Wednesday, July 11, 2012

THE CASE FOR A NATIONAL LIBRARY OF CANADA 1933-1946

In the midst of the Great Depression a Carnegie funded project to study Canadian libraries appeared. In a hundred and fifty pages this report, authored by John Ridington, George H. Locke, and Mary J.L. Black, surveyed the landscape of library service across the country. Its two chapters on government libraries still make sober reading today. The surveyors reported there was “very little enthusiasm for either a scholarly or a democratic book service in most of the libraries of the various government of Canada.”

Indifference and neglect continued to prevail in government circles on the topic of a national library. Libraries in Canada (1933) did not issue a rallying cry for a national library—it was content with offering advice that a national librarian should be appointed and put in charge of all the libraries maintained by the Dominion government. In this way, all their activities could be coordinated, their holdings catalogued and made available nationally over a period of time. A system of legal deposit would ensure a comprehensive collection of printed resources. Eventually, a new building could be erected to house material and provide reference and reading services. It was an opportunity, but one unlikely to be a priority in the early 1930s.

But the times did change. A Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations was struck in 1937 to examine the underlying financing for the federal and provincial basis of Confederation and the distribution of legislative powers across Canada. Amongst the many submissions were two on forming a national library by the British Columbia and Ontario Library Associations in March and April 1938. These briefs envisioned four national functions. There would be a central repository of library information together with a national union catalogue of holdings. As well, the national library would issue books and liaise with cultural organizations, such as the National Museum, National Gallery, Public Archives, and Library of Parliament. The Commission sympathized with these points and stated a national library was within the federal mandate when it reported in 1940.

During the Second World War, the Canadian Library Council and prominent university librarians continued to press the case from Queen’s and Manitoba. The Ontario Library Review published E. Cockburn Kyte’s “A National Library for Canada,” in 1939 and Elizabeth Dafoe argued for “A National Library” in the May 1944 issue of Food for Thought. The General Librarian of Parliament, Felix Desrochers, added his support in the Canadian Historical Review in 1944. But it was the Canadian Library Council, the predecessor to the Canadian Library Association, that best defined the activities that a national library might undertake in its visionary Canada Need Libraries in 1945:
  • collecting national literature and history cooperatively with the Dominion Archives, National Gallery, and other national bodies;
  • assembling a central national reference collection;
  • lending items to other libraries;
  • providing microfilm, photostat, and other copying services for clients;
  • compiling a union catalogue to identify materials available through inter-library loan on a national scale;
  • co-ordinating book information with audio-visual aids in co-operation with the National Film Board, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, etc;
  • administering collections of Canadian books for exhibition abroad
  • publishing bibliographical works about Canada, e.g. Canadian Catalogue of Books,Canadian Periodical Index, etc.
After the formation of the Canadian Library Association in June 1946, these points were adopted and resubmitted in an influential brief to the federal government in December 1946. This particular effort, A National Library for Canada, elaborated on the benefits of a national library and the broad support the concept had garnered from other national groups: the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Historical Association, the Canadian Political Science Association, and the Social Science Research Council of Canada. This grouping of professional organizations was a influential catalyst in convincing federal Members of Parliament in the value of a national library. There were many benefits to Canada (p. 11):
A National Library for Canada would contribute to the organization of precise knowledge, thus ensuring the most intelligent use of the country’s resources, human and material.
The existence of a research centre on Canada would encourage the writing not only of factual works useful to the legislator, administrator, business man, farmer, student, but also of imaginative works based on research which would help to interpret Canada to Canadians and also to the world.
The prestige of the National Library and its many activities would stimulate the whole library movement. Individual libraries and citizens in all part s of the country would receive assistance from its publications and travelling exhibitions, its reference and cataloguing services, and from the speeding-up of inter-library loans through use of its union catalogues.
The international services of the National Library would play an essential role in Canada’s expanding international relations.
To sum up, the National Library would be a centre of intellectual life of Canada, and a guarantee that the sources of its history will be preserved, and a symbol of our national concern with the things of the mind and the spirit.
To expedite matters, the CLA's 1946 brief concluded that a national service could begin immediately and be housed in temporary quarters: "the National Library can begin as an Information Bureau and Bibliographical Centre, while at the same time, the investigation of the whole question of the ultimate organization of the National Library, its book stack and the building that will be needed to house its collections and its services is continued" (p. 3). The brief urged the government to form a committee reporting to a cabinet minister(s) to investigate its establishment. By June 1948 a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament approved a plan for a Bibliographic Centre as the first step towards the creation of a National Library.

In September 1948, Dr. W. Kaye Lamb was appointed Dominion Archivist, a position which he accepted on condition that he should pave the way for the establishment of a national library. Dr. Lamb had served as Provincial Archivist and Librarian of British Columbia from 1934-40 before becoming Librarian of the University of British Columbia. He had helped author British Columbia’s brief to the Royal Commission in March 1938. He set to work by establishing the Canadian Bibliographic Centre in May 1950. Dr. Lamb presented another statement to the Massey Commission in support of a national library program, a project the Royal Commission on Arts, Letters, and Sciences (1951) endorsed. Then, Dr. Lamb helped draft the National Library Act passed by Parliament in 1952 and officially became Canada’s first National Librarian on 1 January 1953.

Further Reading:
A National Library for Canada; A Brief Presented to the Government of Canada by The Canadian Library Association/Association Canadienne des Bibliotheques, The Royal Society of Canada, The Canadian Historical Association, The Canadian Political Science Association, and The Social Science research Council of Canada, December, 1946 is available online at Library and Archives Canada as a submission to the Massey Commission.

No comments :