Alberta’s Early Public Libraries

October is Canadian Library Month – a time to raise awareness about the valuable role of libraries in our communities. Thank you to guest writer, Erin Hoar, for this post about some of Alberta’s first libraries.

The earliest libraries in Canada were generally private collections of books and documents brought over by European immigrants. Some religious orders, fur trade and military posts would also collect books, but these were generally not accessible to the wider public. Canada’s earliest public libraries were offered by subscription only and began to appear in the early nineteenth century. By 1900 the modern public library, similar to what we would think of as a library today, began to acquire, classify and organize books, periodicals and newspapers with the purpose of providing users with access to these collections.

The idea of libraries was becoming more recognized as a public need that enriched growing communities, as was the case in Alberta. Many of Alberta’s early libraries were established because there were dedicated people who were passionate about providing accessible learning and educational services. This post will trace Alberta’s earliest public libraries in Edmonton and Calgary, and look at the people who brought these spaces to life to become valued and trusted resources for their communities. Read on to find out more!

Andrew Carnegie, 1913 (Public domain).

It was 1906 when the Calgary Women’s Literary Club formed to discuss the readings of Shakespeare, world news and current events, and it was out of these gatherings that the need for a public library grew. The women did what many others who wanted a public library did during this time – they asked millionaire Andrew Carnegie to build them a library. Carnegie, who made a fortune in the steel industry, was a strong advocate for learning and had a reputation for library philanthropy. In Canada, the Carnegie Foundation funded over 100 libraries and thousands more across the world, including the United States, England, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

One of the stipulations for funding a “Carnegie Library” was that there had to be proof that the community supported the building project and that there would be ongoing funds dedicated to buying books, hiring staff and maintaining the building. Additionally, the provincial government’s 1907 Public Libraries Act stated that minimum ten percent of the male voting community had to support the library project for city council to proceed. At this time, Albertan women did not yet have the right to vote, so the Calgary Women’s Literary Club got to work and petitioned the male electorate through door knocking and signature collecting.

Their campaign was a success, despite some pushback from residents who had heard reports of Carnegie’s worker exploitation. But, the women had what they needed to receive an $80,000 grant from Carnegie and, along with an extra $20,000 from municipal and provincial governments, the Memorial Park Library opened in early 1912. This was Alberta’s first major public library, and it was a grand building of its time. Fashioned in Edwardian Classicism style, the two-story building was constructed of Paskapoo sandstone, a copper roof and included stone carved decorations and columns. To this day, the memory of the Calgary Women’s Literary Club is preserved in four sidewalk plaques at the entrances of the Library and Memorial Park. There is a bronze plaque inside the Library which honours the Club’s founder, Annie Davidson, a dedicated advocate in the quest for Alberta’s first public library.

Calgary Central Park Library, ca. 1920 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A14255).

The Memorial Park Library is a provincial historic resource, which still functions as a public library, and also as an arts and cultural hub for the community, with WordFest events, a musical instrument lending library and of course many wonderful books.

Further north in Edmonton, support was mounting for the construction of their own public library. In 1908, residents and city leaders recognized the need for a library to service the growing population of Edmonton, and abiding by the 1907 Public Libraries Act, circulated a petition among its male electorate. However this petition was not successful. Edmonton was still in the midst of a population boom from the effects of the Klondike Gold Rush and from the recent developments of the Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific Railways. Edmonton was a popular destination for males looking for work, but many were also illiterate. Others were merely there to make their fortune and then move on, so they may not have given much thought to the necessity of a local library.

Luckily for Edmonton, Ethelbert Lincoln Hill had just moved to the area from Calgary. Hill was the new School Inspector for the Strathcona district and was a vocal supporter, and former board member, of the newly opened Memorial Park Library. He reopened the issue, along with many others who were not deterred by the first failed petition. In 1909, the petition received the signatures they needed and that same year, the Edmonton Public Library Board was also formed.

During this time, similar activity was playing out south of the North Saskatchewan River in the City of Strathcona. E.L. Hill was also instrumental in garnering the support needed for Strathcona to have their own library as well. Successful petitions were circulated and the Strathcona Library Board was formed in 1910, with Hill as the Chairman. The next step for Edmonton and Strathcona was to contact Andrew Carnegie for financial assistance with building their libraries.

