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Library history in Saint John goes back more than two centuries. The Saint John Society Library is claimed as the first library in New Brunswick. Founded in 1811, it was followed by a number of other subscription libraries of the familiar nineteenth-century pattern. In 1841 R. Robertson’s “Public Circulating Library” was advertised as having different hours for the attendance of ladies and gentlemen; the subscription was two shillings monthly. The Mechanics Institute (1839) and the Portland Library (1882) are other examples of subscription libraries, which often required two references along with the fee. In addition to such commercial libraries, local societies owned collections of books which were made available to their members.
Free public libraries (free and public in the sense that they would be open to all citizens without payment of a fee) were not established as a result of public demand but by the efforts of a number of far-sighted men and women who realized their necessity and utility to the community. Such free and public libraries had existed in Britain since the 1850s.
The Saint John Free Public Library is established
Canada’s first free public library was established in Saint John and modeled on the English example. The President of the Mechanics’ Institute, Mr. Gilbert Murdoch, first proposed a free public library for the City in December, 1874. In 1875, James Hannay, then an editorial writer on the “Telegraph,” prepared a petition asking for a public library. A room was eventually set apart by Common Council in the Germain Street end of the City Market as a result. Unfortunately, before the books were obtained the Great Fire of 1877 caused the project to be set aside.
Then came Colonel James Domville, an officer commanding the 8th Princess Louise Hussars, a member of Common Council, and a Member of Parliament for Kings County. To him belongs the credit for founding the library. He thought the best way to replace the many private libraries lost in the fire was to start a public library, which would be free to all citizens of Saint John. In 1879 he prepared and distributed a circular which brought books and contributions from well-wishers everywhere, including the British and United States governments. When the books arrived, Col. Domville established a trust placing them under the control of the City. At the same time, a citizens committee made a presentation to the Council concerning the establishment of a library. As a result, the Council appointed a provisional board consisting of Mayor Charles R. Ray, Dr. James Christie, Col. Domville, Eilliam Elder, Frank Hatheway, A. Chipman Smith and James Ruel with resolutions as outlined in the Common Council Minutes of September 28, 1880. The books remained in boxes in the Market Building until the passing of an Act by the Legislature in 1883 “to provide for the establishment of a Free Public Library in the City of Saint John.” This Act
allowed Common Council to assess $500.00 upon the City for the maintenance of the library. The full Act and subsequent legal documents can be read in the downloadable PDF at the left of this page.
The library opened on May 18, 1883, in a room in the City Market building facing Charlotte Street. The library had 2,285 books. After the printing of the catalogue, the first books were lent on June 13th. Shortly after the first body of Commissioners was appointed, a Ladies Committee came into being which raised large amounts of money to enable books to be bought, as the library’s income was barely sufficient to cover the day-to-day costs of running it. The Ladies Committee, until its dissolution in 1890, also paid the librarian’s annual salary of $250.00. This fact was doubtless the reason why the Commissioners deputed to the ladies (an entirely unofficial body) the choice of librarian.
The Carnegie building on Hazen Avenue
In 1885 the library was moved to the Masonic Hall on Germain Street and the attempts of the Commissioners to secure a proper building for a more permanent location began soon afterwards. After many difficulties, Mayor J.W. Daniel obtained an offer from the great philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, to donate the sum of $50,000.00 for a new library building on the condition that the City purchase the site and guarantee an annual budget of $5,000.00, which the City promised to do. A plan was then accepted by Council to have local architect G.E. Fairweather undertake responsibility for the erection of the building on Hazen Avenue.
The Daily Telegraph of November 16, 1904 reported the new building to be of the classic style and its appearance had met with general approval. The visitor upon entering the main doors would find himself in a circular waiting room, well lighted from the dome above. The librarian’s desk faced the entrance and behind it was the stock room which kept the books for general circulation. To the right of the waiting room was the general reading room, with tables and chairs sufficient to accommodate a considerable number of readers, for whom there was a large list of newspapers. To the left of the main entrance were the chidren’s room and the reference library.
The construction of the library was in the hands of James Myles, the General Contractor. Sub contractors were R. Maxwell, mason, J.E. Wilson, sheet metal, J & E Blake, plumbing and heating, James Hunter, electrical, A. Christie Woodworking, factory work and G.R. Craigie, painting. The Carnegie building still stands as the only Carnegie library built in the Maritimes. The building currently houses the Saint John Arts Centre.
The main library operated in this building for 79 years, before moving to a new and expanded quarters in Market Square in 1983. This move facilitated a major automation initiative implemented in 1987. Since then, automated services enhancements have developed from office automation through a number of upgrades and changes in software applications to full public access to technology opportunities, supported by government and private grants. Collections have grown from 2285 books in 1883 to over 215,000 books, audio cassettes, videos, CDs, and DVDs.
Today, the Saint John Free Public Library consists of this Central Branch and two satellite branches. West Branch, the first mall library in the Maritimes, opened in Lancaster Mall in 1967. Its initial annual circulation of 58,193 increased to over 100,000. East Branch opened in 1968 in Loch Lomond Mall with 5000 books and 1925 patrons. It moved to Westmorland Place in 1973 and to the Saint John Transit Building on MacDonald Road in 2016, where it offers over 26,000 items, including a large talking book collection, to 6300 patrons.
* Based on information in “The Story of the Saint John Free Public Library 1883-2003 and notes on other Libraries from 1811.” Published by the Commissioners of the Saint John Free Public Library in 2003.