New life breathed into Carnegie Library
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The City of Winnipeg Archives is finally getting a proper home, after a decade as a nomad in various warehouses across the city. Council is set to approve $12.6 million in funding to transform the Carnegie Library on William Avenue into a state-of-the-art archives facility.
The archives were previously housed in the building, which was renovated in 2013, but water damage to the building made it unsuitable.
The move not only creates a long-term home for some of our city’s most important historic documents and artifacts, it also breathes new life into an abandoned heritage building that was listed by the National Trust in 2018 as one of Canada’s most endangered historic sites.
Winnipeg’s Carnegie Library is one of 2,500 libraries built around the world that were paid for by Scottish-born American industrialist and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
In 1848, when Andrew was 12, he and his family emigrated from Scotland to Pittsburgh, Pa., where he took a job in a cotton mill earning $1.20 per week. By the end of the century, he would sell his steel empire to J.P. Morgan for a staggering US$500 million, passing J.D. Rockefeller to become the wealthiest man in the world.
Carnegie would then dedicate the rest of his life to giving that money away, saying, “The rich have a moral obligation to distribute their money in ways that promote the welfare and happiness of the common man. The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Living true to his doctrine, he would go on to give away 90 per cent of his money, most famously to cities and towns to build neighbourhood libraries.
In 1901, after building hundreds of libraries in the United States, he turned his attention to Canada, almost exclusively Ontario. When J.P. Robertson, the librarian at the Manitoba legislature, and coincidentally founder of the first archives in Manitoba, caught wind of this, he wrote a letter to Carnegie asking if Winnipeg could be added to his list.
Carnegie knew little of Winnipeg and wrote back asking for population statistics, the present condition of any libraries and other information that would give him a general idea of the city. Robertson returned a package of lithographic views, newspaper clippings and pamphlets, recommending that “our rising young city should receive some attention at (Carnegie’s) hands as a new and rapidly developing city does not enjoy the literary advantages of older places.”
The correspondence was convincing, and Carnegie wrote back from his vacation cottage in Scotland saying he would give Winnipeg $100,000 for a public library if the city would purchase the land and guarantee at least $7,500 per year for its maintenance. The city quickly agreed, and a design competition was held for local architects, offering a five per cent commission to the winning design. Eight submissions were received, and Samuel Hooper’s elegant classical design was chosen. Clad in Manitoba Tyndall stone with the words “Free to All” carved above its main entrance, it would open in 1905 as Winnipeg’s first public library.
By 1910, Winnipeg’s Carnegie Library had become the second-largest library in Canada by volume of books loaned. Carnegie would go on to build 124 libraries in Canada, including the second and third libraries in Winnipeg — St. John’s on Salter Street and Cornish on West Gate, making Winnipeg and Toronto the only cities in Canada with more than one Carnegie library.
The William Avenue building would serve as Winnipeg’s central library for 72 years, until construction of the Millennium (then Centennial) Library in 1977.
After sitting empty for the last decade, a new chapter in the building’s history will soon be written. Becoming home once again to the City of Winnipeg Archives presents an opportunity to make the Carnegie Library an active civic hub.
Modern archives buildings are no longer just warehouses for old things. Good design, committed operational funding and innovative outreach programming can break down traditional barriers to access and participation, allowing archives buildings to become dynamic community focal points that inspire social connection and cross-generational learning.
With a permanent home designed specifically for their needs, the City of Winnipeg Archives can be more than simply an institution of our collective memory. A facility that fosters strong public engagement can shape our shared sense of place and civic identity, broaden cross-cultural awareness and understanding, build stronger and more inclusive communities, and inform social and political policy.
Designed with welcoming and inclusive public spaces, both physical and virtual, a better home for the archives can be an outward-looking, relevant, connected, and engaging centre of research and education. The ability to host events such as films, concerts, workshops, presentations, debates and open houses can invite the broader community to experience the archive collection in welcoming and less formal ways.
A better home will allow the City of Winnipeg Archives to build strong partnerships with local libraries, museums, schools and other archival collections to broaden public outreach and unlock the rich potential in our archives to be a tool for education in exciting new ways.
Andrew Carnegie built 124 libraries across Canada and over a century later, more than 100 are still standing — a testament to how communities across the country have cherished, loved and cared for these buildings. He believed libraries foster strong communities, providing access to knowledge, education and social connection regardless of socio-economic background.
As Winnipeg’s central Carnegie Library resumes its place as a community archive, it will continue in a new way to fulfil these worthy aspirations long into the future.
Brent Bellamy is creative director at Number TEN Architectural Group.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.
Updated on Monday, March 20, 2023 10:29 AM CDT: Clarifies that City of Winnipeg Archies were previously housed in the Carnegie Library