Winnipeg’s Carnegie libraries: a century of opening minds

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Public libraries have always served their communities by providing learning opportunities, gathering spaces and a venue for the sharing of ideas. Max Freedman, brother of Judge Samuel Freedman, spent a lot of time reading at the St. John's Library on Salter Street prior to his journalism career with the Manchester Guardian and the Chicago Daily. Social activist Nellie McClung held meetings at Cornish Library on West Gate. These library buildings have seen 100 years of continuous use, fostering individual and community improvement.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/09/2014 (3005 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Public libraries have always served their communities by providing learning opportunities, gathering spaces and a venue for the sharing of ideas. Max Freedman, brother of Judge Samuel Freedman, spent a lot of time reading at the St. John’s Library on Salter Street prior to his journalism career with the Manchester Guardian and the Chicago Daily. Social activist Nellie McClung held meetings at Cornish Library on West Gate. These library buildings have seen 100 years of continuous use, fostering individual and community improvement.

The turn of the last century showed tremendous growth in social justice and other social reforms. Many were brought about by women such as McClung and organizations working for a wide range of changes leading to much greater political and economic equality. In addition to promoting the right to vote, which was granted to Manitoba women in 1916, women’s organizations also helped to improve schools, change child labour laws and increase property rights for women.

Not surprisingly, women played an important role in the establishment of free public libraries, which were important resources in the fight for social change. The National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) was founded in 1893, and among the early priorities of this organization was the establishment of the first free libraries and supervised playgrounds for children in cities across the country. In 1914, the executive secretary of the American Library Association, G.B. Utley, stated that “fully one half the libraries in the country had been established through the influence of American women.”

John Woods / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Files St. John’s Library on Salter Street was built with a Carnegie grant of $35,000 in 1915.

It was also at this time that American industrialist Andrew Carnegie was funding public libraries around the world. Carnegie believed that libraries added to the meritocratic nature of America, by providing an opportunity for people to educate themselves, as he had, through resources that were freely available to all. In Canada, 125 Carnegie Libraries were constructed, with most (111) located in Ontario. Winnipeg had three — St. John’s Library, Cornish Library, and the William Avenue library, currently under renovation to serve as an archive building.

Fast-forward to 2014. The St. John’s and Cornish libraries are approaching their 100th anniversaries, and are in dire need of renewal. The City of Winnipeg has committed to funding half of the $5 million needed to make these buildings universally accessible, more energy efficient and more functional and welcoming overall. The Winnipeg Library Foundation is actively fundraising for the remainder.

With the many competing demands for public and private resources, it’s worth asking whether libraries are still as important as they were a century ago.

According to research undertaken by the Canadian Library Association, Canadians are avid library users, with the usage of public library services in Canada continuing to grow. It only makes sense for communities to continue to invest in libraries, making them as available and accessible as they can be for the people who need and want to use them.

Just as early feminists advocated for and used library resources, libraries today are still continuing to serve and support those groups in our society that are most in need of social change. Public libraries are the only public institutions that provide reliable and free access to the Internet — with professionally trained staff who can help people use it — for some of Canada’s least affluent citizens, including new Canadians and aboriginal people.

In addition to basic literacy, libraries address the need for information literacy and digital literacy, ensuring people have the skills to research and evaluate information, fundamental skills for life-long learning. Libraries are an essential resource for job-seekers. And, just as they always have, libraries provide vital free community gathering places.

While the collection and programming may have changed, neighbourhood libraries such as Cornish and St. John’s have remained true to their original vision, providing vibrant hubs for learning and community activities. They deserve the continuing support of both the public and private sectors in order to maintain this role for the next century, and beyond.

 

Sandy Hyman is the chairwoman and Carole Marshall is the executive director of the Winnipeg Library Foundation

History

Updated on Tuesday, September 16, 2014 7:40 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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