English-speaking Canadians take public libraries for granted as a public good and ubiquitous reality. Indeed, like air and water, libraries often pass unnoticed, unquestioned, and unanalysed. In fact, however, like all institutions embodying the public good, their reality – simultaneously complex and prosaic – is constantly in need of questioning and analysis. Free public libraries are a relatively recent phenomenon, dating only from the 1850s, with the rise of mass literacy and education, and mechanized printing processes. One hundred and fifty years later, the combination of information technology – including databases and the Internet – and government withdrawal from large areas of social activity has placed them under a cloud of uncertainty.
Before giving way to despair over the future of this enduring social/cultural institution, we should consider the enormous effort and energy required to create libraries. The story of this creation, at once universal and local, can begin at many times in many places. This story begins in Saskatchewan with the charming and informative study by Don Kerr. Commissioned by the Saskatchewan Library Trustees Association to be both a 'celebration' and a memorial of how the province's library system came into being, Kerr's work is both personal and scholarly – reflecting long hours of researching archives, visiting small and large communities, and interviewing a wide range of people.
The personal aspect of this book operates at two levels. First, it begins with Kerr's 'An Interview with Me,' outlining his lifelong relationship with [End Page 342] libraries, their books and operation. The second level is found in the countless stories of readers and librarians, illuminating general points: from the first chapter where a conductor tells a traveller 'we don't allow reading on this train' to the last where a woman describes how, when she was a child, a branch of the Regina Public Library 'provided a ... place of refuge.'
The scholarly aspect is observed in Kerr's careful historical analysis. The introduction of libraries into Saskatchewan from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century is effectively outlined: the 1890 Mechanics' and Literary Institute Ordinance, and the Library Acts of 1906, 1953, 1969, and 1996. In 1935, the province ranked third from the bottom of Canadian and American jurisdictions – just ahead of Arkansas and West Virginia – in terms of population served by local libraries. By contrast, the currently high level of service is 'because people worked for, fought for, the right of books to take their place in our lives.'
The means by which this was accomplished was uniquely Canadian: regional libraries. Pioneered initially, with Carnegie Corporation funding, in British Columbia's Simon Fraser Valley and Prince Edward Island, they came to Saskatchewan in 1946 with the arrival of Marion Gilroy. She had been head of the Nova Scotia Regional Library Commission, and come under the influence of Nora Bateson – a prime architect of regional libraries. In addition, Gilroy worked well with the province's ccf government, elected in 1944. The many local and provincial leaders who spurred forward the libraries' development are identified and placed in context. Also discussed is the process whereby, after fifty years of hard-fought battles for a 'one province' library system, today's funding cuts threaten its very survival.
A published poet, Kerr writes with verve and ease, delicately balancing a general story with local detail. For those wishing only the overview, the opening and final chapters will suffice; for those looking for local detail, the middle chapters will also need reading. The book is a remarkable achievement, and worth perusing by anyone concerned with literacy and learning and their fostering by Canadian libraries.
The book is illustrated, footnoted, and indexed. Some photographs are in colour.
Peter McNally, Department of Library Sciences, McGill University