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Carnegie’s Canadian Libraries

Libraries provide important places of creativity, local and global connections, and free and accessible learning. These institutions play an essential role in Canadian communities, a fact that is particularly underscored every October during Canadian Library Month.  According to the Canadian Library Association, there are over 23,000 librarians and library clerks serving over 22,000 libraries located across the country from rural hamlets to major metropolitan areas. A little over a century ago, American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie laid the groundwork for today's modern information network by donating millions of dollars toward the design, construction and continuing development of libraries in Canada and around the world. Some of these beautiful landmark buildings still function as libraries.  The Canadian Register of Historic Places celebrates the roots of Canada's library system by profiling some of the libraries developed with Carnegie's generous patronage.Toronto Public Library, c.1910, TPL Special Collection / Bibliothèque publique de Toronto, c.1910, BPT collection spéciale

In the early 1890s, Scottish-American industrialist and self-made millionaire Andrew Carnegie wrote that among institutions that could most benefit from philanthropy, the "best gift" to a community was a free, or "public," library.  Carnegie credited his success in life partly from his childhood and teenage access to library books.   But the 19th century was a time when most libraries were not free, and could only be accessed through annual paid subscriptions meaning that only wealthier people could afford to "borrow" books.

True to his beliefs, Carnegie announced in 1898 that he would start donating money to further the construction of public libraries in the United States and around the world.  The "Carnegie Formula," by which Carnegie paid the capital costs of construction while municipalities were responsible for ongoing operational expenses, was part of his broader belief that educational opportunities should be accessible to all.  By the time the Carnegie Corporation stopped providing grants 20 years later, 2,509 library buildings around the world had been constructed and over 56 million dollars had been donated.  In Canada, 2.5 million dollars donated by Carnegie helped build 125 library buildings.  The majority were built in Ontario (111), but libraries funded by Carnegie were also built in other provinces and territories: 3 each in Alberta and British Columbia, 4 in Manitoba, 1 in New Brunswick, 2 in Saskatchewan and 1 in the Yukon.

The funding of new libraries in Canadian towns and cities corresponded with a number of related societal issues.  At the end of the 19th century, a dramatic expansion of Canadian society was occurring,   and increasingly more people were demanding free public library services.  City and town officials soon discovered, however, that while the rooms they rented to house lending libraries were now inadequate, there was still not enough money to build proper library buildings to accommodate public demand.  Consequently, there was great enthusiasm when Carnegie announced his funding program.

Winnipeg Library, Manitoba Culture, Heritage & Tourism / Bibliothèque de Winnipeg, Culture, Patrimoine & Tourism du ManitobaEarly Carnegie libraries in Canada, constructed between 1901 and 1905, were not built to standardized plans.  The architects who designed them were more free to follow their imaginations, or to use architectural techniques that had been popular in the late 19th century.  For example, the library building from 1904 on 794 Yates Street in Victoria, British Columbia follows the Romanesque-Revival style.  Designed by noted Victoria architects Thomas Hooper and Charles E. Watkins, this building combines formal exterior and intimate interior design elements to create a highly visible structure within downtown Victoria.  It has an arched portico, Ionic upper balcony and cornices, as well as sandstone masonry featuring rusticated and ornamental stonework.   The grand interior spaces include stained-glass windows, arched ceilings and entryways, and decorated pillars.  This particular Carnegie Library building was commemorated on a $5 Canadian postage stamp in 1996, and is an important historic architectural landmark near downtown Victoria's old town district.

Vancouver also received funding from Carnegie and its building, located at the prime intersection of Main and Hastings streets, was built between 1901 and 1903.  Designed by the important New Westminster-based architect George William Grant (1852-1925), the library celebrates the turn-of-the-century boom-town spirit of Vancouver with a bold eclectic design.  Combining some of the best elements of Victorian architecture, it is a commanding granite-faced building, with a Classical Ionic corner portico and dome, Romanesque-inspired arched windows, and French mansard roofs.  There is a grand curved staircase within the portico, tiled floors, and stained-glass windows, which include panels commemorating William Shakespeare, John Milton, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Sir Thomas Moore. For over fifty years, this was home to both the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library and the Vancouver Museum.  This is now a branch library and a community centre designed to serve the people living on Vancouver's east side near Gastown Historic District NHS.  The Vancouver Public Library continues the tradition of using bold architecture to attract visitors; its current main branch in downtown Vancouver is massive, and built to look like a Roman Coliseum.

