Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
February 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Libraries in Canada


[This article was published in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the document.]

Early History.

Canada was probably the first British colony in which libraries were established. In 1779 a subscription library of about 2,000 volumes was founded at Quebec by a group of officers and merchants, with the approval of the governor­general, Sir Frederick Haldimand, who hoped by this means to unify the interests of the French and English inhabitants. Previous to this there were known, in 1606, the collection of Marc Lescarbot at Port Royal ; in 1700 at New York the first public library on the continent; and about 1750 at Quebec the library of the Jesuits. Subsequently legislative collections were established in 1791 in Upper and in 1792 in Lower Canada ; and in 1796 the first public library was founded in Montreal. In 1800 libraries were established in King's College, Nova Scotia, and at Niagara, where the first public library in Upper Canada operated for twenty years, in spite of losses during the War of 1812.


The first quarter of the nineteenth century saw new libraries arising in the east and an extension of the field westward, by means of the Hudson's Bay Company, until in 1833 Vancouver was included. Library development in Upper and Lower Canada at this period is closely associated with the establishment of Mechanics' Institutes, based upon the English model and serving in the dual capacity of providing lectures and reading matter in an organized attempt to develop adult education. In 1857 there were 58 of these institutes in Upper Canada. In 1895 the Public Libraries Act changed the institutes to public libraries, and a new impetus was given to library development. In 1936 Ontario led the Dominion in the number of public libraries. Statistics may be found in the Survey of libraries in Canada, issued annually by the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, Education Branch, Ottawa.


Public Libraries.

In comparison with the United States and England, Canada is not very well represented in the field of public libraries, the greatest number being found in Ontario, which has 468 libraries out of a total of 637. Of the 4,750,891 volumes in all Canadian public libraries, 3,192,075 are in Ontario, while the circulation of that province accounts for 15,137,418 of the total 22,126,340. Of the 1,100,923 borrowers using Canadian public libraries 761,592 are in Ontario . More than half ($285,955) of the $421,142 spent on library books in Canada was spent in the same province.


Public libraries serve the population in cities, towns, and villages, but not in rural areas. In the two provinces of Ontario and British Columbia the total urban population approximates the population served by public libraries; the population served by public libraries in Ontario is 2,153,016, while its urban population is 2,095,992; and in British Columbia 365,172 of the 394,739 total urban population has public library service. Of Canada's 5,572,058 total urban population, 4,423,736 receive public library service.


In the whole Dominion, Quebec is the province with the least public library facilities, since the registered library borrowers in the communities served amounts to only 2.4 per cent. of the total population. For the Dominion as a whole, the percentage is just under 25 per cent.


In the matter of per capita circulation in the towns and cities, 5 per cent. were served in Canada in 1933 as against 4.76 per cent. in 1931; but the per capita expenditure on books, periodicals, and binding has decreased from 12 cents in 1931 to 10 cents in 1933.


In the matter of personnel, of the total of 891 librarians and assistants in 272 public libraries, only 329 have been trained, and they were on the staffs of only 66 libraries. Here again, Ontario is numerically in the lead, with 261 trained librarians out of a total of 595; British Columbia, however, employs a higher percentage of trained workers, as slightly more than half (26 out of 49) of the librarians in that province are trained. In small libraries (under 10,000 vols.), the fewest trained librarians are found, as 200 libraries in this class have only 15 trained librarians.


The Toronto Public Library is the largest public library system in Canada and serves a population of 631,207 (1931 census). It has central libraries for reference, circulation, and books for boys and girls, as well as seventeen branches containing 582,588 vols. In 1933 the 269,553 registered borrowers read 4,111,203 vols., and $88,145 was spent on books and periodicals. This is not only the outstanding public library in Canada , but one which holds an important place in the general rank of public libraries. Its high requirements for its staff, its fine reference and circulating collections, its work with boys and girls, are all notable features, and it has been fortunate in having James Bain (q.v.) and George H. Locke as its librarians for half a century of development and expansion.


