The first entry in the Record Book of the first library in Upper Canada is dated June 8,1800. Forty-one subscribers, "sensible how much we are at a loss in this new and remote country for every kind of useful knowledge, and convinced that nothing would be of more use to diffuse knowledge amongst us and our offspring than a library", paid 24 shillings each for the purchase of books. The first annual meeting, on August 15, 1800, appointed Andrew Heron and Martin McClelland to handle the library's business, and set down five rules for its operation. Each paid-up member was allowed to choose one book for the library, and to borrow one book a month. Eighty books had been received by March 1801; nearly all were non-fiction, and the first 30 were sermons and religious works. New members paid at least twice the fees of old members, and beginning in 1804 a percentage of their fees went to pay the librarian. Andrew Heron, bookseller, printer, and publisher of 'The Gleaner' was librarian for most of the library's 20 years. The two record books, chiefly in his handwriting, are now part of the Niagara Historical Society's collection.
By November 1812 the library numbered 827 volumes. It remained open during war-time, but no annual meetings were held in 1813 or 1814. In December 1813 American troops burned the town, and plundered the library. Only a few books are known to have survived. When peace returned the library was neglected and subscriptions went unpaid.
Finally, on March 1, 1820, the members turned the remaining books over to Andrew Heron, in return for the use of the library which he had just opened. Janet Carnochan, in Bulletin No. 6 of the Historical Society, gives the list of books purchased 1800-1820, as well as a fuller history of Upper Canada's first library.
Andrew Heron's library probably suffered from the same difficulties that had closed the older library. The townspeople had lost heavily during the war, and not many could afford to contribute. Mr. Heron appears to have had a hand in the library formed at St. Andrew's Church on August 16, 1833; 919 books were listed there in 1835, and the library continued until 1869.
Fortunately, the most valuable book collection in the area survived the destruction of 1813. Rev. Robert Addison's library remained safe at his log house at Lake Lodge, three miles outside town. Brought to Niagara in 1792, this collection numbered more than 1250 volumes, dating back to the 16th century. On Addison's death in 1829 the books were left to his descendants, the Connolly and Stevenson families. According to Miss Carnochan (1914): "They were lately in the possession of Dr. Stevenson, a grandson, but bv the zeal of the Venerable Archdeacon McMurray they were procured and placed in the Rectory." A bookplate, with the date 1862, was placed in most of the volumes to commemorate the presentation, and a list was made of all the books.
The library which Addison brought to Canada combined, the collections of several English country clergymen, who had ministered at Whittlesea, in the Isle of Ely, during the 18th century. The first of these library builders was the Rev. Thomas Topping, a Cambridge graduate, vicar of Whittlesea from 1703 till his death in 1742. His name is to be found in 34 books of the present collection, and his library was acquired by his successor, William Beale, vicar of Whittlesea from 1742 till his death in 1772.
Beale, also a Cambridge graduate, was an enthusiastic book-buyer and has left his name in 234 books.
Richard Atkinson became curate of Whittlesea, apparently at the same time that Beale became vicar (1742). He also collected a library, his name appears in 21 books, and on Beale's death he took over Beale's collection. When Atkinson died in 1781, Robert Addison was curate of the parish of Upwell, Norfolk, about 20 miles from Whittlesea. He probably bought Atkinson's library before leaving Upwell in 1783. Addison, before coming to Canada, prepared young men for Oxford and Cambridge, and he may have decided that a good library would prove useful in a tutoring career.
It is not surprising that the Addison Library contains a particularly full selection of sermons and discourses by Church of England champions, covering more than a century preceding 1790. William Beale, however, seems to have been a man of wide reading, and included biographies, magazines, literature, history, and many other topics. But even he does not seem to have collected old or rare books, for, although these could be bought at no great expense during the 18th century, there are only 13 books dating from before 1600. The oldest of these, chiefly scholarly books in Latin, is one on the Latin language by Laurentius Valla, dated 1548, is one on the Latin language.
