Friday, May 13, 2022

Ontario libraries embrace an intellectual freedom statement, May 1963

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the Ontario and Canadian library associations formed specific committees to deal with the issue of obscene literature and censorship. At mid-century, many librarians reasoned they were selecting books, not prohibiting access or advocating freedom. They worked within an environment where Canadian law did not always always ensure civil rights and liberties for everyone. In this situation, library neutrality was often cited as the best course. Most librarians believed in the concept of treating patrons equally and providing resources for multiple viewpoints. During this period, the general stance by both associations was to issue reminders that self-censorship by librarians in book selection was often a greater threat to intellectual freedom than actions by external local groups, governments, or federal laws. “Watch and ward” became a byword for both the OLA and the CLA when periodic eruptions of censorship occurred that involved libraries. In principle, the library stood as a watchman protecting the public from harm. The associations felt that the answer to a bad book was a good book.

    Of course, “bad books,” even ones legally published, often could not be found on library shelves. An experienced librarian, Grace Buller, in her 1974 court testimony, said, “when I first went to the Toronto Public Library in 1949, we didn’t have a copy of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.” William Riggs, a Windsor trustee, told journalists at the OLA’s 1951 conference that, “we know librarians sometimes hide books containing strong language under the counters, and often refuse to give out literature on specialized subjects [e.g., birth control] to groups requesting it.” In the late 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov’s critically acclaimed but contentious novel, Lolita, presented difficultly for library selectors: a survey in 1959 revealed only four of twelve libraries in the metropolitan Toronto area had the book available. Sometimes, libraries complied with police investigations: the Toronto Public Library Board surrendered copies of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1961 after Canada Customs ruled it ineligible for importation.

5th edition, Paris, 1938

In Ontario, film censorship and restrictions on access by classification was more evident until 1960, when the Ontario Attorney-General formed an advisory body, the Obscene Literature Committee, to review controversial books or periodicals and the “pulps.” Book publishers and distributors mostly welcomed the committee’s reports to the Attorney-Generals office because it was a way to avoid expensive, time-consuming legal proceedings. The OLA also believed this provincial administrative process was reasonable and requested a librarian be appointed. Robert B. Porter, the chief librarian at Peterborough Public Library, joined the committee in May 1960. He had served as a lieutenant with the Regina Rifles when the regiment landed on D-Day, June 6th 1944. He had also been a member of the OLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee in the late 1950s. Like many librarians, indeed most citizens, Porter was reluctant to alter existing conditions in the sphere of intellectual freedom but he was also fair-minded. In many ways, library trustees and librarians preferred consensus based on local, fluctuating “community standards.” Ontario libraries seldom rose to the defence of controversial books or authors. A notable exception occurred in 1955 in Flesherton when the library board and the librarian successfully defended the removal of several books accused of promoting “atheism, profanity and sex.” On balance, Robert Fulford’s 1959 assessment in the Toronto Star was well founded: “Libraries, in this country at least, have never been in the vanguard of the fight against censorship.”

    However, the OLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee began to adopt a more proactive course after the Supreme Court of Canada narrowly ruled (5–4) Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel by D.H. Lawrence, was not obscene in March 1962 because, on balance, it was a serious work of literature. Shortly afterwards, the committee members decided it would be an appropriate time to state clearly OLA’s policy on the question of intellectual freedom and to issue a statement on its position. A new committee chair, Peter Revell, London Public Library, forged ahead for the 1963 annual meeting in Kitchener. He was an English librarian working on his MA in literature at the University of Western Ontario. Revell was familiar with censorship issues and would later pen a short article, “Propaganda and Pornography,” in Library Journal. The OLA committee members worked through 1962–63 to agree on a policy statement. Then, at the first session of the OLA annual general meeting on May 29, 1963, in the theatre-auditorium of Waterloo Lutheran University [now Wilfrid Laurier University], the following statement on Intellectual Freedom was passed by the unanimous vote of the members present.



In affirming its support of the fundamental rights of freedom of the press and freedom to read, the Ontario Library Association declares its acceptance of the following propositions:

(i ) That the provision of library service to the Canadian public is based upon the right of the citizen, within the limits of the law, to judge for himself on questions of politics, religion and morality.