The Ottawa Public Library is important, as its public service is indicated by its bilingual collection of books. A main library containing 123,838 vols. in French and English and four branches serves a population of 126,872, of whom 27,693 are registered borrowers. W. J. Sykes, the librarian, who is retiring in 1936, has organized a readers' advisory service, and has arranged for the wide distribution of printed reading lists.


The Fort William Library has one branch, under the able direction of Miss Mary J. L. Black. It contains 42,391 volumes for a population of 26,277, and in 1933 it circulated 199,058 books to 8,000 borrowers, or 24.88 books per borrower. In the same year its "sister city"; Port Arthur, circulated 28.5 books to each borrower; and both libraries provided extensive service for foreign-born groups.


Montreal at present has no public library system, and its needs are only partially met by the Civic Library, the Fraser Institute Library, the Mechanics' Institute Library, and, in Westmount, by the Westmount Public Library.


Library Training.

The training of librarians and library assistants in Canada has recently made great progress in organization and quality. At the beginning of the century it was nonexistent: librarians were born and not made. In 1904 the first training was given in a summer course established at McGill University by C. H. Gould. To-day it is possible for an applicant to train in Canada for any type of library work.


In 1911 a short course was established in Toronto by the minister of education for Ontario, and was placed under the direction of the inspector of public libraries. In 1916 the Ontario Library School was organized and, until 1928, gave a three months' course of intensive training in library methods. It was then attached to the Ontario College of Education, University of Toronto, and the course was extended to one academic year, with an entrance requirement of senior matriculation or its equivalent, for the purpose of training librarians.


In the province of Quebec, the first McGill University Summer Library School was conducted in 1904, and since then has held eighteen sessions. In 1927, with the assistance of a Carnegie Corporation grant, a one-year course was organized. Shortly afterwards it was accredited by the Board of Education for Librarianship of the American Library Association, and in 1930 it was organized on a graduate basis and became one of the seventeen accredited library schools on the continent to require a bachelor's degree for entrance. It grants the degree of Bachelor of Library Science (B.L.S.), to those who have successfully completed the course. The School also provides evening extension courses leading to a certificate, and has conducted summer courses elsewhere: in 1930 a six weeks' course at the University of British Columbia , and in 1933 a similar course at Prince of Wales College. In 1932 a short summer library course in French was held at McGill University .


Acadia University and the University of Western Ontario offer short courses in library science as part of the undergraduate course in arts, in order to facilitate the intelligent use of the library by the students.


Children's Libraries.

Ontario led the way in the establishment of children's libraries in Canada , when a school library in St. Thomas was opened in 1902. In 1906, the Sarnia Public Library admitted children, and a year later other libraries offered the same privilege. In 1908, under the auspices of the minister of education, instruction was given throughout the province in this type of work. Though for a time lack of space and funds impeded progress, to-day children are provided for in all public libraries in Canada . Usually a trained librarian is in charge of the children's room, which is appropriately decorated with brightly coloured posters, holiday reading-lists, and honour rolls, and is supplemented by reading clubs, exhibitions, and story hours. Many libraries lend books to teachers for class-room circulation. The educational value of the library is emphasized. by public addresses and talks at teachers' meetings, mothers' meetings, and normal schools. Since 1921 Children's Book Week has held organized exhibits and talks throughout Canada.


In the province of Quebec the children's wing of the Westmount Library, built in 1911, with separate entrance and attractive rooms is worthy of notice. In 1928, the Local Council of Women opened a children's room in the Fraser Institute, in Montreal, to which several branches were subsequently added.


School libraries were established in Ontario about 1850, when the Department of Education purchased the necessary books wholesale and resold them to the schools. After 1881 this method was discontinued owing to opposition from booksellers, and little was done until 1902, when grants were made to each school, and a catalogue provided from which books could be selected. The other provinces introduced similar methods, and to-day practically all schools throughout Canada receive gov­ernment aid, either in books or money.

Library Legislation.

