Winnipeg's Carnegie Libraries

By George Siamandas




Selkirk Settlers and Hudson Bay men like Peter Fiddler were the first contributors to Winnipeg's libraries. Fidler donated 500 books upon his death in 1822. The Manitoba Scientific and Historical Society was the founder of what later became the Winnipeg Public Library. In 1881 2,500 books were borrowed in Winnipeg. In 1905 the Carnegie Library was built at 380 William Ave at a cost of $100,000. It was opened by Earl Grey on Oct 11, 1905. Built of native Manitoba limestone, the William Ave library was designed by Samuel Hooper. The man that made this and two other branches possible was Andrew Carnegie, the noted philanthropist who donated $75,000 towards construction of the William Library. Carnegie helped with another $39,00 for an addition, and in 1915 paid the total cost of the Cornish and St. John's Libraries. The new libraries were the result of the initiative of provincial Librarian J. P. Robertson who wrote to Carnegie pleading for the same kind of assistance that had made the Ottawa library possible.



Carnegie was Scottish born and lived between 1835 and 1919. In a classic rags to riches story, he made his fortune in railroads and oil and steel enterprises. His philosophy was that the best kind of assistance one could offer was to help people help themselves. Of the $330 million that Carnegie donated, more than $56 million went to the establishment of 2,507 libraries around the world. One hundred and Twenty-five were built in Canada at a cost of $2,556,660. He also helped colleges, and supported cultural and research grants. His designs were different from the private libraries in that they were open and accessible. The William Street Library proclaims above its doorway "Free to All." In Carnegie's libraries, children were encouraged to attend and you could look through the shelves and find your own books.



There was a boom in demand in the 1920s and branch stations were being set up in grocery stores, drug stores and fire halls. Bookmobiles were started in 1953. But in the late fifties money by-laws for the establishment of branch libraries were defeated one after the other. The city instead decided to create four modest branches in the 1960s which cost under $75,000 each: the River Heights, Downtown, McPhillips and the West End. In 1972 the City built the new Central Library on Graham Ave at a cost of $10 million.


For both rich or poor, libraries have always played an important community building role in Winnipeg. Libraries have served as neighbourhood information centres. They help create an atmosphere for learning. They are places children can explore their interests, study and be exposed to a wealth of information. As a teenager I can remember many a winter day studying at the William Street Library while the steam heat radiators hissed and popped in the background.



Today there are 21 branches which last year circulated 5.6 million materials from a collection of 1.6 million items. Three hundred thousand people hold library cards. And last year they answered 413,000 information questions. But their role is changing rapidly with technology. Now the building is not important, nor is going to the building itself necessary. And the book of the future will become a CD Rom, a database or a computer network. TheWinnipeg Library will soon open with major enhancements and renovations.


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