( ii ) That it is the responsibility of librarians to maintain this right and to implement it in their selection of books, periodicals, films and recordings, subject only to the provisions of federal and provincial laws governing the suppression of treasonable, seditious and obscene literature.

(iii) That freedom of the press requires freedom to examine other ideas and other interpretations of life than those currently approved by the local community or by society in general, including those ideas and interpretations which may be unconventional or unpopular.

(iv) That freedom of the press requires freedom of the writer to depict what is ugly, shocking and unedifying in life when such depiction is made with serious intent.

(v) That the free traffic in ideas and opinions is essential to the health and growth of a free society.

(vi) That it is therefore part of the library’s service to its public to resist any attempt by any individual or group within the community it serves to abrogate or curtail the freedom to read by demanding the removal of any book, periodical, film or recording from the library.

(vii) That it is equally part of the library’s responsibility to its public to ensure that its selection of materials is not unduly influenced by the personal opinions of the selectors, but determined by the application of generally accepted standards of accuracy, style and presentation.


    There was little public fanfare about the OLA Statement on Intellectual Freedom. The OLA was a small body of less than a thousand members. A few newspapers in Toronto, Kingston, Brantford, Kitchener, North Bay, and Windsor covered the new policy with brief articles. Yet, the statement marked a new era in thinking about censorship issues for Ontario’s libraries. It provided library boards with a framework, which was non-binding, to develop local formal policies on collection development and defend contentious purchases. In line with contemporary attitudes on social responsibility, it evoked a different approach to censorship and free expression. No longer would it be sufficient to guard ever changing community “standards.” A more proactive approach was necessary to allow freedom of expression for authors and the legal circulation of unconventional materials to the public. The public, not librarians, would judge the morality of an author’s work.

    Of course, the Ontario library declaration coincided with the liberalization of Canadian law in terms of censorship, obscenity, and customs seizures. The OLA statement arrived several months before police in Richmond Hill and Toronto confiscated John Cleland’s Fanny Hill at the end of 1963 and the start of 1964. The novel made a long transit through the court system until December 1964 when the Ontario Supreme Court ruled Fanny not obscene. Later, in 1964, two years after Lady Chatterley’s Lover was legalized by the Supreme Court of Canada, the Ontario Obscene Literature Committee ruled that Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn were serious works of literature that could circulate and be sold in Ontario. The threat of criminal prosecution for publishers or distributors was thereby lifted for similar works and more permissive standards adopted.

    The OLA Intellectual Freedom Statement served Ontario libraries for three decades before major changes were introduced. While many library selectors continued to rely on various interpretations of “library neutrality,” their arguments could be sharpened by reference to the “standards of accuracy, style and presentation” that the statement advocated. Of course, complaints about library books continued to erupt from time to time. The OLA original statement would be revised to suit changing legal definitions and societal changes. The development of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and passage of the Constitution Act in 1982 followed by the growth of the Internet in the mid-1990s accentuated new issues, such as access and social responsibility. In 1990, the OLA issued an Intellectual Freedom Handbook to assist libraries with the changing times. The OLA statement was revised in 1990, 1998, and more recently in 2020 to reflect the rights of individuals as well as the concept of intellectual freedom in a democratic society. Still, there are recognizable passages from the 1963 version, especially the first and fifth clause, that continue to resonate six decades on.

    The OLA spokesperson on censorship in the mid-1960s, Peter Revell, returned to Britain to earn a PhD in librarianship at the University of Wales. He published important studies about American poetry and was chief librarian at Westfield College (London) from 1975 until his death in 1983. The Obscene Literature Committee continued its work until 1972 when it was dissolved because it was no longer needed. Bob Porter continued at Peterborough until his retirement announcement in 1980. He died in 2010.

Further reading:

The current Ontario Library Association Statement on Intellectual Freedom and the Intellectual Rights of the Individual (2020)

Peter Revell, “Censorship Facts.” Ontario Library Review 46 (May 1962): 95–96

Peter Revell, “Viewpoint: Propaganda and Pornography.” Library Journal 88 (October 1, 1963): 3562 and 3585.