Anyone wishing to use this distinguished collection would be well advised to carefully consult beforehand the catalogue printed at McMaster University in 1967, as the books are difficult to locate on the shelves. It also gives a clearer indication of the contents than browsing will do. The library, at St. Mark's Rectory, is currently in the care of Rev. Hugh Maclean.
At a public meeting in the town hall, Oct. 24, 1848, it was moved by Judge Campbell, seconded by Dr. Whitelaw, 'That it is desirable to form an association in this town for the foundation of scientific pursuits, the advancement of knowledge, and the acquiring of a library and necessary apparatus." This new organization, called the Niagara Mechanics' Institute, began an ambitious programme of public lectures and book-buying under Judge E. C. Campbell, president from 1850 till his death in 1860. The library, which then numbered about 1,000 volumes, was neglected after his death, and closed down for a while. It soon reopened and, when the fiftieth anniversary was celebrated in 1898, William Kirby had been president for 25 years, and Henry Paffard treasurer for 33 years. According to Janet Carnochan, who was with the library, there were 2,500 books in 1882, 4,500 in 1903, and 8,000 in 1914.
In 1895, after years of renting a small building, a large room in the Court House was made available. In 1912 an archway was cut through a wall to add a reading room. These two rooms have remained largely unchanged till recently, when a further expansion is under way.
A particular interest in books on Niagara's history was growing, and soon after the Niagara Historical Society was founded on December 12,1895, it decided to "earnestly ask all who have any papers, pamphlets, books printed in Niagara in early days, or articles illustrative of the history of the country, to contribute by loan or otherwise." Each year a catalogue of articles donated was affixed to the Annual Report of the Society. In January 1899 a 12 page catalogue containing 1,000 articles under 506 headings was printed, with the names of donors. Items 1 to 37 consisted of early accounts of Niagara, items 38 to 80 of newspapers printed in Niagara 1792 to 1886, items 81 to 118 consisted of miscellaneous newspapers 1795 to 1893, items 119 to 162 of miscellaneous pamphlets 1763 to 1897, items 163 to 226 of old books, chiefly classics, including a 1610 Bible, items 312 to 348 consisted of documents and manuscripts.
This collection of articles was transferred to the Society's new Memorial Hall building, opened officially June 4, 1907. Soon after a new catalogue was made of the donations which has remained standard ever since. However, when in recent years Brock University came to purchase the Society's books it found a number of items missing. Books of literature and general history were moved to the Brock Library, while the Society kept books and documents on local history. In 1971 Brock students completed 'A Guide to Research Resources for the Niagara Region' which catalogues, in Chapter 3, 410 items of local historic interest in the Society's collection. These include early account books, church registers, diaries, over 150 legal documents (deeds indentures, petitions, etc) nearly 150 private letters, military papers, scrapbooks, minute books, and other articles dating back to the beginning of Niagara's history. It is hoped that the Society's book collection will also be catalogued in the near future. There is a copy of the Brock Research Guide at the Niagara Library.
The depression of 1929 struck Canadian literature a financial blow from which it has not yet entirely recovered. However, the growth in population and the building of schools during the 1950s and '60s ensured an increase and enlargement of libraries. Unfortunately, the rapid book-buying which resulted was confined almost entirely to books of recent vintage, chiefly because they easier to obtain. Thus, rather than expanding the minds of readers, these books, many published specifically for the library trade, threatened to restrict learning to the opinions of one or two generations. Among other things, a library should be, not just a dumping ground for contemporary publishers, but a collection of the thoughts and feelings of men and women of all the ages.
With the Inter-Library Loan System it is now possible for a small library to send books to readers in larger centres, while maintaining a valuable collection of its own. Unfortunately, those willing to see Niagara on the Lake rezoned as a cultural slum have frequently used the argument of its smallness to discourage any serious interest in our libraries. However, the traditions that we have inherited are not small, and we may have to grow somewhat to live up to them.