Spring Garden Road - 50th Anniversary

Library for the people
- the evolution of the public library in Halifax

A milestone in Halifax libraries was passed in November 2001, with the 50th anniversary of the Spring Garden Road Memorial Public Library. This milestone was acknowledged with a day of celebration, and for many was a day of reminiscing on just how far the library has come. With over 170 years of history, Halifax can also boast having Canada's first public library - no small feat, considering the many obstacles put before it over the years.

Public libraries were non-existent in early Halifax. And but for the dogged determination of a few individuals in the mid 1800s, they would have remained a service exclusively for those who could afford the private lending libraries the city had to offer. The first libraries in Halifax were special collections geared to serving specific groups. Two examples of this were the military officers - served by the Garrison Library of 1817, and the agriculturalists - served by the Central Board of Agriculture Library of 1818. These were followed by for-profit ventures from entrepreneurs cashing in on the popular novels of the day, including one popular lending library, which in 1825 set up at Tobin's Wharf. Gentlemen's libraries were formed to serve the exclusive society of Halifax's elite, the most notable of which was the Halifax Library, founded in 1824, and located at 197 Hollis Street near Cheapside. This library was funded by an annual shareholder fee of 30 shillings, from which materials were then purchased. In 1861, one hundred and twenty notable names of the day, including Joseph Howe, Enos Collins, and Samuel Cunard were on the shareholders list.

In 1831, the first opportunity for the general public to access books was met with the formation of the Halifax Mechanics Library. The library, with an eventual collection of over 3,000 volumes, was open to all who could afford the 20 shilling annual fee; in 1864, it closed after falling into debt. For a brief time, Halifax's population was once again without access to a library, until Chief Justice William Young, himself a shareholder of The Gentlemen's Halifax Library, purchased the entire collection and presented it to the city as a gift to maintain as a free institution. Halifax's first public library was born, and in a small room in the old City Court House the people of the city had access to a service previously only available to those able to pay. By 1873, the library had grown to 5,000 volumes, largely due to the patronage of Sir William Young, who added the 1000 volume collection of his late brother George R. Young to the library. The small room proved to be inadequate however, and the collection was re-catalogued and re-opened at 263 Barrington Street as the Citizens Free Library. In 1876 the Halifax Library collection itself was sold to the Free Library.

Another move in 1878, to Argyle Hall, on Argyle Street opposite St. Paul's Church marked a dark period for the library. With little funding the library languished with hardly a new book on its shelves for many years. In 1890 the library moved again, this time to City Hall where it was hoped the aldermen would come into contact with the library more often, and as such provide it greater support. In 1894, a .25 cent lending fee for each title, and a hefty one dollar overdue charge existed - a potentially considerable amount should one be neglectful of the return date! City Hall provided a more welcoming space than the cramped Argyle Hall, though the library was still chronically underfunded. There the library would remain for over 60 years, slowly growing. A look at the rules of the day provides insight into the attitudes of the day - including a 21 and up age limitation, and a rule that no one was to 'ramble about the room' or to engage in 'unpleasant conversation'.

A commission of inquiry studying library conditions in Canada in 1930 stated that 'Halifax is known everywhere as a classic example of lack of interest in the spread of intelligence among its citizens', and stated that funding for the Citizen's Free Library is 'scandalously inadequate'. Interest in public libraries is evident, however, in initiatives such as the establishment of the Halifax Children's Library in 1939, operated by the Junior League of Halifax, and the striking of a committee in 1945 to consider a new library. By late that year, a new Memorial Library was decided upon as an excellent memorial to those who had died in the two world wars, and by 1949 preliminary construction began on a much needed new facility - the Halifax Memorial Library, now the Spring Garden Road Memorial Public Library. The site selected for the new library was Grafton Park. Once a pauper's cemetery, and then a downtown park, the area is still a popular meeting place for lunch, programs and the odd protest. On November 12, 1951, the new building opened, and Halifax welcomed - with a flood of eager patrons - their new, and much improved free public library.

The new building was met with incredible use. One week after opening the public was allowed, for the first time, to sign materials out. Over 1300 patrons swarmed to the library, signing out over 2000 books. Over 500 children took advantage of the children's collection. "We worked like slaves that day" recounted librarian Miss Molly Cameron 40 years later. By the end of the first year, over 200,000 items had been loaned out, and Halifax hasn't looked back since.