D. Granfield and N. Barakett, Intellectual Freedom Handbook (Toronto: Ontario Library Association, 1990)

Pearce J. Carefoote, Forbidden Fruit: Banned, Censored and Challenged Books from Dante to Harry Potter (Toronto: Lester, Mason & Begg, 2007)

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Four eastern Canadian library associations convene at Montreal, April 1939

The scope for library collaboration across Canada broadened in the 1930s when more provincial library associations were formally organized in Quebec (1932), the Maritimes (1935), and Manitoba (1936). When these new groups joined the established library associations in Ontario (1900) and British Columbia library (1911), liaising more effectively on a west-west axis became possible. For three decades, Canadian librarians had looked to the south—to the American Library Association (ALA) or Pacific Northwest Library (PNLA)Association—to establish professional relationships. Although sporadic attempts to found a national library organization had floundered, library changes at the provincial level and the development of regional libraries were proving to be more successful. The Montreal Special Libraries Association and Library Association of Ottawa provided the groundwork for hosting larger conferences in large cities. Now, there was a firmer basis to move forward on broader issues,

    After the economic slump of the early 1930s, North American librarianship was invigorated by the catchword “cooperation.”  When the ALA returned to Montreal in 1934 for a convention, it debated an American “National Plan” to improve access and mitigate local and state tax inequities. As well, the concept of a Canadian Library Council to represent libraries on a national basis was revived and a decision was made to re-establish an association of Maritime libraries. Three years later, British Columbia librarians and Americans in the PNLA mixed pleasure with business at Harrison Hot Springs in the Fraser Valley on Labour Day weekend, 1937. They saw first-hand the success of the Fraser Valley Regional Library, discussed the issue of trade unionism, and debated whether library collections should aim to be primarily “highbrow” or “lowbrow.” Earlier in the same year, the OLA had met with other associations outside its traditional location, Toronto. At the request of Ottawa’s mayor and city library groups, the OLA, Quebec Library Association (QLA), Ottawa Library Association, the Montreal Special Libraries Association, and two delegates from the Maritime Library Institute held joint sessions at the Chateau Laurier on Victoria Day weekend, 24–25 May. This meeting was the first inter-provincial library gathering to be held in Canada. Dorothy Carlisle, OLA President 1936–37, and other officials hosted almost 250 delegates. A notable speaker on “Books, Readers, and Reviewers” was Martin Burell, the Librarian of Parliament since 1920, who was known as a politician and writer. Other federal officials expressed a desire to cooperate with libraries, notably with the publication and distribution of government documents. A library “bonne entente” was established, and, subsequently, the OLA accepted an invitation by the QLA to Canada’s metropolitan centre, Montreal, for 1939.

Joint Conference of the Ontario, Quebec and Montreal Special Library Associations and the Maritime Library Institute, Montreal, April 10–11, 1939

    In April 1939, at Montreal’s stately Windsor Hotel, a short time before the arrival of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the QLA and OLA joined with the Montreal Special Libraries Association and delegates from the Maritime Library Institute. Members from the recently formed Eastern Townships Library Association and the library group of the Professional Institute of Civil Service of Canada also attended. It was evident a European conflict was fast approaching. Poland and Britain had recently agreed to a treaty to forestall German aggression. The approaching Royal Visit to Newfoundland and Canada in May and June reminded Canadians of their British ties. Over the Easter weekend, newspapers carried the story of Italian forces occupying Albania. The OLA’s President, Kathleen (Moyer) Elliott, from Galt [now Cambridge], relied on Rudyard Kipling to inspire her audience: “If civilization is really slipping from us nothing is to be gained by stopping work to worry. If the values in which we believe are yet to triumph, then the very best we can do is to keep on keeping on.” Kipling’s exhortation to stay the course was wise guidance in spring 1939.

Nora Bateson, n.d.

