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A Free Library for All

For the week of Monday, April 24, 2017.

“What is the best gift which can be given to a community?... a free library occupies the first place…” – Andrew Carnegie, 1889.

On April 27, 1906, Andrew Carnegie arrived in Toronto to begin a library tour in Canada. While in Toronto, he made a speech at City Hall and met with librarians. He then went to Ottawa to open its new Carnegie library at 120 Metcalfe Street in front of an enthusiastic crowd.

Andrew Carnegie arrives at Toronto City Hall, April 27, 1906
© Toronto Public Library / 969-12-2 Cab

Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish-American industrialist whose wealth came from the steel business. At a time when most libraries were only accessible through paid subscription, Carnegie devoted much of his fortune to making libraries accessible to all people. From 1886 to 1917, he donated $56 million to build more than 2500 libraries worldwide!

To qualify for the typical grant of $2 per person, which usually amounted to about $10,000 per library in Canada, a community had to provide a building site, pledge 10 percent of the total building cost annually for maintenance, and lend books free of charge. Initially communities had free reign on library design, but from 1905 all building plans had to be approved by James Bertram, Carnegie's secretary. Most libraries were built in the Beaux-Arts style with columns and symmetrical windows. They featured open stacks so that people could find the books themselves.

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This Carnegie Library, opened in 1907 in Dawson, Yukon, is now a Masonic Temple
© J. Armitage, Parks Canada. All rights reserved

Not all Canadian communities embraced the idea of a Carnegie library. Detractors felt that Carnegie’s fortune had been made by oppressing workers while others objected to his remarks that “Canada’s only chance of a future is to throw her lot in with the Americans.” Nevertheless, 125 libraries were built in Canada. The majority were located in Ontario, including 10 library branches in Toronto. However, British Columbia, Yukon, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and New Brunswick all received funding.

Carnegie libraries were part of a developing accessible, democratic education system in Canada and cemented the public library’s role as a free institution. There are Carnegie libraries in the Gastown Historic District and the Dawson Historic Complex. To learn more, see Lights, Camera, Action! Shhhhh it’s a Library!, A New Chapter in Library History, and The Library of Parliament and the Men Who Loved It in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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