Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Free and Open to All: A History of Winnipeg's Libraries

Article by Laura McKay, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp.  
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.

The St. John's Branch of the Winnipeg Public Library at 500 Salter Street. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
The St. John's Branch of the Winnipeg Public Library at 500 Salter Street. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
Libraries are a free public service that many now take for granted - they are the homes of a wealth of knowledge and education that is available to anyone who wishes to read it. However, this was not always the case and it was a long journey to the system we are now familiar with. In celebration of two Winnipeg libraries' centennial celebrations (details below), here is a history of libraries in Winnipeg.

The Cornish Branch of the Winnipeg Public Library at 20 West Gate. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
The Cornish Branch of the Winnipeg Public Library at 20 West Gate. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.

A History of Winnipeg's Libraries
"According to the Canadian Library Association, there are over 23,000 librarians and library clerks serving over 22,000 libraries located across the country from rural hamlets to major metropolitan areas." ~ Canada's Historic Places: Carnegie's Canadian Libraries

One of Winnipeg's first libraries was the Red River Library, created in 1848. The library was created out of the donations from private collections, particularly that of Peter Fidler, a retired fur trader. The library was supported by subscriptions until operation ended in 1871. This system was common for libraries in the 19th century, with patrons paying an annual subscription fee for the privilege of accessing the books. 

Interior photo of the Carnegie Library ca. 1912. The library was created by a community that valued libraries and making books available to the community. Courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
Interior photo of the Carnegie Library ca. 1912. The library was created by a community that valued libraries and making books available to the community. Courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.


The newly-created Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba (now the Manitoba Historical Society) took up the cause shortly thereafter, creating a new public library system with approximately 10,000 volumes. This library was also supported by annual subscriptions, in addition to donations from the city and provincial governments and gifts from the Smithsonian Institution and American government.

Photo of the model of the "gingerbread" City Hall (1886-1962), found on the second floor of the current City Hall. Photo courtesy of Megan Redmond.
Photo of the model of the "gingerbread" City Hall (1886-1962), found on the second floor of the current City Hall. Photo courtesy of Megan Redmond.

In 1888, this library was moved into the newly built "gingerbread" City Hall. The library continued to grow with a circulation of 7,161 volumes in addition to the reference section. The library was now managed by a joint committee of the Manitoba Historical Society and the City but was still vulnerable to cutbacks by City Council. A juvenile section was added in 1899, causing a great jump in circulation. Much to the disappointment of the learned librarian, fiction was the most popular.

In 1898, Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish-American philanthropist, announced he would donate money to build public libraries in the United Sates and around the world. As a self-made millionaire, Carnegie credited his success partly to access to library books during his childhood and teenage years. 


The Cornish Library at 20 West Gate was one of four Manitoba libraries to be built with funding from the Carnegie Corporation. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
The Cornish Library at 20 West Gate was one of four Manitoba libraries to be built with funding from the Carnegie Corporation. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.

The Carnegie Corporation would pay for the initial costs of the building's construction, while municipalities would be responsible for the ongoing maintenance and operational expenses of their new library. By the time the Carnegie Corporation stopped providing grants in 1917, 2509 library buildings had been built from over $56 million in donations. $2.5 million of that money built 125 libraries in Canada (111 in Ontario, 4 in Manitoba, 3 each in British Columbia and Alberta, 2 in Saskatchewan, 1 in New Brunswick, and 1 in the Yukon). 

Shortly after Carnegie's announcement, local librarian Mr. J.P. Robertson wrote to Andrew Carnegie, requesting funding for the construction of a public library building in Winnipeg. The response came from his secretary in October of 1901: 

"If Winnipeg will pledge itself to maintain a free public library at a cost of no less than $7,500 yearly and provide a suitable site, Mr. Carnegie will be glad to give $75,000 for the erection of a library building." (City of Winnipeg Historical Report: 380 William Avenue)

Architect S. Hooper's sketch of the William Avenue facade of the Carnegie Library. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
Architect S. Hooper's sketch of the William Avenue facade of the Carnegie Library. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
After many delays and difficulties with keeping building plans within the proposed budget, construction on the new library finally began in the fall of 1903. The winning plan belonged to Samuel Hooper, who would later be appointed Manitoba's first Provincial Architect, and the contract was fulfilled by Smith and Sharpe. 