    The Presidents of the Quebec Library Association and Montreal Special Libraries Association, Helen Haultain and Beatrice Howell, welcomed conference-goers on Monday. There were more than two hundred in attendance anticipating speeches and business meetings. The Montreal joint conference reprised many of the decade’s library developments and presented initiatives for further activity. The speech by the new Director of Libraries in Nova Scotia, Nora Bateson, was perhaps the first-day highlight. She spoke about her efforts to form regional libraries in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. For as little as thirty-five cents a taxpayer, good regional service could be organized in Nova Scotia. Bateson proposed spending this levy on books and services rather than buildings. Another highlight was a meeting of children’s librarians: Mary Falconer (Halifax), Donalda Putnam (Montreal), and Jean Thomson (Toronto) described services, especially storytelling, in their respective areas. Lillian Smith presided over this session and subsequently used the opportunity to form the Canadian Association of Children’s Librarians (CACL). This new national association, regional in scope at first, was perhaps a response to Smith’s recent observation in an ALA publication that a “sense of isolation” was a chief handicap felt by many children’s librarians. The CACL met in Hamilton in October 1939 and spread westward during WWII to include librarians such as Amy Hutchinson (New Westminster) and Louise Riley (Calgary). It would become part of the Canadian Library Association in 1946.

  Major A.L. Normandin, head of Public Printing and Stationery at Ottawa, discussed the governmental distribution and current listings of national publications. Many librarians, such as W.S Wallace at the University of Toronto, had been pressing the Dominion government to publish a monthly and annual checklist of Canadian federal publications to replace the unsatisfactory annual price list of in-print publications begun shortly before WWI. Normandin was sympathetic, but it would not be until 1953 that the Queen’s Printer would publish daily and monthly check lists with annual cumulations.

    Two McGill representatives, Philip J. Turner, School of Architecture, and Colonel Wilfrid J. Bovey, Director of Extramural Relations and Extension, addressed delegates on architecture and French-Canadian cultural achievements. Turner had overseen the remodelling of the Westmount Public Library in 1936. The colonel’s presentation caught the attention of the Montreal press, especially Le Devoir: Bovey “rendu un mangnifique témoignage aux Canadiens français.” La Presse, the Montreal Gazette and the Montreal Daily Star were also impressed with the McGill presentations.

    Another address by Queen’s University director, Ernest Cockburn Kyte, caught the most attention in English-speaking newspapers. His address was “A Canadian National Library,” by now a familiar theme to librarians but not the general public. Kyte cited the need to collect Canadiana of all sorts but not overstate the need for a new building. He emphasized the urgency to begin collecting immediately. His comments attracted a supportive editorial in the Montreal Daily Star: “It is therefore to be hoped that the committee which has been appointed by the librarians to achieve a national institution will be successful in its efforts and that the public will heartily support the project. Self-respect on the part of Canadians should go far to assure this.” An act to establish a national library came into force in 1953.

    One immediate positive news note at the conference highlighted successful efforts to achieve a Library Book Rate, a postal subsidy authorized by the Postmaster General. Across Canada, sending books by mail was becoming commonplace and was regarded as an educational asset. The 1930–33 Commission of Enquiry led by John Ridington, George Locke, and Mary Black had supported the concept of a reduced postal rate for library books. British Columbia and Ontario librarians had begun to advocate for this rate in briefs and letters to the government. After the Canada and Newfoundland Education Association also supported reduced rates in 1938, the Ontario College of Education surveyed a hundred major libraries in early 1939. The survey revealed more than 300,000 books, excluding book packages, had been issued. Clearly, books-by-mail was becoming a substantial activity. Conference-goers were pleased to learn that a federal book rate would be introduced shortly. By the summer of 1939, a special rate came into effect. Books passing between libraries and their patrons within the same province would be assessed at 5¢ for the first pound and 1¢ for each additional pound. Canadian librarians and educators could toast a small victory.

    The 1939 Canadian library conference in Montreal raised many subjects that would continue to resonate in the library community into future years: subsidized postal book rates, anational library in Ottawa, improved children’s services, regional library systems, and better bibliographic control of government publications. The most significant step, of course, proposed by E.C. Kyte, was the formation of a Canadian Library Association which would continue annual conferences such as the successful one in Montreal. The Commission of Enquiry had supported the idea of a national association and a national library in the depths of the Great Depression but believed conditions were not sufficient for their establishment. By the late 1930s, Canadian libraries had recovered from the worst effects of the global depression; however, wartime restrictions would force librarians and libraries to wait seven years longer for a Dominion-wide association to be formed.

