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Preserving the past, improving the future

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For Sandy Hyman, St. John’s Library is more than just an old building full of books.

The Salter Street branch was a place that exposed her to the wonder and mystery of literature, and provided a haven on the road home from school each day.

"When I started coming here, my world opened up to books. I loved the library and thought it was a very safe place," Hyman said.

"I went to St. John’s High School and I walked a long way from home, and this was my destination after school often, to pick up a book to take home to read."

Now the chair of the Winnipeg Library Foundation, Hyman is glad to see that the storied old library is on tap for some significant upgrades in the near future.
St. John’s, along with Cornish Library on West Gate to the south, will be modernized and made more accessible, hopefully in time for their centennials in 2015.

"We’re very excited that it’s going to be physically accessible not only for people with disabilities or mobility issues, but also young moms with their strollers and everything else," Hyman said.

Both branches are known as Carnegie libraries, built using funds from Andrew Carnegie, a turn-of-the-century philanthropist. Carnegie gave a great deal of his largesse to libraries in the United States in Canada, though he primarily supported stateside libraries. It is especially significant, then, that Winnipeg was given three libraries as a result of his generosity: St. John’s, Cornish and the former William Avenue Library at 380 William Ave.

Rick Walker, manager of library services for the city, said the libraries will be brought up to modern-day standards, with an emphasis on making them more accessible.

"The idea is to take these old buildings... It’s not to restore them to make them like they were in 1915, but to renew them and modernize them, make them more functional as a public library today," he said.

"They’re both beautiful old institutions but they require a lot of work in terms of accessibility."
The St. John’s library boasts attractive exterior brickwork and interior woodwork. Foundation past chair Karen Keppler said they will have to manage a balancing act between updating the buildings and preserving their classic charms.

"We don’t want to lose the charm, the architecture that’s involved. It is a Carnegie library and we respect that very much," Keppler said.

Walker noted the plans are still very preliminary, and the city has yet to determine exactly what will be done and at what cost.

Nearly a century later, St. John’s Library’s role in the community is much the same as it was on opening day, serving a lively and diverse community.

"St. John’s was built to serve a very dynamic community at that time, and it’s continued to provide valuable public services, educational literary-based services and lifelong services to that community for the past 100 years," Walker said.

Keppler is glad to see efforts to keep the old buildings operational. She said more effort should be put into the preservation of buildings, noting that compared to some buildings still in use in Europe, 100 years is hardly "old."

"It’s time we learned to keep our buildings," Keppler said. "This is a good start."
Hyman views the renewal plans as a sign that the city plans to keep St. John’s around for a while yet.

"I’m very excited, because throughout the years council has taken a look, and this was in jeopardy of closing, but there’s no way now," she said.  

The foundation doesn’t have any fundraising plans in place yet, but it will be rolling out some campaigns in the next year. It is calling for support from the public to help in the campaign and to take leadership roles in the community.

To get involved, call (204) 989-2060 or e-mail winnipeglibraryfoundation.ca.

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