Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Two Winnipeg Carnegie Libraries: Cornish and St. John's

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

The front entrance to the Cornish Public Library at 20 West Gate. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
This is a continuation from a previous post, Free and Open to All: A History of Winnipeg's Libraries.

Libraries are pillars in their communities, places where to spend hours browsing for books, learning something new in the resource section, doing classwork on the public computers, or participating in exciting programs.There are three libraries in Winnipeg that have been part of their communities for over a hundred years. One of these was the Carnegie Library at 380 Williams Avenue, spoken about in the blog post above.  

St. John's Library
The St. John's Library at 500 Salter Street. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
Built in 1905, the library was enough at the time but the city was rapidly expanding, predicted to be the Chicago of the North and with a city population that big, the demand on public services would be far greater. 

The Carnegie Library at 380 Williams Avenue ca. 1905. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
Only two years after the Carnegie Library opened, the question of branch libraries was raised. James H. McCarthy, the City's first librarian, championed the creation of small depositories in drug stores, schools, and other centres with collections of approximately 500 books rotated every two to three weeks. Losses were heavy from these depositories and even with 35 of them by 1914, the need for branch libraries remained.  

The Cornish Public Baths and the Cornish Public Library, as seen from the Assiniboine River ca. 1915. Image courtesy of the Manitoba Archives N7391.
Thus, by 1913, the city approached the Carnegie Corporation once again for two more libraries. City-owned land was selected for the buildings - one at the north end at the corner of Machray Avenue and Salter Street, and the other in Cornish Park at the west entrance to Armstrong's Point. Cornish Park, named after Winnipeg's first mayor, Francis Evans Cornish, was the previous home of Winnipeg Waterworks, and came to be the home of both the Cornish Public Bath and the Cornish Library. For more information on Francis Evans Cornish, go to Memorable Manitobans: Francis Evans "Frank" Cornish.

1992 photo of the front of the Cornish Library. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
The need for two separate branches, rather than just one, came from the two distinct populations in Winnipeg at the time and the economic division between north and south. At the time, the City of Winnipeg often built public facilities, such as baths, schools and libraries, in pairs to appease both ends of the city and prevent political backlash

St. John's Library architect's plans #2901/1914 "Front Elevation" courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Archives.
In June of 1915, the St. John's Library and the Cornish Library opened, in the North End and Armstrong's Point, respectively. The openings were attended by an orchestra, many local dignitaries, and hundreds of Winnipeg's citizens.

Main floor north fireplace ca. 2010. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
The St. John's Library is the slightly smaller of the two and located in the North End, which at the time was a bustling area as the centre of Winnipeg's immigrant community. Having grown rapidly in the first decade of the 20th century, the North End was in need of civic services including water, sewer, electricity, fire protection, police, modern schools, housing, commercial property, and of course, libraries. The benefit of having a library in the area was tremendous. The people there didn't know the country, they didn't know the language, and they were missing their families back home.  

St. John's mezzanine ca. 2010. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
Adapting to a new country can take ages but the people who lived there now had a library to help them. Through the use of books, magazines, and journals, people were able to learn the language and acclimatize to their new home more easily and rapidly. Libraries still fill this role in Winnipeg, with many providing free EAL resources to newcomers.

St. John's Library main floor ca. 2010. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
The community was so exited to have a new library, that it opened earlier than planned, and therefore did not have a lot of furniture. The basement was originally to be used as a staff room and a coal room but it ended up as a juvenile section instead. St. John's circulated more books in the first six months after opening than the Williams and Cornish Library combined, demonstrating its value to the community.
The portrait above the door is of Andrew Carnegie, donor of the funds that built the library photo ca. 2010. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.

Much like the St. John's Library, the Cornish Library is cherished in its community. Located just around the corner of the entrance to Armstrong's Point, the library can be described as a Winnipeg secret. 
Entrance to the Cornish Library. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg.
The Cornish Library has been used by many influential authors and citizens including suffragist, prohibitionist, and novelist Nellie McClung, who used the basement of the library for some of her lectures. For more information on Nellie McClung, go to the Canadian Encyclopedia-Nellie McClung

PastForward Launch
A more recent presentation is given on the main floor of the Cornish Library. Image courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
The Cornish Library hasn't undergone any major renovations with the exception of repairs to the foundation that were necessary due to damage from the Cornish Baths and a flood in 1918. The damage was repaired with a Carnegie grant of $7000.

Cornish Library
The Cornish Library. Image courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
In the past, there was often not a lot of funding for libraries and their programs. During one of these funding low points, there was a need for snacks for children's programming. The solution came from the prison at Stony Mountain, where inmates were learning how to bake.  Themed cupcakes soon arrived, accompanied uniformed chef-inmates and their guards. Though unconventional, this story is an excellent example of the ways in which a library can partner with the community to ensure everyone's needs are met. 

Hard at work in the Cornish Library ca. 1992. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
The lack of funding has produced a more serious threat though. The city has often suggested closing some of the smaller branches, including the Cornish Library, in the name of saving taxpayer dollars. As recently as 2005, the loyal patrons of the library have been called upon to make sure that this would not happen. 
A letter from Heritage Winnipeg to City Councillors, in support of the Cornish Library remaining open.

Young children and adults alike have written letters to protest the closure and explain how and why the library is so dear to them. Luckily, the city did not close the library and the Cornish Library is still in use today. With plans for a huge renovation, the Cornish Library isn't going anywhere. 

Salter Street looking north from Machray Avenue ca. 2010. Notice St. John's Library on the left. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
The St. John's Library and the Cornish Library are both still in use today. Though we celebrated the libraries' 100th birthdays this year, we are not only celebrating their age but also their vital presence in the city. They are places that not only educate us, but bring us together. 

The Friends of Cornish Library are currently selling a historical DVD, The Cornish Library: Living Room of the Community 1915-2015, as a fundraiser for the library and its planned renovations. For more information, contact Pat at

Sources and Links

City of Winnipeg Historical Report-500 Salter Street-Long
City of Winnipeg Historical Report-20 West Gate-Long
Cornish Library Information 
St. John's Library Information
Winnipeg Free Press - Libraries still the focal point of neighbourhoods

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