Additional Blogs postings:

The 1930–33 Commission of Enquiry (2013)

Nora Bateson’s regional efforts in the Maritimes (2014)

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Special Libraries go on the air “Putting Knowledge to Work” in Montreal, 1936

Montreal Gazette, May 5, 1936

The 28th annual conference of the Special Libraries Association (SLA) was held in Montreal at the Mount Royal Hotel on rue Peel from June 16–19, 1936. It was the third time SLA had come to Canada for its yearly convention, having joined with the American Library Association’s conferences at Ottawa in 1912 and at Toronto in 1927. But on this occasion, SLA chose to convene on its own because a separate, very active SLA Chapter in Montreal had formed in May 1932 with 19 original members. At this time, Montreal was the business and financial capital of Canada. The new Chapter soon expanded rapidly to almost 70 members and to other libraries in regional centres: Ottawa, Toronto, and Winnipeg. The Chapter also had strong leaders, especially Mary Jane Henderson. Special librarianship quickly attracted several Canadians from libraries such as the Royal Bank of Canada, Sun Life Assurance Company, Canadian Industries, École Polytechnique, Montreal Board of Trade, McGill University, Forest Products Laboratory of Canada, the Insurance Institute of Montreal, the Dominion Bureau of Statistics and the National Research Library. The chapter’s quarterly Bulletin first appeared in January 1935 edited by Beatrice V. Simon, a McGill University medical librarian. Although the Depression era still lingered, it was a vibrant time of growth for Canadian special librarians.

Mary Jane Henderson (BA, Queen’s University, 1925; BLS, Pratt Institute School of Library Science, 1926) was the first president of the Montreal Chapter. Henderson was an accomplished organizer who was inducted into the Special Libraries Association Hall of Fame in 1964 after her retirement. She made the host arrangements and organized a successful program under the theme, “Putting Knowledge to Work,” for the 1936 conference expected to attract about 200–300 people. The Mount Royal Hotel (today a renovated shopping mall) served as the conference headquarters. Henderson coordinated the work of four essential committees: programs, luncheons and banquet, local arrangements, and advance publicity. She also helped enlist prominent speakers. For the Friday general session. Brooke Claxton, a distinguished Montreal lawyer, addressed SLA delegates on the question of peace and war: “I thought it would be interesting for us, for a time, to see if we have any common reaction to that fear of war which everyone throughout the world shares today.” Claxton would eventually rise in political ranks to become Canada’s Minister of National Defence in 1946. B.K. Sandwell, the liberal-minded editor of Saturday Night published in Toronto, echoed the theme of Anglo-American relations. He spoke during a luncheon to three SLA groups on the issue of cross-border “trade” in ideas noting the impact of Andrew Carnegie and the Rockefeller Foundation on Canadian culture. Two prominent McGill men, Sir Andrew MacPhail and Lt.-Colonel Wilfrid Bovey, spoke at the evening banquet on Thursday. MacPhail entertained his audience regarding his views on the gradual transition in library work: the business of a special librarian, he concluded, was not to accumulate books but to select and “selection is the main business of art, of the artist, and of the genius, which a librarian must be.”

A notable conference highlight featured three radio talks carried by the CBC network in eastern Canada at 6:15 p.m. on three weeknight evenings. Radio broadcasts by librarians were not innovative, but SLA’s reach on the CBC spanned thirteen stations from Toronto to Halifax and Charlottetown was a Canadian first.The SLA President, William F. Jacobs, General Electric, opened with an introduction to special libraries.

We special librarians have in our files such diversified material as newspaper clippings, pamphlets, magazines, telephone directories, corporation directories, yearbooks, government documents, advertisements, art prints, and so on. To us, all this is knowledge — knowledge needed by the business man, the research worker or the specialist in his profession. And it is our job to see that this knowledge is usefully applied.

He was followed by Eleanor Cavanaugh, librarian at Standard Statistics Co., New York City, who explained how a business could profit from its own library resources. After offering a few examples, she stated, “The special librarian has, in the past twenty-five years, justified the judgment of those executives who realized the need of some organized and centralized fact-finding department within their own organization.” Angus Fletcher, Director of the British Library of Information in New York, delivered the final radio session devoted to “Putting Government Documents to Work.” The British Library in New York had a unique function in the SLA fellowship which was populated mostly by business concerns. This library was part of a growing Anglo-American culture spanning the Atlantic.