The Strathcona Library Board requested $25,000 from the Carnegie Foundation to construct their library, but Carnegie’s staff in New York felt this amount was much too high for their small population. They responded with an offer to grant $15,000 instead. For Hill, and Mayor John Joseph Duggan, this deal was unacceptable. They knew that Strathcona was a growing city and were looking for a library to accommodate its future citizens. Instead, they declined the offer and rallied the support of the community, raising enough to fund the library they wanted. The Strathcona Public Library opened in 1913 in the Classical Revival style, with orange brick and sandstone details. The building was designated a provincial historic resource in 2006.

In Edmonton, the library they hoped for was going to cost around $200,000, they were Alberta’s capital city after all, but the Carnegie Foundation proposed $60,000 instead. Like Strathcona, the Edmonton Library Board, were not keen on compromising what they felt their citizens deserved. In the end, the decision was made to reject the offer in favour of raising funds within the community. If Strathcona could do it, so could Edmonton. In the meantime, Edmonton opened a temporary library in 1913 above a liquor store and butcher shop.

Strathcona Public Library, Provincial Historic Resource, 2004 (Historic Resources Management Branch).

Unlike with the Strathcona Library, E.L. Hill and the Edmonton Library Board struggled to find the community funding they needed to fulfill their vision. To make matters worse, Edmonton experienced an economic bust not long after opening its temporary library, and shortly after that, the First World War began. Now was not the time for an expensive new building, but this was when Edmonton citizens needed their library the most. Hill’s 1914 annual report showed that circulation at the Edmonton Library surpassed even Calgary and Toronto’s numbers.[1] Book stock ran low, especially during the First World War, as potential military recruits were eager to check out books on aircraft, engineering and history. The library also became a community space where families, whose men had left for the war efforts, would gather. All of this highlighted the power that libraries had to bring people together and reinforced Edmonton’s need for a library that better suited its reading population.

In 1921, Hill jumpstarted discussions with the Carnegie Foundation for a building for the Edmonton Public Library. Andrew Carnegie had passed away in 1919, effectively ending the creation of new “Carnegie Libraries,” but the Foundation fudged the rules to approve the project, since Edmonton technically had started negotiations for their library years earlier. Smaller libraries had been cropping up throughout Edmonton, but the city was still without a centralized public library with administration space that was befitting a capital city. At a price of $160,000, with funds chipped in from both the Carnegie Foundation and the City of Edmonton, the Edmonton Public Library opened in August of 1923. At long last, Edmonton had its own library.

Central Branch of the Edmonton Public Library, 1968 (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A214).

Today, Alberta has over 300 library service points to serve its communities, and in 2015 alone, there were approximately 1.4 million library card holders in the province who borrowed 39 million items. Libraries across the province have experienced, and often embraced, many changes over the years, and the public libraries of today have expanded beyond circulating books to offering a variety of workshops, language classes, Makerspaces, Artist and Author in Residency programs, Speaker Series and so much more.

Three of Alberta’s oldest libraries had their start around 100 years ago and two are still standing as designated historic resources, and in their original form as public libraries. These buildings may not have the history that dates back to antiquity like the Al-Qarawiyyin Library in Morocco, but Alberta’s early public libraries serve an important reminder of the dedicated advocacy that passionate individuals and groups initiated early on. It is for this support that public libraries continue to provide communities with entertaining and educational resources that enrich our lives.

Was there an early public library in your community? Tell us about it in the comments!

Written by: Erin Hoar, student of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta.

[1] Todd Babiak, Just Getting Started: Edmonton Public Library’s First 100 Years, 1913-2013. Edmonton, Canada: The University of Alberta Press & Edmonton Public Library, 2013, p. 43.

Sources and Further Reading:

Alberta Municipal Affairs. “Public Library Statistics: 2015.” Accessed September 23, 2018.

Alberta Register of Historic Places. “Memorial Park Library.” Accessed September 20, 2018.

Alberta Register of Historic Places. “Strathcona Public Library.” Accessed September 20, 2018.

Babiak, Todd. Just Getting Started: Edmonton Public Library’s First 100 Years, 1913-2013. Edmonton, Canada: The University of Alberta Press & Edmonton Public Library, 2013.

Bell, David. “Calgary’s Memorial Park Library: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” CBC News, January 18, 2018. Accessed September 22, 2018.

Beltline Heritage Group. “Central Memorial Park Library.” Accessed September 20, 2018.

Calgary Women’s Literary Club. “Our History.” Accessed September 20, 2018.

Canada’s Historic Places. “Carnegie’s Canadian Libraries.” Accessed September 22, 2018.

Edmonton’s Architectural Heritage. “Edmonton Public Library.” Accessed September 23, 2018.

The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Libraries.” Accessed September 22, 2018.

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