NOTL library marks bicentennial June 8
- St. Catharines Standard (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), 3 Jun 2000
- Full Text
NOTL LIBRARY marks bicentennial June 8.******
On the eighth day of June in 1800, the original 41 proprietors signed their names at the bottom of a declaration to create a borrowing library, a step they felt would help "diffuse knowledge amongst us and our offspring."
Hilary Weston expected for Thursday celebration.
"Sensible how much we are at a loss in this new and remote country for every kind of knowledge, 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..."
Niagara subscription library founding declaration, June 8, 1800.
By KALVIN REID
In 1800, the Town of Niagara was a lakeside settlement struggling to re-establish its identity.
Four years earlier, Governor John Graves Simcoe removed the capital of Upper Canada from the mouth of the Niagara River and went across Lake Ontario to the muddy settlement of York.
When the government moved across the lake, so too did the British elite and government officials that gave the town we know today as Niagara-on-the-Lake a touch of old world charm in the wilderness of the new world.
A capital that was no longer a capital, the removal of the colonial government from Niagara-on-the-Lake left a void to be filled by the remaining locals. In their efforts to stake out an existence on the Niagara frontier, 41 citizens, including merchants, farmers, church ministers and a newspaper publisher, coalesced to establish a library.
"The town was quite an elegant place when it was the seat of government," said Niagara-on-the-Lake historian Joy Ormsby. "There was no need for a library because the officials would bring their own books.
"But presumably, the officials took at least the veneer of sophistication with them when they left."
On Thursday, with Ontario Lt-Gov. Hilary Weston in attendance, that library, the oldest public library in Canada, will celebrate its bicentennial.
The festivities will include a display in the lord mayor's chambers in the old courthouse that will showcase historical printed materials and records, printing tools and artifacts. After officially opening the display, Weston will also participate in a ceremony on the courthouse steps beginning at 11 a.m.
"When the first public library hits 200 years, we think people should stand up and take notice and recognize how much the success and growth of this country relied on free access to information," said librarian Gerda Molson.
In truth, the original Niagara library wasn't really a public library, at least not by today's standards.
It was a subscription library, restricting membership to those who could afford the $4 annual fee.
"It was a large amount of money," Molson said. "It would have been a major layout of money for the average family back then."
But the 41 proprietors created an exchange of books and ideas and shared a knowledge base with a wider audience than the private libraries of the day. The Niagara subscription library was the predecessor of what would become a true library for public use.
In 1800, the town was in the midst of a continent that was still largely unknown to Europeans, a remote settlement in a strange new land lacking many of the amenities the settlers knew from their homes across the Atlantic Ocean.
But agriculture was firmly established in the Niagara peninsula, and a strong business district had sprouted along the south shore of Lake Ontario, stretching between the lake and Queen Street, from King to Simcoe streets.
"These people came from Britain and Europe where they were surrounded by books and knowledge," said Niagara-on-the-Lake library board chair David Eke. "When they came to this new wild frontier, the absence was apparent."
The original library, not housed in any particular building but shared from collections in the home, was started with 80 books.
"They were trying to better them-selves," Ormsby said. "Most of the books in that early library dealt with things like religion and history with the odd travel book.
"They were all for improving their minds. There was no frivolity in their reading."
With local merchant Andrew Heron, one of the 41 proprietors, as librarian, the Niagara library's collection grew to 827 books by 1812.
"Then the war came," Ormsby said.
United States soldiers occupying the town of Niagara during the War of 1812 raided local book stocks, and most of those that weren't carted off by the occupying force were destroyed with the rest of the town when the American army set Niagara ablaze in December 1813.
As the town began to rebuild from the devastation of the war, the Niagara library tried to soldier on, but with declining membership and financial support, it ceased operations in 1820.
Its holdings, down to about 200 books, were folded into a subscription library started by Heron, now a bookseller and newspaper publisher, in 1818.
But as a public entity, the library took - a back seat.
"The main focus of the town in those years was rejuvenating commerce, not worrying about whether people were reading books," Ormsby said. "It wasn't until the Mechanics' Institute started in 1848 that we got another library.
"Except for Andrew Heron's small subscription library, there is a bit of a hiatus from 1820 to 1848."
Established in October 1848 for scientific pursuits and the advancement of knowledge, the Niagara Mechanics' Institute is the direct forerunner of the current public library in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
It began its operation in the judge's chambers of the courthouse before occupying space in the Customs Office and the grand jury room on the third floor of the courthouse.
In 1896, in the interest of making the library more accessible to patrons, it was given space in the old covered market space at the rear of the courthouse. It has used the same site, with a little more added over the years, ever since.
Around the same time, the library began distancing itself from the Mechanics' Institute moniker and grew to be known as the Niagara Public Library.