It was by Acts of parliament that public libraries have been established throughout the Dominion. In Quebec and the Maritime provinces, mechanics' institutes and library associations were established or incorporated by early legislation which has since been amended at various dates. Ontario was the first to have a Free Libraries Act (1882), and the four western provinces followed suit. In addition to regulations regarding library administration, these provinces impose a special library tax. In Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, the Department of Education has been made responsible. In the Maritime provinces and in the Yukon, legislation provides for public libraries only in certain specified cities and towns.


Some form of school library legislation has been enacted in each province and the Yukon. Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick are entitled to grants from the Board of Education; Nova Scotia, Quebec, Alberta, and British Columbia receive provincial aid, supplemented, in the case of Nova Scotia and British Columbia, by local aid; while Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon are provided for locally.


Specific Acts of parliament established the legislative libraries of Nova Scotia and Quebec and the Provincial Library of Manitoba. In the case of the latter, this was superseded by the Act which established the Department of Library and Museum.


British Columbia also has a government department, created by the Legislative Library and Bureau of Statistics Act. In Ontario a clause relating to the Legislative Library was inserted in the statute law regarding libraries. Acts established the law libraries at Frederic­ton and Winnipeg , the Advocates' Library at Montreal and at Quebec, and also the Quebec Library.


A summary of library legislation for the year may be found appended to the Survey of education issued annually by the Dominion Bureau of Statistics.


Library Associations.

Library associations have been organized in the provinces as follows: Ontario, 1900; British Columbia, 1911; Saskatchewan, 1914; the Maritimes, 1918 (reorganized 1934); Alberta, 1930; Ontario Regional Group of Cataloguers, 1927; Quebec, 1932; Montreal Special Libraries Association, 1932. The formation of a Canadian library association was discussed as early as 1900, but no effective steps were taken, and as late as 1927 an unsuccessful attempt to put it into operation was made. Finally on June 26, 1934, during the American Library Association. Convention in Montreal, a Canadian Library Council was formed and was affiliated to the older and larger professional association.


Carnegie Libraries.

Through the generosity of Andrew Carnegie and his representatives, a number of grants have been made for the establishment of free libraries in Canada, usually with the stipulation that the community supply a suitable site, annual taxation for maintenance be kept at a minimum, and building plans be approved. The Carnegie Corporation has also aided the development of libraries in Canada in financing demonstrations, encouraging training, and making fellowships and scholarships available.


Libraries for the Blind.

In 1906 the Canadian Free Library for the Blind was organized in Toronto. In 1917 the name was changed to the Canadian National Library for the Blind, and in 1919 it became the Library and Publishing Department of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. One of the largest collections of its kind in the world, it distributes throughout Canada and the United States books in Braille, New York point, and moon type, and in a number of languages. There are smaller libraries at Brantford, Montreal, Halifax, West Point Grey, Vancouver, and Winnipeg.


Travelling Libraries.

In 1890 the Aberdeen Association was organized in Winnipeg to distribute reading material to isolated settlements in the west. In 1893 a branch was formed in Halifax , followed by others at Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Hamilton, Victoria, Brandon, St. John, and London. Later these branches were united in one association with headquarters at Ottawa. In 1896 British Columbia began sending travelling libraries to mining camps and agricultural districts and later to lumber camps. In 1897 Kingston established a system for sailors on the Great lakes. In 1900 Queen's University and the Canadian Club of Toronto contributed libraries for lumber camps. In January, 1901, the Travelling Library of McGill University began distributing boxes of books throughout the Dominion, its services being later restricted to those districts not supplied with books. In the same year the Canadian Reading Camp Association was formed and established the Frontier College. Travelling library systems were established in Ontario in 1901; Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1913 ; and Manitoba in 1918. One or more books at a time are lent to individuals by mail under the system of open shelf libraries operated by the Universities of McGill, Alberta, and St. Francis Xavier, by the British Columbia Public Library, the Departments of Education in Nova Scotia and Manitoba, the Legislative Library of Ontario, the Public Libraries Branch, Ontario, and the Saskatchewan Open Shelf Library.