“It was established in the year 1920 and attached to the British Consulate-General in the city of New York. Its task is to serve the general public as a library of authoritative information on British affairs, and it is also the office to which appropriate questions are referred by the British Embassy and Consulates in the United States.”

Delegates concluded the convention on Friday afternoon with a short tour and a social tea at the Royal St. Lawrence Yacht Club, hosted by the city of Montreal, before returning home. By all accounts, especially in newspapers, the SLA’s annual meeting was a success. The host chapter had enlisted the aid of McGill University, the CBC, the Quebec Library Association, municipal and provincial officials to bolster their confidence. They were justly proud of hosting SLA and realizing the Montreal chapter had attained the seventh largest membership in just four years! This organizational experience would stand the chapter in good stead in the prewar years. The group would participate in two more important Canadian inter-provincial library conferences held in Ottawa in 1937 and Montreal in 1939 by offering organization assistance and speakers to highlight their respective views. Its example encouraged special librarians in Toronto to form their own chapter in 1940 and, eventually, host SLA’s annual conference there in 1952.

Further reading:

Selected speeches, the conference program, three radio broadcasts, and various SLA reports are available in the digitized issue of Special Libraries for July-August 1936.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Mabel Dunham talks about Librarianship as a Profession for Women, May 1921

    At the end of her year as president of the Ontario Library Association in March 1921, B. Mabel Dunham, the chief librarian of the Kitchener Public Library since 1908, selected a topic of major importance at the OLA’s twenty-first meeting: “Library Work as a Profession for Women.” For the most part, press reports shortened the topic by omitting “for Women” but briefly reported her main remarks. Library journals, such as Public Libraries, which covered the meeting in its May issue, had little to say about Dunham’s speech. It reported, “Miss Dunham’s paper was a very able plea for library work as a means of service to the community and development of one’s highest personality.” The Library Journal reported that “Miss Dunham ranks library work as one of the high callings for women, inasmuch as it presents an opportunity for service to the community and for building up one’s own character and personality.” The synopsis in the May issue of the Ontario Library Review observed that she “upheld the high ideals of our calling.” An experienced librarian, Marjorie Jarvis, from Toronto’s reference library, provided the most detail for the Review:

She spoke of the present lack of standards, of positions given to local applicants instead of trained workers, of the indifference of many library boards, who consider a board meeting a social event. Against this she set the opportunities library work afford both of self-education and then of wide influence, the openings for originality and initiative. These she pointed out were attractive to the college graduate who felt her responsibility for service and had the trained mind and wide mental outlook which were necessary for one who wished to do ‘pioneer work in a new educational field.’

If Mabel Dunham hoped to arouse vigorous discussion at the Association, she would not be entirely satisfied. There had been many articles on professionalism in libraries and women’s entry into librarianship for three decades, especially in the United States. However, she felt it necessary to address these issues in the current postwar era when new expectations were being formed about Canadian society in the 1920s.

Mabel Dunham introduced her topic by outlining women’s societal progress before linking professional work in libraries with young female university graduates. Her viewpoint took for granted whiteness and middle-class values in the field of library work for professionally minded women—the “few favored ones.” She did not address the position of library assistants or women, such as the Bishop Strachan School graduate Marjorie Jarvis, who relied on lesser educational qualifications and experience to gain a reputation in libraries. Excerpts from her speech, which resides at the Archives of Ontario in the Ontario Library Association fonds on microfilm holdings MS-907, follow.

    “These are days when women are filling a much great place in public life in Canada than ever before. Half a century ago it was a universally-accepted belief that women’s sphere was in the home, but now the most confirmed woman-hater is discreetly silent, though he sees women engaged in all manner of competitions once sacred to the lords of creation. Women work in our factories, our stores, our banks; they are to be found in medicine, in law and in the applied sciences. They serve on our municipal boards, on our provincial commissions and they have invaded the unholy realm of politics. They have, perhaps as a result of the nature of their work in the world war, come to realize that, as citizens, it is their native right and also their duty not to complete with men as rivals but to cooperate with them in the common task of making Canada a better place for men and women and little children to live in.

