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PHOTO ESSAY ON ONTARIO'S EDWARDIAN PUBLIC LIBRARIES


An illustrated address originally given by Lorne Bruce at the Canadian Library Association library history interest group session at Edmonton in 1989. Thanks to Pearl Milne, University of Guelph Library, for her digital assistance with these photographs.

Photographs can be used in historical accounts for many different purposes. Often, they serve to illustrate the reality a writer wishes to capture, an effective and time-honoured technique. But they also may be used in their own right, not just as adjuncts to the literary record, but as original sources. These practices are part of a broader methodological trend, one that has historians utilizing many non-traditional sources both to establish information about people, places, and events, or to develop new lines of inquiry. Of course, visual history is not new in itself, what has changed in the past twenty years is that more rigorous use of photographs as historical sources has evolved.

Historical photographs are being used now in a variety of critical ways in research and teaching.(1) In some cases, they may establish or verify facts, an important consideration when traditional documents are lacking or present discrepancies. Visual histories depicting social or cultural values of an era or place are becoming more frequent; in these works, photographs frequently help to determine the text which may be supplemented by other resources. Sometimes, photographs can be used to reinforce historical interpretations shaped with other source materials. In library history all these photographic dimensions can be employed when different aspects concerning the history of public libraries are analyzed or narrated.(2)

Many photographs pertaining to library history exist at local libraries, museums, and archives across Ontario. Although there is no comprehensive catalogue or index to holdings, they can be as valuable as surviving textual sources because they can be used to formulate new ideas about libraries or to reinterpret a period. For instance, historical works frequently refer to the four decades between 1880 and 1920 as "Victorian" or "Edwardian" or as a "Progressive Era." This period is normally characterized as one of growth and progress for Ontario public libraries, an expansive theme culminating in the revised Public Libraries Act of 1920. Like most eras, the years between 1880-1920 were ones of transition for libraries, a view confirmed by many photographs.

By 1914, distinctively modernist trends were emerging in Ontario's libraries; the Victorian synthesis of ideas and methods common to mechanics' institutes and their immediate successors, free libraries, was giving way to modern trends. Simply put, the public library in the first decade of the twentieth century was modifying its functions and assuming additional roles in society, a process allowing it to serve more people and redefine its character as "modern" at a time when Modernism, a conscious cultural rejection of the past by twentieth century artists and scientists, was beginning to sweep western nations. At the same time, Ontario was becoming an urban province directed by new values. Historical photographs of libraries help indicate the extent of these fundamental changes.

Victorian Heritage

In the Edwardian era there was a mixture of old and new in many Ontario libraries, particularly in cities. The physical reminder of mechanics' institutes, a symbol of nineteenth-century ideals, survived in a few places, notably Toronto where the old institute building, built in the Italian Renaissance style of the 1850s at considerable cost, lingered on, first as an undersized central library, then, after the larger reference library opened on College Street in 1909, as a community branch at the intersection of Church and Adelaide. It finally closed its doors just before the Great Depression.

Other pre-Carnegie structures, specially commissioned as free libraries, existed in larger centres at Hamilton and London. London's library, designed by the local architect Herbert Matthews in 1895, reflected the popularity of eclectic exteriors, in this case a Romanesque facade with conical towers, rounded arches, and smooth-faced red brick cladding. It was a late-Victorian revival style that imparted a sense of permanence and strength, solid qualities most communities were anxious to express in the educational facilities they were striving to build at this time.

Interiors of Victorian free libraries were usually spartan: for example, in Hamilton, a building completed at a cost of about $45,000 in 1890, furnishings in the reference section, general reading room, and ladies' reading room were basic staples. These rooms flanked a main corridor leading to a large counter behind which stretched a closed stack room capable of accommodating 50,000 books. The separate reading area for women was a fashionable (and space consuming) fin-de-siecle enhancement that recognized the increasing number of women registering as borrowers. Children under 16 years were less fortunate; generally, they were denied borrowing privileges. In this respect Hamilton's library, led by Richard Lancefield, was relatively liberal; its board began to lower the age restriction for children before 1900. Children's rooms and storytelling would be future projects.

