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The Library Book: a History of Service to British Columbia

By David Obee

Review By Tom Shorthouse

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 176 Winter 2012-2013  | p. 165-6

Accepting the challenge to produce, within a fixed deadline, a comprehensive overview of the evolution of libraries in British Columbia must have been daunting. Works of this sort are most often destined to grow old, respected but unread, in archival settings. But Dave Obee and a cross-section of knowledgeable people, working in the field and beyond, have sidestepped that fate, succeeding admirably in compiling a serious work of social history. It is eminently informative, readable, and yes, entertaining; a creditable production that celebrates libraries, librarians, and dedicated citizens who combined to found and sustain what has become a major provincial public resource. Its publication coincides, appropriately, with the one-hundredth anniversary of the British Columbia Library Association.

The range of years explored in various levels of detail is broad, beginning with descriptions of small book collections which accompanied eighteenth century explorers and later, notably, those of the Royal Engineers (1858), whose donated volumes formed the basis of what is now credited with being the first formal public library in the province: New Westminster (1865).

Records indicate interesting restrictions and outcomes when book stocks and financial resources were limited. In Nanaimo, women were allowed to borrow but children were not. In 1887 Victoria, a proposed referendum supporting a mostly-free library, where young people could “spend a pleasant evening in other than the usual and seductive haunts” (p. 23), was initially defeated. In Vancouver, bookshelves were at one time closed to the public and volumes had to be retrieved by staff because, to quote an early librarian, “bookworms had no conscience” (p. 26).

In those early years and into the new century, lending libraries were eventually established in all regions, benefiting considerably by the passage in 1891 of the “Free Libraries Act.” But public institutions faced a host of challenges: devastating fires, financial crises, world wars, epidemics, and especially the depression of the 1930s when public libraries afforded much-valued warmth, congeniality, and advice to unemployed men who, it is reported, often left their socks “on the radiators to dry” (p.106), but whose continued daily presence also reinforced the value of reading in tough times.

Many notable names in the pioneering years of BC’s library world are memorialized in the pages of this volume. Among them are Andrew Carnegie, whose celebrated gifts to Canada of 125 public library buildings resulted in three permanent sites in the province; a fourth was offered but rejected in the city of Nelson on the grounds that many locals there disapproved of the donor’s “false and vicious economic principles” (p. 49).  We also learn of the vision, hard work and resilience of such dedicated personages as Alma Russell, Ethelbert Scholefield, Helen Gordon Stewart, Eliza Machin, Margaret Clay, and John Ridington, to name a few. Among their many accomplishments were the earliest training course in librarianship (1913), the development of regional library systems, and the founding of the first academic library — at the University of British Columbia (1915). The era also witnessed the establishment of a wide-ranging bookmobile system to serve outlying areas then lacking library service. In years to come, the highly-charged case involving one John Marshall, who was fired from that mobile service at the height of the 1950s “Red scare,” provides an instructive parable on the continuing issue of intellectual freedom.

The astonishing transformation of libraries during the past fifty years forms the basis for the final third of this volume. From manual card catalogs to digitized online formats, from stereotypically quiet enclaves to bustling civic commons, the many changes in all public, university and college libraries and their extraordinary services are explored in detail. And the fascinating cast of characters, too many to list in a book review, who proposed, collaborated, fought for, and shepherded this reinvention of the role of libraries in our society, are duly celebrated here as well.

A coffee-table shaped volume, this welcome history is profusely illustrated and indexed with excellent timelines and appendices. It is highly recommended.

The Library Book: a History of Service to British Columbia
By David Obee
Vancouver, British Columbia Library Association, 2011. 264 p. $50.00