The Carnegie Library at 380 William Avenue ca. 1905. Photo courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
The Carnegie Library at 380 William Avenue ca. 1905. Photo courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.

In 1905, almost four years after Carnegie's initial offer, Winnipeg's first public library opened at 380 Williams Avenue. The building was built and furnished with the $75,000 Carnegie grant while another $25,000 was spent by the City on landscaping and acquiring the property. The Governor General of Canada, Earl Grey, and his daughter formally opened the library on October 20, 1905.

In January of 1907, the first children's room in a Canadian library was opened under the direction of the Carnegie's first librarian, James H. McCarthy, who held the position until his retirement in 1928.

By 1910, the Carnegie Library had become the second largest library in Canada in volume of books loaned - that year alone 341,000 books were checked out, while numerous newspapers, periodicals, and reference books were read on the premises. To meet the demand, plans for an expansion of the library were drawn up and an addition was completed in 1908, also funded by Carnegie to a sum of $28,000.
The completed addition can be seen in this 1910 photo of the Carnegie Library. Photo courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
The completed addition can be seen in this 1910 photo of the Carnegie Library. Photo courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
As the city continued to grow, so did the demand for libraries. The St. John's and Cornish Libraries were both completed in 1915, with two grants from the Carnegie Corporation to the tune of $35,000 each. Numerous "station" repositories were established in drug stores, grocery stores, and schools to meet the demand in the rest of the city. 

Over 28,000 books were in library's system but losses were frequent through the branch stations, and the last one closed in 1929, for the most part having been replaced with branch libraries.

The front entrance to the Carnegie Library, ca. 1969. Photo courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
The front entrance to the Carnegie Library, ca. 1969. Photo courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
The Carnegie Library remained the main library in Winnipeg until the Centennial Library (renamed the Millennium Library in 2005) on Donald Street and St. Mary Avenue was opened in March of 1977. This resulted in the closing of both the Carnegie Library and another branch library at Portage Avenue and Kennedy Street. After the community protested, the Carnegie reopened as the William Avenue Branch Library in June of 1978 and had $55,000 in renovations completed.


All three of Winnipeg's Carnegie-built libraries have heritage designation from the City of Winnipeg. The William Avenue Library received designation on July 30, 1984, followed by the Cornish Public Library on January 15, 1993. The St. John's Library was the last to be designated, on February 8, 2011.


The Cornish Library is still in use today. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
The Cornish Library is still in use today. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
"It is also worth noting that most libraries now serve as repositories for local community history resources, and help researchers piece together data that leads to important designations of historic places." ~ Canada's Historic Places: Carnegie's Canadian Libraries

Keep your eyes peeled for more detailed histories of the St. John's and Cornish Libraries later in the summer! 

Centenary Celebrations

Two of Winnipeg's public libraries are celebrating their centennials this month - the St. John's Library at 500 Salter Street and the Cornish Library at 20 West Gate.

The St. John's Library celebration is June 12, 2015. Click for larger image. Image courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
The St. John's Library celebration is June 12, 2015. Click for larger image. Image courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
The Cornish Library celebration is June 15, 2015. Click for larger image. Image courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
The Cornish Library celebration is June 15, 2015. Click for larger image. Image courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.

Doors Open Winnipeg 2015 People's Choice Awards


Heritage Winnipeg cordially invites you to attend our 5th Annual Doors Open People's Choice Awards. For the fifth year, the public has voted for their favourite buildings from Doors Open.

Join us as we announce the winners! 

One winner from each of the five categories will be awarded a beautiful piece of art by local artist Jordan van Sewell celebrating the heritage value of their building:

Best Restoration
Best Architecture
Best Guided Tour/Programming
The 'Hidden Gem'

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