History of the Brockville Public Library

The Brockville Public Library celebrated one hundred years of public library service to Brockville and area communities in 2004 in its present renovated Carnegie building. However, the history of our library goes back many years before that auspicious day in 1903 when the sod was turned for the construction of a permanent home for its collections and services.

Brockville Public Library in 1907
1907 postcard showing the Brockville Public Library, by Illustrated Post Card Co. Montreal

The predecessor of the Brockville Public Library was the Brockville Mechanics’ Institute, founded in 1842 by a group of influential businessmen, among them W.S. Buell Jr. and William Buell Richards. Mechanics’ Institutes were a British institution going back to the 1820s and were founded as educational institutions for the improvement of working men, providing collections of books and periodicals and lectures on various edifying subjects. When the Brockville Mechanics’ Institute amalgamated with the Literary and Debating Society in 1844 it lost its focus as a place for the education of the labour class and quickly became a middle-class institution, its board consisting of prominent men from Brockville society. Over the years, the Brockville Mechanics’ Institute struggled financially and was housed at a number of locations including the county courthouse, the Harding Block and Victoria Hall. In 1881 Mr. F.N. Boxer revived the Mechanics’ Institute, reopened a reading room and began an art school in the Comstock Block with the aim of giving workmen a graphic arts education. R.H. Lindsay (1868-1938), a well-known local artist and longtime library trustee, was one man who was helped by this school.
    In 1895 the Province of Ontario passed into law the first Public Libraries Act. And soon after, Brockville town council passed a by-law establishing the Brockville Public Library. But the library still did not have a permanent home. American industrialist Andrew Carnegie had started a programme to fund new library buildings and the town applied to the Carnegie Foundation for a grant to build a library. Mr. Carnegie agreed to give the town $17,000 for this project. The town had to supply the land and agree to provide ongoing financial support. On August 13, 1904 the new library, located at the corner of Buell and George streets and constructed of brick and stone with a slate roof, opened its doors.  Mr. Benjamin Dillon received $712.55 for his architectural design. Among the members of the library board were the Rev. H. Bedford-Jones (Chair), Mr. R.H. Lindsay (Vice-Chair), Mr. E.A. Geiger (Secretary- Treasurer), Judge McDonald, Dr. A.J. Macaulay, Mr. W.C. McLaren, Mayor S. Geash, Mr. Albert Abbott and Mr. R. Laidlaw. Miss Carrie Row was the librarian at that time, followed by Miss Maggie Stewart who was a talented musician and a Gaelic speaker. At the annual meeting in 1904, Mr. Geiger reported that in 1903 42,575 books had circulated and there were 2588 borrowers. It was not until October 5, 1926, that a children’s section was opened under the guidance of the Chief Librarian at that time, Mr. J.P. Makepeace.
    In 1971 an addition was completed east on George Street at a cost of $150,000. Twelve short years later it was very evident that the library was bursting at its seams. In the Carnegie library section, the floor above the children’s department was buckling under the weight of the metal shelving and the roof was sagging. In the fall of 1983 the library had to temporarily relocate children’s collections and adult fiction to the basement of the First Baptist Church while vertical steel posts were installed.
    In 1983, a consulting firm and an engineering company concluded that there was a need for further structural renovation and expansion. In 1990 all library services were automated and we said goodbye to our card catalogue. It was becoming increasingly difficult to accommodate computer wiring and computers for the public and the staff.
    It was not until 1994, with the announcement of an infrastructure programme jointly funded by the federal, provincial and municipal governments, that the library board’s dream of renovating our aging Carnegie library became possible. Once again, an engineering company and a library consultant prepared reports that clearly showed that the library needed to be expanded and renovated to make the building accessible to everyone and wired for the new information technologies. A library expansion committee formed by Mayor John Doran presented a report to city council who approved the use of some of the infrastructure money for the library building project, but only if the library board would commit itself to raising $600,000 toward the construction costs. The board agreed to this and within a year, thanks to the generosity and vision of our community, it had raised this amount in cash and pledges.
    Before construction began in August 1995, library staff and volunteers packed away books, shelving, office equipment and computers and stored them in an unused section of the city works garage. Library services continued out of the small 1971 addition, with information services and a core collection of adult and children’s books available for loan. Construction was done in stages. Eastern Engineering was awarded the contract to build the library and hired Ottawa architect Peter Williams and library consultant Margaret Beckman to redesign the library and Sullivan Construction to do the actual construction. Mr. Ron Cross, Sullivan’s construction site superviser, kept CEO and staff fully informed about each stage and Spicer’s Movers did an excellent job of moving books, shelving and equipment at each stage of the project.
    In March 1996, the library moved over to the completed Carnegie section so that the 1971 section could be renovated. Then in May 1996 everything in storage was brought back to the library, shelves were set up and books unpacked, offices were organized and computers set up. The Brockville Public Library reopened to the public in June 1996. In July, our first internet computers arrived under Industry Canada’s Community Access Programme and a new era in information technology had arrived at the Brockville Public Library.
Margaret Williams, CEO and Chief Librarian