    “Unfortunately, the great majority of women of Canada are allowed to begin the battle of life with but very little training. When they have passed through the elementary schools at the age of fourteen or fifteen, they enter industrial or domestic, or commercial life. Naturally enough, they are fit for little else than manual labor. They give themselves up to the monotony of a life of routine and rarely rise above it. Some are fortunate enough to be able to attend the secondary schools and at eighteen or thereabouts they find themselves called upon to choose among the callings that are open to women of their training. A very few favored ones there are for whom the choice of a profession is postponed until after they have graduated from the university.

    “Canadian women are availing themselves of the advantage of higher education and year by year an increasing number of young women graduate from our universities. Eagerly they have been looking from their cloistered windows into the busy world and trying to find a place in it for themselves. Not one of them but hopes ‘to serve the present age,’ as to live and work among people of education and refinement, to be in a position to continue her own education, and, withal, to earn at least a competence. These are the requisites of a happy life.

     “Prominent among the professions that come up for consideration when a girl is choosing her vocation in life is Library work. She has learned to love the college library, its corridors, its books, its very silences. She has proved it to be a friend in need and a very present help in time of trouble. She remembers that it is more blessed to give than to receive and she pictures herself in a librarian’s chair, doing for others what others have done for her.  ... To be in a position to direct the reading and thinking of a whole community is a work that comes to her as a challenge. To be able at the same time to continue her own education amid the most pleasant surroundings she regards as a privilege.

    “It is a profession that is eminently suited to women. If numbers prove anything, it is, like teaching, a profession that men use as a stepping-stone to other professions but this cannot be said of the men engaged in library work in Canada. They have drifted into the profession from many other walks in life and they hold their positions, like our judges, for life and good conduct. They are for the most part managers of large libraries and are surrounded by a corps of assistants who are either trained or experienced workers in the various departments of library service. There are a few women who have shown themselves not only capable managers of large libraries but also conversant with the work of every department, and through the country the majority of workers holding important library posts are women.

B. Mabel Dunham
Mabel Dunham, n.d. (c. 1920)

    “But, although there are good positions in library work in Canada, there are few openings and advancement in the profession is slow and uncertain. There are too many instances of University women who have taken library courses but who have failed to get a footing in the library world. When vacancies occur, preference is usually given to local applicants without any special regard for educational or professional qualifications. That there are pecuniary considerations back of these conditions I will not deny. Library appointments, when once made, are more or less permanent. Year after year goes by and no questions are raised as to the competency of the person appointed, no inquiry is made into the measure of her development intellectually and professionally, an no interest is shown in the reputation of the Library either locally or provincially. Too many librarians, whether they realize it or not, are merely marking time. The tragedy of it is that nobody seems to care so long as they keep off other people’s corns. This fact cannot be gainsaid, the majority of women engaged in library work in Canada began in their own home town and have not departed from it.

    The result of this practice has been that library work, in Ontario at least, is called a profession by courtesy only. To state that a woman is a librarian means nothing at all. It means something to be called a teacher, a doctor, a nurse, or a lawyer. Everyone knows without being told that these persons have successfully passed certain examinations, both academic and professional. There are certain standards to which they must have attained. ... But in library work there are no such standards set. For years the bars have been down to all comers and, naturally enough, a number of untrained people have wandered in. These have unintentionally though non the less effectively, kept low the status of library work as a profession.

    “The librarian has so much to do with her Library Board that she is wise if she considers well, before accepting an appointment, whether or not she can work with them. It is not always an easy task to please nine men with nine different minds, and the presence of women on the Board may accentual the difficulty.

    “But along with the limitations and weaknesses of library work as a profession there are many compensations. It has, indeed, very much to commend it as a profession for earnest, trained women.

    “Certainly it is educational work and it is only for the ignorant who despise education. Every thoughtful man and woman knows that all true education has for its object the formation of character, and, after all, character is the one thing in all that really matters. The Public Library is or should be an integral part of public education. By all the rules of logic it is evident that library work is a holy service.

    “Leisure is not only a test of character but, and this means more to the educationalists, it furnishes a life-long opportunity to develop and mould character. For this reason it is sacred.