As the Second World War approached, library membership again began to fall and revenues started to dry up. In 1938, the private Public Library Association relinquished control of the library.
The municipal government took over, creating a true, free library to be used by the community.
Occupying about 420 square metres in the basement of the old courthouse on Queen Street, including an old rifle range and guards' quarters near still-barred holding cells, the library has come quite a distance from its beginnings 200 years ago.
The library's collection now tops 45,000 items, including videos and microfilm and offers services such as Internet access that were unheard of concepts to the 41 original proprietors.
But the basics are still the same.
"The library community doesn't express sentiments much different than that founding statement in 1800," said Molson, who joined the Niagara-on-the-Lake library in 1969. "Knowledge is absolutely essential if we are going to have a democracy that flourishes."
Just like today's library programs for adults and children, the direct ancestor of the Niagara-on-the-Lake public library hosted a variety of programs and lectures, including regular visits from Egerton Ryerson, the father of Ontario's public school system.
"It will be the task of future members ... to consider how to acquire the enlarged accommodation that will be needed. Let us hope they will succeed, and that long before the centennial anniversary of the public library, they may have a large, handsome building of their own, worthy of the town and worthy of the cause of education to which it will be devoted."
The statement was uttered by library board president William Kirby on Dec. 12, 1898 during 50th anniversary celebrations for the Mechanics' Institute.
More than a century later, the library is at a crossroads as it struggles to achieve Kirov's vision.
Built in 1847, the historic courthouse adds a sense of charm to the library. Bars are still in place, separating the old holding cells from the children's reading area. Rough-hewn stone walls meet the brick ceiling that arcs overhead. The building itself is a piece of history.
But there is no room for growth. The bookstacks in the old marketplace are overflowing. For want of shelf space, books are piled on the floor along narrow aisles. Computer space is limited.
And if you are confined to a wheelchair, forget about using the library. The courthouse basement is multi-tiered, with steps leading from the entrance up to the bookstacks in the old market area, and from the front desk down to the reference room and children's areas.
In a 5-4 vote last fall, Niagara-on-the-Lake town council voted to move the library from its cramped quarters in the courthouse to the proposed facility in the area of Regional Road 55 and Simcoe Street.
Construction has already begun on a new facility for the library on the outskirts of old town. The new building, slated to open this fall, will provide more than 900 square metres of space for growth and modern equipment that simply isn't feasible in the basement of the old courthouse.
But that means the historic institution will be vacating a 150-year-old building in the heart of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and there are a number of old-town residents who are adamantly opposed to such a move.
"The removal of such a service as the library from our main street takes away from the vitality of the downtown," said Laura Dodson, president of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Conservancy.
"This is an historic community, but it is also one where people live and play and work.
"We have seen what has happened in other communities when they move services from the main area to the suburbs."
Before council made the decision to move, the Conservancy proposed -putting an addition on the courthouse to give the library the space it needs while still keeping it in the core of the town. Their proposal was turned down.
Even though the Conservancy is challenging the library in court, Dodson being done to help preserve the history of the library.
"It adds to the importance of our town as an historic and heritage district," she said of the 200-year-old library. "We are a living, breathing community that must carefully guard our heritage. As stewards, we have to look after our treasures and that includes our library."
The Conservancy has applied for a judicial review to quash council's decision and investigate legal matters revolving around the zoning of the land where the new library is to be built.
A hearing is expected in August.
But despite the threat of legal entanglements, the library is still trying to move forward.
Molson admits the sense of history that comes with a 150-year-old building will be difficult to re-create in a new structure, but she said it isn't the building itself that has brought the library to its bicentennial.
Some of the architectural details of the current location will be replicated in the new facility, and the contents of the library will be vastly improved, she said, including the library's renowned local history collection.
"It is much, much, much more than bricks and mortar and a building," Molson said.
"They didn't have bricks and mortar and a building when they founded this library in 1800.
"Here we are 102 years later, and we are finally realizing Mr. Kirby's dream."
- Reid, Kevin, Reporter
Cahill, Denis, Photographer
- Media Type:
- Item Types:
- Article about the beginning of the Niagara Library and preparations for its bicentennial anniversary.
1. "Dave Eke and Gerda Molson outside Niagara-on-the-Lake's basement library in the old town."
2. "Mary Duddy, Niagara-on-the-Lake's librarian from 1946 to 1967, inside the current library in the old town area."
3. "A drawing of the exterior of the new library, scheduled to open this fall."
- Date of Publication:
- 3 Jun 2000
- Date Of Event:
- 8 Jun 2000
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- Copyright Statement:
- Copyright status unknown. Responsibility for determining the copyright status and any use rests exclusively with the user.
Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library
Agency street/mail address
10 Anderson Lane
P.O. Box 430
Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON L0S 1J0