available to the general public in Victoria,” the Daily Colonist said, referring to the library on the second floor of city hall.

Architects Thomas Hooper and Charles Elwood Watkins designed the new building. The plans called for sandstone from Saturna Island. In April 1904, after a delay because the foundations had to be dug deeper than planned, the cornerstone was laid by William W. Northcott, the city building inspector.

While the building was going up, council chose a new librarian, Dr. J. Griffith Hands. He had no experience running a library, but he beat 45 other applicants. The Colonist noted that Hands was “considered in every sense an excellent man for the place, being splendidly recommended.”

Council named Ald. Thornton Fell, Canon Arthur Beanlands and provincial librarian Ethelbert Olaf Stuart Scholefield to the library board, and they tackled the next problem. “For years the city of Victoria maintained what purported to be a free public library, but today, when we examine the stock of books in that institution, we find that fully 50 per cent of the volumes are completely worn out and only fit for the rubbish heap,” Scholefield wrote.

The new library could hold 15,000 books, but the old one had only 5,000, including the ones Scholefield wanted to discard. He called for donations to stock the shelves, and delayed the opening of the library until new books could be obtained.

The reading rooms -one for men, another for women -were finally opened on Dec. 4, 1905, four months after the old library closed.

Years later, Robert Connell, a local minister who was chairman of the library board -and later became the first leader of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in B.C. -reminisced in the Victoria Daily Times about what it had been like to get a book when Hands was in charge.

Patrons would walk to the counter, choose from a printed catalogue of 5,000 books, fill in a slip and pass it to Hands. If the book was on the shelves, the patron could take it.

“I filled in my slip one day with the name ‘Charles Keene Layard’ and gave it to the Doctor,” said Connell. “In a few minutes he handed me my book, and without scrutinizing it I walked off. As soon as I went along the street I noticed that I had got the life of Charles Kean, the actor, instead of Charles Keene, the artist of Punch, so back I went. I explained the error to Dr. Hands, but he resolutely shook his head.

“‘A book taken out can under no circumstances be exchanged the same day,’ was his reply . and the mistake was his! But rule three said: ‘Only one volume may be taken out on one card and only once a day.’ ”

It was a challenge to establish order in Victoria’s spacious new library. Then Helen Gordon Stewart arrived, as an assistant to Hands, and soon brought order to the mayhem. In 1912, when Hands retired, Stewart succeeded him.

Under Stewart, the library added a children’s room, opening it on July 8, 1913. Cases filled with books loved by boys and girls were supplemented by pictures around the walls with scenes from popular stories.

“There are many homes where knowledge of books and especially books for the young is small, and the children’s librarian has to be mother and father to the young minds as they turn towards the wonderland of books,” Connell wrote later. “To implant in children a love of books with a sense of values is to give them the very crown of education, citizenship in the democracy of books.”

In the same year, Stewart started British Columbia’s first systematic training course in librarianship. Applicants had to be high school graduates. The courses lasted 11 months, with eight months in the Victoria library and three more in at least two other libraries, such as the ones in Seattle and Portland. Students were paid $10 a month for the first three months, $20 a month for the second three months, and $30 a month for the remainder of their instruction.

A few years later, the Spanish flu epidemic reached British Columbia near the First World War’s end in November 1918. In an attempt to stop the spread of the disease, most public places -including libraries -were closed. The provincial cabinet had ordered on Oct. 8 that all “places of assembly” had to be shut.

“The health officer does not fear the dissemination of the disease by the circulation of books, but only as a result of the collection of crowds,” the Daily Times reported. The Victoria library provided reference service by telephone five days a week.

Patrons urgently in need of a book could request it by telephone and pick it up at the library.

The restrictions were lifted on Nov. 19, although health authorities still warned against unreasonable crowding in theatres, churches, stores, cars and anywhere else where people gathered. Still, British Columbians were allowed to go back to their normal lives -including visits to libraries -for the first time in five weeks.

Stewart resigned from the Victoria library in 1924, heading to the United States to further her education. She returned in 1930 to run a radical experiment -a library service to serve an entire region, namely the Fraser Valley.

The successful model she created helped inspire regional libraries around the world, including the Vancouver Island Regional Library. From 1940 to 1948, Stewart ran the library system in Trinidad and Tobago, and even started a training course like the one she had offered in Victoria.

She retired to Saanich in 1948. In 1963 she was made an honorary life member of the Canadian Library Association. The ceremony was held in Victoria’s Carnegie library, still in use after 60 years.”

Read more: http://www.timescolonist.com/news/Philanthropist+gave+birth+Victoria+libraries/4551399/story.html#ixzz1IY1RBNsD

As someone who loves libraries, has enjoyed seeing Carnegie Libraries still in use (Vancouver, Ontario, New Zealand), and who grew up in British Columbia, this is one book that I will keep an eye out for! Whether you agree or disagree with Andrew Carnegie, it is impressive how many libraries were built in countries around the world (honestly, I had only known about ones in North America until I came to New Zealand and had a reference question about Carnegie libraries in New Zealand).


One Comment Add yours

  1. lecat says:

    I would just like to amend this post. I’ve picked up a copy of this book, and thoroughly enjoyed it. A really interesting overview of the history of libraries, and how they developed in British Columbia. Especially enjoyed the archival photos. As someone who has used several British Columbia libraries, and who went to the library school at UBC, I particularly found it interesting to read stories as to how they came about and the leaders in the promoting libraries. A must read for anyone interested in libraries, and I would suggest as an addition to every librarian’s personal library.

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