On November 17, 1977, the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library gained formal recognition as the first circulating library to be established in Upper Canada. The Honorable Robert Welch, then Minister of Culture and Recreation, unveiled a plaque at the front of the library's Court House location.
One hundred and seventy-seven years earlier, on June 8, 1800, forty-one prominent Niagara residents met to form a subscription library, which they named the Niagara Library. The first entry in its record book reads: "Sensible how much we are at a loss in this new and remote country for every kind of knowledge, " the subscribers resolved, "and convinced that nothing would be of more use to diffuse knowledge amongst us and our offspring, than a library, supported by subscription in this town, we, whose names are hereunto subscribed hereby associate ourselves together for that purpose, and promise to pay annually a sum not exceeding four dollars to be laid out on books as agreed upon by a majority of votes at a yearly meeting."
Heading the subscription list, and probably instrumental in the library's organization, was Andrew Heron (1765-1848), a merchant, land speculator and resident in Niagara since 1785.
On August 15, 1800, Heron and another leading subscriber, Martin McClellan, were appointed to collect subscriptions and order books. The library's initial selection, comprising some 80 works, many on religion and history, received on March 2, 1801, and was soon made available for circulation among the initial subscribers. From the outset, the Niagara Library appears to have been housed in the homes of various subscribers, including Andrew Heron, who, at different times, served as librarian, treasurer, and secretary. Under Heron's management, the collection of the Niagara Library was steadily enlarged. By 1805 the number of volumes had risen to 344, which included a large selection of works on religion and morality, literature, history, geography, and gravel. The collection had been opened to on-subscribers as well as Niagara-area subscribers. That same year, the 49-volume collection of the Niagara Agricultural Society, containing many specialized works, was added to the Niagara Library. In exchange for the books, the Society members were given borrowing privileges in the Niagara Library.
The library operated successfully until the War of 1812. By mid-November, 1812, the collection had been increased to 827 volumes, but in 1813 and 1814, war time conditions forced the cancellation of regular subscribers' meetings and the apparent suspension of acquisitions. Between June and September, 1813, during the American forces' occupation of Niagara, then known as Newark, the military borrowed books from the library. Many other volumes, however, were lost, stolen, or destroyed by the time the American troops withdrew and burned the town in December, 1813. Although the annual meetings resumed in 1815, by 1818 membership and financial support for the library had seriously declined.
The Niagara Library ceased operations in 1820. Its holdings (about 200 books) were incorporated in the new subscription library begun in November, 1818, by Andrew Heron, then a bookseller and publisher of The Gleaner and Niagara Newspaper. In return for relinquishing the collection, the Niagara Library subscribers were granted the use of Heron's new library for a period of three years. The subsequent history of the Niagara Library and Heron's library is uncertain, although both appear to have been sold or dispersed.
The present public library dates from the founding, in October, 1848, of the Niagara Mechanics' Institute, which was established for the "promotion of scientific pursuits, the advancement of knowledge, and acquisition of a library and necessary apparatus."
The first executive consisted of the Honorable W.H. Dickson as president, Judge E.C. Campbell as vice president, and other eminent citizens. The Board of Police offered the Institute a room below the Judges' Chambers in the Court House for its fledgling operation.
The library boasted 134 members in 1863, but, as the economy of the town began to decline, so did the operation of the library. Another major influence in the decline of the locally-funded institution was the increase in the use of Niagara area public school libraries. In fact, in 1895, the Ontario legislature directed that the school libraries become public institutions.
On May 6, 1895, Miss Janet Carnochan, secretary of the Mechanics' Institute, recorded the annual meeting in her minutes and then, one week later, she began the minutes of the Board of Management of the Niagara Public Library.
At this time the library was located in the former Grand Jury Room on the third floor of the Court House. This location was not very accessible to borrowers, so a better home was found in 1896. The old covered market at the rear of the Court House, on the ground floor, was available. The library moved in and occupied two-thirds of the area and the volunteer firemen had the other third. This became the permanent base from which the present library has expanded.
In 1912, when the new fire hall was completed, the firemen moved out and this section was added to the library by cutting an archway in the wall.
Miss Carnochan worked tirelessly until her death in 1926 to establish the library as the social, political and information centre of the community. The records seem to indicate that she was very successful in her endeavours; the library was flourishing.
Unfortunately, in the years leading up to, and during, World War II the library's membership began to decline, even though the book collection still increased--so much so that a card index system was organized in 1933 in cooperation with the Department of Education. To try and rectify the decreasing membership and the lack of money, the local taxpayers voted in 1938 to remove the library from the Public Library Association (a private organization) to become a free public library under the municipal government. This meant the Niagara Library was eligible for government grants and the board members were appointed by the Town Council and the Board of Education. At that time the librarian was W.C. Caskey.
When Mary Duddy became librarian in 1942 the collection totalled 10,070 books. She was followed in 1967 by Helen Greves and our present chief librarian, Gerda Molson, came on staff in 1969.
By 1972 the library board was faced with the need for additional space. The board chairman, Ben Bramble, sought the advice of an experienced interior decorator, Paul Johns. Mr. Johns devised a workable solution. A below-grade truck garage was revamped and joined to the existing room by a stairway. This became the main entrance to the library, housing the card catalogue and the checkout area. The children's section was created by connecting it to the entrance area by a short staircase down. This at one time was an indoor rifle range!
The expanded library was officially opened on June 8, 1973. Since then there have been four more additions to the facilities. The Janet Carnochan Room was added to house the local history collection and the rare books; a children's storytelling and craft/Board meeting room was equipped; in 1981, during the restoration of the Court House, a former furnace room off the children's section became a book storage and computer/telecommunications room; and our most recent addition is the vacated Chamber of Commerce office at the front of the building. The Janet Carnochan Room was moved there in June, 1988, to allow the creation of a new area for the children's picture book collection.
As of January, 1988 the library's collection, which included books, periodicals, records and microfilm titles, totalled 44,102 and had a membership of 3,025 people.
To keep up with modern times the library has begun an automation process and anticipates being fully operational by early 1989. Also, during 1988 an educational video service will be established.
Thus, the first public library in Upper Canada has expanded from the small room it occupied in 1848 to become one of the most unique library facilities in our country today. It combines the historic ambience of its environment with modern technology to form a truly vital community institution.
Written by Ms. Terry Mactaggart,
Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library Board Member,
SPECIAL THANKS TO:
Ministry of Culture and Communication HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION BRANCH
Mr. John L. Field