In the smaller communities throughout rural Ontario, libraries had to make do with more modest resources: rented offices, donated property or rooms, or combined business quarters. The small, one-room, subscription library managed by volunteers and part-time staff was commonplace. For instance, at Dundas the library occupied part of the old Elgin House block on busy King Street. In the police village of Claremont, the library operated from a commercial storefront for several years under the guidance of the incumbent shoemaker-librarian, Mr. James Jobbitt, who resigned in 1903.

At Streetsville, affairs were more upscale. In 1901 the board of management received a gift comprising part of a small frame commercial building. It converted the space into a serviceable one-room library housed with a jewelry shop. Streetsville was considered advanced by small town Ontario standards: it operated on a free basis without an age limitation for children, possessed a card catalogue, and used the decimal classification system at a time when the Education Department still clung to an outdated class system adapted from mechanics' institutes.

Edwardian Progress

When Carnegie grants became readily available, architects, trustees, and workers began transforming the organization of interior space and the interrelationships between staff and patrons. Improved functions, programs, and arrangements for access were under active development between 1900-10: there were larger branch libraries, children's services, improved reference service, better classification and cataloging schemes, and open access to collections. The familiar Victorian free library conventions--the emphasis on physical custody of books, on printed catalogues for holdings, and on public reading rooms; the use of indicators (a British practice) for circulation status in lending departments; and a desire to offer lectures or evening classes for the technical education of working classes--was ebbing. Libraries were changing their methods, expanding the scope of their public services, and reevaluating their connections with another developing field, adult education. The modern public library as we know it today was emerging.

Carnegie gifts to local communities for library buildings not only attracted public attention at openings and the laying of cornerstones but also stimulated rhetoric about the merit of libraries. The Globe covered one Toronto ceremony, presided over by Ontario's Lieutenant-Governor and Chief Justice William G. Falconbridge, the board chairman, on 27 November 1906:

His Lordship stated that there was no question in this day of the value of free libraries to communities. The objection that a preponderating number of works of fiction circulated through a free library, instead of more solid reading, was not a serious objection in the mind of the Chief Justice, who admitted that he was no enemy to novel reading. . . .

The box deposited in the corner-stone contained, among other things, a catalogue of the central circulating library, copies of the Toronto daily papers, Canadian coins, and a scroll containing names of those directly interested in its construction. This type of ceremony was reenacted on many occasions during the Carnegie years. Sometimes a benefaction other than Carnegie's was invoked, for example at Belleville, Henry Corby, a Conservative member of Parliament, donated money for a library which opened January 1908 in the remodelled Merchants' Bank building.

After 1900, the interior organization and services of libraries began to change dramatically. At Berlin (now Kitchener), the traditional plan of housing a stack room behind a barrier surmounted by grillwork and railing originally was followed, but later the board decided to permit open access to the collection except for fiction. A special area set off for children and use of the decimal classification were enterprising steps here. The same rationale about safeguarded free access to all books except works of fiction also applied at St. Thomas. The interior here was more ornate: classical busts and handsome wood columns graced the main corridor leading to the circulation desk, the reading room directly across from it, and the reference section at the end of the hall.

Sarnia's library was constructed along similar lines, but here the board adopted unrestricted access to all books, a bold move in 1903, although the building design easily allowed this measure. The board was fortunate to employ Patricia Spereman, who developed children's services and conducted story hours. She had trained in librarianship at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and became a pioneer in children's work in Ontario and Canada.

Carnegie exteriors were celebrated (or detested) for their Beaux Arts style featuring classical columns, steps, porticos, and domes. It was an exuberant style with classical lines and elements that promoted civic grandeur even in smaller cities which served as markets for the surrounding rural populace. Guelph's library was an Ontario leader in these regards and noted for its lack of functional interior space. However, some architects were influenced by local factors. In Cornwall, where a significant French-speaking community existed, a French chateau appearance was conveyed by the entrance, roof, and small corner tower.

Some architects were able to use Beaux Arts features in a restrained fashion; perhaps the most capable was Alfred H. Chapman, who in association with Wickson & Gregg, designed Toronto's reference library on the corner of College and St. George streets at a cost of more than $250,000. This two-storey structure featured large windows flanked by Corinthian pilasters, soft yellow brick, and main entrance set off to one side. By the standards of the day and even during the bleakness of the Great War, it was an approachable "people place."