Other library buildings funded by Carnegie in Western Canada include Edmonton's Strathcona Public Library (Neo-Classical, 1913), Calgary's Memorial Park Library (Neo-Classical, 1909); Winnipeg's Carnegie Library (Neo-Classical, 1903-1908); and North Battleford's Public Library (Georgian Classical, 1916).  There is even a Carnegie library in the North within the National Historic Site of Dawson City, Yukon! In Eastern Canada, though not directly funded by Carnegie, the Greek Revival L. P. Fisher Public Library in Woodstock, New Brunswick and the Queen Anne Revival Haskell Free Library and Opera House NHS in Stanstead, Quebec were certainly inspired by philanthropic ideals.

After 1905, and until it ended funding in 1917, the Carnegie Foundation demanded standardized designs for library buildings.  This standardization is most evident in Carnegie-funded buildings built in Ontario.  In general, they are in small towns and are designed in the Beaux-Arts architectural style.  This style became extremely popular in the first decade of the 20th century with architects and town planners, who were following the principles of the City Beautiful movement.  This movement generally ascribed to the idea that cities should have well-designed and aesthetically pleasing streetscapes, combining green spaces with iconic buildings built along Classical forms.  As a result, many institutional Brantford Library, City of Brantford / Bibliothèque de Brantford, ville de Brantfordbuildings between 1900 and 1914 were built in a neo-classical or Beaux-Arts form.  Libraries in this style generally have grand exterior staircases leading up to large main entrance doors, classical columns, triangular centre gables, large symmetrically placed windows on each side of the entrance, and even domes.

You cannot mistake a Carnegie library building: the words "PUBLIC LIBRARY" or "CARNEGIE LIBRARY" are prominently displayed above the front entrance.  Interior furnishings were welcoming and cosy. Oak floors, high ceilings, finely-made wood bookshelves, stained glass windows, and fireplaces provided the ideal setting to enjoy the library's services.  Most of these buildings are still standing which is a testament to the quality of their design and materials.

One example of an Ontario Carnegie Library built in the Beaux-Arts style is a spectacular two-and-a-half storey building located at 73 George Street in Brantford. Built in 1902, and designed by the architectural firm Stewart, Stewart, and Taylor, the building is one of the focal points of Victoria Park Square in downtown Brantford.  Other fine examples built in the Beaux-Arts style include St. Mary's Library (1904-05); the Niagara Falls Carnegie Library (1910); or the very attractive Perth Library (1906), designed by the distinguished Canadian architect Frank Darling.  One town that diverged from the standardized Beaux-Arts model was Goderich, where in 1902 a Romanesque-styled library building - complete with a corner tower - was constructed.

Though located in a much larger city, the Toronto Public Library also benefitted from the Carnegie Foundation donations.  The first grant, which totaled $350,000, helped build a new central library (completed in 1909), and three branch libraries (Yorkville, 1907; Queen and Lisgar, 1909; and Riverdale, 1910).  In 1916, a second grant, totaling $50,000, funded Beaches, High Park, and Wychwood Perth Library, c1907, Archives of Ontario / Bibliothèque de Perth, c.1907, Archives de l'Ontariobranches.  Three more branch libraries were built, rounding out the system by 1917.  Most of these libraries are still in use today. The Toronto Public Library currently serves 18.5 million people at its 98 branches and lends over 32 million items, making it one of the most well-used library systems in the world.

Carnegie libraries were expressions of the hopeful, thriving spirit of new communities, were designed to serve as prominent landmarks, and encouraged people to build greater community connections.   Over a century later, Canada's remaining Carnegie libraries still function with the same intent.  It is also worth noting that most libraries now serve as repositories for local community history resources, and help researchers piece together data that leads to important designations of historic places.  As we celebrate the ways in which libraries provide Canadians with free access to stories, electronic information resources and social media, it is worth remembering how this tradition of free and accessible learning began.

List of Carnegie Libraries in Ontario and Canada:

Carnegie Libraries in Ontario

Carnegie Libraries in Canada

Additional Resources:



Beckman, Margaret, Stephen Langmead, and John Black. The Best Gift: A Record of the Carnegie Libraries in Ontario. Toronto and London: Dundurn Press, 1984.