Monday, August 8, 2011

# 24 ~ Toronto's First Public Library, Then and Now

Over the last couple of weeks, there has been a very public debate over the future of Toronto's libraries.  The city is strapped for cash, and the proposal to cut funding to municipal libraries has stirred the ire of a number of citizens.  Margaret Atwood and Doug Ford have gone to war, and everyone seems to have an opinion.  Should school libraries pick up the slack?  Do we need as many public libraries as we did before the days of the internet and those kindle reader things?  Call me old fashioned, but I have never taken to technology and much prefer to flip through the pages of an actual book than scroll through something on a portable screen.  Besides, libraries provide many services outside of lending books; almost every time I give a talk to an historical society, it's in the meeting room of the local public library.  And even though I am finally considering getting my own digital projector, for years I have relied on the computer equipment and technical help given by library staff.  On the other hand, if Toronto is as cash strapped as they say, and we're really and truly going broke, something somewhere has to give.

Several people have suggested privatization as the answer to our money woes.  It's not a new idea.  Almost 130 years ago, there was another very public debate over public libraries in Toronto.  Before 1883, there was no public library system in Toronto, nor indeed, anywhere else in Canada.  But on January 1st of that year, Torontonians went to the polls to vote in a referendum asking them if they favoured having city council pay up for Toronto's ~ and Canada's ~ first ever public library.

The Mechanics Institute was an adult educational institution that was imported to Toronto from Britain, like so many other organizations.  Having first become popular in Britain, the first mechanics institute arrived in Toronto, then called York, by about 1830.  Members paid an annual fee to join, and could sit in on lectures or peruse the collection of books at the institute.  In 1853, the York Mechanics Institute opened the doors of its permanent home at the northeast corner of Adelaide and Church streets.  The York Mechanics Institute staggered on as a private institution for 30 years, relying on the membership dues paid by members.

THEN : This notice for the York Mechanics Institute illustrates how some of the most household names in old Toronto ~ Baldwin, Rolph, Jarvis, Ewart ~ supported the institute.  The annual membership rate was five shillings.

It was at this point that a city alderman named John Hallam came into the story.  Born in England in 1833, he'd come to Canada in the autumn of 1856, and began working as a labourer in Toronto.  Hallam had spirit and started up his own retail enterprise in the summer of 1866, and continued to expand his fortunes as a wool and leather merchant throughout the next decade.  He then entered municipal politics and served eleven terms as an alderman, from 1872 until 1883.  Hallam was a strong supporter of free, public libraries, and faced an uphill struggle in convincing city council that money should go towards setting up a public library system in Toronto.

THEN : John Hallam, the alderman behind Toronto's public library system.

Hallam believed that city council should sponsor the Mechanics Institute, giving it funds to make it free and readily available to the public.  At first, he was a singular voice on city council, as no other city in Canada had a public library system.  Hallam faced a great deal of resistance from his fellow aldermen, but eventually the matter was taken to a public referendum, and the people of Toronto voted in favour of libraries.  The vote took place on 1 January, 1883, and the Mechanics Institute building at Adelaide and Church streets, along with its collection of 5,000 books, became not only the first public library in Toronto, but the first anywhere in Canada, too.  Hallam served as a library trustee and gave a collection of 2,000 books to the library.  Hallam attempted to make a comeback into municipal politics, but although he was elected as an alderman again, his bid to become mayor in 1900 was unsuccessful.  He died later that same year.

THEN :  The Mechanics Institute, northeast corner of Church and Adelaide Streets.

THEN : Mechanics Institute, 1867.

THEN : Mechanics Institute building, 1884, shortly after it became Toronto's public library.

NOW : The site of the demolished Mechanics Institute today.

As the years went on, Toronto's public library system was able to build more branches, and the old Mechanics Institute remained as the main branch of the Toronto library system until 1909.  A new main branch was opened that year at College and St. George streets, and the old Mechanics Institute faded away.  The institute that had ushered in Canada's first free public libraries was ripped down in 1949.  Today, a condominium stands on the corner, with a Starbucks on street level, where no doubt many a customer has quietly drained a latte while surfing the internet, scrolling through their kindle, or maybe even just reading a book. 

With all the discussion going on these days about the future of Toronto's libraries, it's interesting to know that 130 years ago, city alderman John Hallam faced a single handed struggle to get them started.  Imagine what he could have done with the help of Margaret Atwood.

THEN : The new main branch of the Toronto Public Library was built in 1909 at the northwest corner of St. George and College streets.

NOW : The 1909 library survives today as the Koffler Student Services Centre.


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