* * * * *

In the years immediately preceding the First World War, therefore, Ontario's public libraries went through unprecedented change. The assumptions and characteristics common to Victorian free libraries--an adult clientele, priority on the safekeeping of books, limited services for users, systems of retrieval based on printed catalogues and indicators, classification and cataloguing systems that applied subject categories and accessioning practices developed in mechanics' institutes, and revival architectural styles--were being challenged and supplanted. The pace of change obviously had quickened in Edwardian Ontario, but faith in the library's contribution to societal progress, a belief that eventual improvements in society would ensue by assisting personal initiatives and stimulating their success, was unshaken. The service ethic became the most important constant in this era, a powerful rationale that spurred new library developments in a society that prized individual effort and public duty.

It is difficult to convey the spirit of any era or activity, but a review of pictures in this brief photo study reveals that it was time for libraries and librarians to look ahead, to question old views and methods, and to adopt fresh ideas.

PICTURE CAPTIONS AND CREDITS

Assistance with digitalizing these photographs was kindly rendered by Pearl Milne of the University of Guelph Library. The inline images displayed are the Uxbridge library, constructed in 1887, and the Sarnia Public Library, opened in 1903.

Fig.1 The Toronto Mechanics' Institute before 1884 [AO, S-1178].
Fig. 2 An old Toronto library: the Church street branch, 8 Feb. 1924 [NAC,PA-86436].
Fig. 3 London Public Library, n.d. [NAC, PA-32789].
Fig. 4 View of Hamilton Public Library interior, c.1905 [AO, S-2042].
Fig. 5 Public library at Dundas, c.1896 [AO, S-6934].
Fig. 6 Palmer & Jobbitt store-library at Claremont, c.1895/1903 [AO, S-13475].
Fig. 7 Streetsville's new library, n.d. [AO, S-16035].
Fig. 8 Chief Justice Falconbridge laying the cornerstone of the public reference library in Toronto [AO, S-1252].
Fig. 9 Free Public Library, Belleville, 1911 [NAC, C-21464].
Fig. 10 Berlin Public Library interior, c.1905 [AO, S-2044].
Fig. 11 Central corridor of St. Thomas Public Library, c.1905 [AO, S-2055].
Fig. 12 Lending desk and stack room at Sarnia, c.1905 [AO, S-2057].
Fig. 13 After the Story Hour, 2 March 1907 [AO, S-2058].
Fig. 14 Sham pillars: Guelph Public Library, c.1905 [AO, S-2035].
Fig. 15 Cornwall Public Library, 20 Oct. 1906 [AO, S-2032].
Fig. 16 Toronto Reference Library at 214 College Street, 13 March 1915 [NAC, PA-61384].

AO: Archives of Ontario
NAC: National Archives of Canada

NOTES

1. For discussions on the use of photographs see:

Carol E. Hoffecker, "The Emergence of a Genre: the Urban Pictorial History," Public Historian, 5 (4) 1983: 37-48;
Walter Rundell, Jr, "Photographs as Historical Evidence: Early Texas Oil," American Achivist 41 (4) 1978: 373-398;
Stuart T. Miller, "The Value of Photographs as Historical Evidence," Local Historian 15 (8) 1983: 468-473;
Timothy J. Crimmins, "Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Illustrated Urban Histories," Journal of Urban History 13 (1) 1986: 82-91; and
W. Gillies Ross, "The Use and Misuse of Historical Photographs: A Case Study from Hudson Bay, Canada," Arctic Anthropology 27 (2) 1990: 93-112.
For library applications see Boyd Childress, "Library History, University History, and Photographic History: Some Considerations for Research," Journal of Library History 22 (1) 1987: 70-84.

2. Recent Canadian works would include:

Margaret Beckman, John Black and Stephen Langmead, "Carnegie Libraries in Canada," Canadian Library Journal 38(6) 1981: 386-390 and The Best Gift; a Record of Carnegie Libraries in Ontario (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1983);
David R. Conn and Barry McCallum, "Heritage to Hi-Tech; Evolution of Image and Function in Canadian Public Library Buildings," in Peter F. McNally (ed.), Readings in Canadian Library History (Ottawa: Canadian Library Association, 1986), pp. 123-149;
Margaret Penman, A Century of Service; Toronto Public Library 1883-1983 (Toronto: Toronto Public Library, 1983); and
Barbara Myrvold, "The First Hundred Years: Toronto Public Library 1883-1983," in McNally, Readings , pp. 65-79.

© 1997, Lorne Bruce

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