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Manitoba sanctum

Millennium Library's Local History Room a treasure trove

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On a quiet weekday morning in the downtown Millennium Library, Gertie Zepp has found the book she's looking for.

Sigfusson's Roads, published in 1992 by the late Svein Olaf Sigfusson, is a compendium of the northern transportation network on the Prairies.

Zepp, a retired teacher, needs to refer to it to complete the history she is writing on the Oxford House First Nation near Thompson.

"It's going to be my gift to the community," says Zepp, 73. "I taught there for 25 years."

To be clear, Zepp found Sigfusson's Roads not in the general stacks but in the Local History Room, which is tucked away on the third floor beside Micromedia Services.

"It's a wonderful place," Zepp says. "I practically live here."

With Manitoba's 140th birthday on the horizon, many more history aficionados may be joining her.

The 1,600-square-foot room contains a treasure trove of material, more than 8,000 individual titles of fiction, non-fiction, photography, corporate and public documents, even cookbooks.

Librarian Louis-Philippe Bujold says the most popular items by far are the various volumes of the Henderson's Directory, which list names, addresses, phone numbers and occupations of Winnipeggers dating back to 1880.

"People use them to research their family trees," says Bujold, who has been in charge of the Local History Room since it opened in the newly refurbished library in November 2005.

"Manitobans love their genealogical history."

Also in demand, he says, are a variety of community histories, much like the one Zepp is undertaking. Many of them are written and self-published by committees of amateur historians.

"We're not looking for Shakespeare," says Bujold, 32, who was born and raised in Quebec. "But if they describe everyday life in Manitoba, they can have great value and we're happy to buy them."

The majority of the titles come from the Centennial Library's old Canadiana Collection. Bujold went through those books one by one, keeping about 5,000 that had significant Manitoba content.

"The collection's still growing," he says. "But it's now about filling the gaps."

Those who used the old collection will recall that it was not open for browsing. You filled out a chit with the book's title, and a librarian would pull the copy for you.

"You needed to know what you wanted before you could see it," Zepp says. "Now you can just go up and down the stacks, so you find things you didn't know existed. And the staff is so helpful."

Many of the titles, certainly the current ones, are duplicated in the library general collection. However, those could be out on loan. What's in the Local History Room stays in the Local History Room.

"The collection is good," says University of Manitoba librarian and historian Jim Blanchard, best known for his award-winning 2005 book Winnipeg 1912: Diary of a City.

"Almost everything I turn up that I'm interested in looking at, he has it."

The Local History Room, of course, isn't the only source of Manitoba history. Researchers also use the legislative library, the provincial archives, the universities and the Hudson's Bay Collection.

For those who want to own their books, Burton Lysecki's venerable second-hand store on Osborne Street South has built up an impressive collection over the decades.

But the library's is probably the most accessible to average people, and with its light-oak tables and historical paintings on the wall, it offers a relaxing and spacious atmosphere.

"It's a different era," says Rick Walker, the city's manager of library services. "We think it's much better for the public to have access to this material in a nice setting."

The library also offers a number of electronic databases to supplement patrons' research, and Bujold programs events and displays of special interest to history buffs.

In a perfect world, Walker says, everything would be digitized, but that is a long, slow and expensive project.

"We get requests for information from all over the world," Walker says. "It would be great for people to have computer access from anywhere."

The Local History room is open regular library hours. More than 125,000 people have come in since November 2005. These days traffic averages about 2,300 visits per month.

About half the new additions come from the library's general acquisitions budget. Many people donate material they've stumbled upon in their attics or who knows where.

Bujold also pays for rarer titles from a fund targeted for history books by Winnipegger Violet Hitchcock, who made generous donations in 2003 and 2005.

At its peak the Hitchcock fund stood at $36,000. Bujold has spent $26,000 of it so far.

"A used book can cost $10 or $500," Bujold says. "It used to be very competitive, especially with libraries in Alberta, but the local dealers now give us first choice."

 

morley.walker@freepress.mb.ca

Time capsule

Among the 8,000-plus books in the Winnipeg Public Library's Local History Room are significant titles:

 

Observations on the Present State of the Highlands of Scotland, with a View of Immigration, by Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk (1805)

 

A History of Riel's Second Rebellion, and How It Was Quelled, by Arnold Haultain (1885).

 

Is Manitoba Right?: A Question of Ethics, Politics, Facts and Law: A Review of the Manitoba School Question, published by the Winnipeg Tribune (1895).

 

Souvenir of Winnipeg, the Capital of Manitoba: Railroad Centre, Trade Centre, Manufacturing Centre, Educational Centre (1891).

 

"ö Address to the Jury in the Crown vs. Armstrong, Heaps, Bray, Ivens, Johns, Pritchard, and Queen, Indicted for Seditious Conspiracy and Common Nuisance: Fall Assizes, Winnipeg 1919-20 by William Pritchard (1920).

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2010 D1

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