College and University Libraries.

Of the 232 institutions of advanced education in Canada, including normal schools and colleges, 23 are universities. Of these, King's College (1789) was the earliest, and was followed by Dalhousie in 1818, McGill in 1821, Toronto in 1827, and Queen's in 1841. In these institutions there are 3,856,751 volumes and 398,000 pamphlets. The relation of these libraries to instruction, their physical equipment, organization, and staff, shows no general uniformity, but have developed largely as a result of local conditions. The best treatment of the subject is in Libraries in Canada by the (Carnegie) Commission of Enquiry (Toronto, 1933), Chap. xii. An impetus to college libraries was given when in 1932-3 the Carnegie Corporation began annual grants to thirty colleges amounting to $69,500, to be continued for three years.


Special Libraries.

Libraries on special subjects (e.g., insurance, banking, pulpand-paper, etc.) have recently developed in large numbers, with a local branch of the Special Libraries Association at Montreal . Their members have aided in the compilation of local lists and co-operative catalogues. There are numerous special libraries in Canada, the activities of which are concentrated upon the needs of the institution or business in which they were developed and by which they are supported.


Regional Libraries.

Much of the new library development of Canada in the near future will depend upon the effective organization of rural library systems. Already this method has been established in different parts of the Dominion, with notable success in Lambton county, Ontario (18 units), and in the Carnegie demonstrations in the Fraser valley, British Columbia (24 units), and in Prince Edward Island (21 units). In other places, similar work is being carried on by Library Commissions, Travelling Libraries, and Extension Departments.


The Parliamentary Library.

The Parliamentary Library was established in 1841 on the union of the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. It has been successively located at Kingston , Montreal , Quebec, Toronto, Quebec, and Ottawa, where it is now inadequately housed. Though much early material was lost by fire, the library now contains 365,175 volumes. There are also numerous special libraries in various government departments.


Provincial Libraries.

There is a provincial library in each of the provinces, though in some (e.g., Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick ) it functions also as a public library; in others its services are confined to the government. The legislative libraries in Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Manitoba (subsequently, established as the Department of the Library and Museum) were created by special Acts, and similar legislation has been enacted in Ontario, British Columbia, and New Brunswick.



There is no published history of libraries in Canada. Information on various phases of the) subject will be found in Canada, Dominion Bureau of Statistics (Education Branch), Survey of libraries in Canada (annual); Libraries in Canada (Toronto, 1933), published by the Carnegie Commission of Enquiry; and James Bain, "The public libraries of Canada", in J. C. Hopkins (ed.), Canada (Toronto, 1899), vol. v, pp. 207-11. The Canadian Almanac (annual) contains lists of libraries with names of librarians. Of the numerous articles in the professional periodicals, reference may be made to the following: A. L. A. Bulletin, No. 2, pp. 136-43; Library, vol. vii, pp. 241-9; Library Asst. vol. xxiv, pp. 105-11; Library journal, vol. xii, pp. 217-20, 406-9, 450; vol. xxv, pp. 7-10 (conf.); vol. xxviii pp. 43-6 (conf.); vol. xxxiii, pp. 17-8; vol. Iii, pp. 525-6, 590-1, 711-5; vol. lix, pp. 493-8, 503-5, 506-11; Library World, vol. xxvi, pp. 267-8; Ont. Library Assoc. Proc., 1911, pp. 46-54; Public Libraries, vol. viii, pp. 75-6, 125-6, 175-6, 333-4, 439-40; vol. ix, pp. 207-8. For further references consult H. G. T. Cannons :Bibliography of library economy (Chicago, 1927), pp. 58-9; and its supplement (ed. L. M. Morsch), Library literature (1921-1932) (Chicago, 1934), p. 68. See also Dominion Bureau of Statistics, Annual Survey of Education in Canada, 1928 (Ottawa, 1930), p. 164.

Source : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada , Vol. IV, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 400p., pp. 76-81.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College