    “The Public Library is the one institution that has in view the education and culture of the people by their own volition during their periods of leisure. ... People come and read because they love to read or because they are in need of help which the Library can afford. ... The librarian meets, under the most pleasant conditions, people whom she would never meet through any school, or club, or office, or church, people of all ages, all races, and all creeds. She creates a municipal home where all may meet as equals by the common right of citizenship. ... She becomes a friend and co-worker with the teachers, the preachers and all others who have at heart the public weal and the library under her management becomes a mighty social factor in the community.

    “Another boon library work has to offer, namely the priceless privilege of showing initiative and originality. ... The librarian who would be worthy of the profession she has chosen must be awake and resourceful. There is no room for automatons in library work, for it is a pioneer effort in a relatively new educational field and only those can follow the plough and dig well the furrows who know the rules and are willing to use both hands.

   “It is to equip boys and girls with the keys that will open the doors to great storehouses of literature that their father knew not of. It is to create within them such interests and ambitions as will help them to avoid many of the pitfalls of life into which boys and girls of an earlier generation have fallen. It is, in short, to raise the type of men and women of the Canada of to-morrow.

   “But no woman, however brilliant and earnest, should undertake library work without some measure of professional training.  ... A librarian must learn to know books by their index and contents pages, to use them not only as sources of information but as tools to guide her to information in other books. She must know how to select books wisely and how to buy them economically. She must familiarize herself with systems of classification and methods of cataloguing. She should know what equipment is necessary and where to procure it most advantageously. She must understand methods in staff and budget management and she must be able to think of things so automatically that she will not waste her energies on the mere machinery of library work and run the risk of losing sight of the real meaning and object behind all her work.

    “The pity of it is that so many of us librarians of experience seem to be people of circumscribed vision. ... There is a verse somewhere in the Bible which reads: ‘Where there is no vision the people perish.’ I trust that I may not some day be found guilty of distorting or misapplying scripture if I suggest that it may have some bearing on the library situation in the Province of Ontario in this our day of grace.”

Mabel Dunham’s comments speak to an emerging profession in Ontario after the Great War. She was wholeheartedly in favour of providing advanced library training for young women seeking a professional career. At the same time, she cautioned that librarianship was circumscribed by few openings, beset by uncertain advancement, and impeded by some male directors who regarded their board tenure as a right. Library work is a “holy service,” Dunham declared when she sought to encourage the young female university graduate to better her career opportunities and develop her character. The 1920s would witness the establishment of graduate library education at the University of Toronto and McGill University and the increase of women as administrators in public libraries in Ontario.

Further reading:

Mabel Dunham’s biography is at Wikipedia and the Ex Libris Association biography website.


Saturday, January 22, 2022

Presidential speech by Mary J.L. Black to the Ontario Library Association, Easter 1918

    On April 10, 1917, Mary J.L. Black was elected president of the Ontario Library Association (OLA). She was the first female to hold this position. In the first part of the twentieth century, presidential positions for women in Anglo-American library associations were unusual. Theresa Elmendorf was elected president of the American Library Association in 1911, followed by Mary Wright Plummer in 1915. It was not until half a century later, in 1966, that the Library Association (UK) elected Lorna Paulin president. Mary Black and Helen Gordon Stewart, who was elected president of the British Columbia Library Association in September 1917, were the first women to break the presidential gender barrier in Canadian librarianship. Their executive offices came in the same year that women over the age of 21 who were born or naturalized British subjects became legally eligible to vote in provincial elections. Black mentioned this in passing when she accepted her position:

“I recognize also that the selection is not an entirely personal one. I realize, in the first place as the first woman President of this Association, that the Association is making a very great innovation. I would not like to say a step in advance but a wonderful innovation that I think could only have been introduced in this great democratic country of Ontario. Here we have obtained the suffrage without working or even asking for it. We did not have to go out and create strife and disorder in order to gain this great privilege.”

Her brief remarks were well received in general, but one wonders whether some in her audience felt she had neglected to praise the strenuous effort made by the suffragette movement to achieve this right. Attaining the right to vote was no easy task, for it was not until the following year, on May 24, 1918, that women who were citizens (nominally British subjects) became eligible to vote federally on the same terms as men. Although Black was actively engaged with women’s organizations, such as the Women’s Canadian Club and Girl Guides, she was satisfied with the position that women were on an equal standing with men. She did not emphasize any feminine skills that may have advantaged women in providing library service.

    Mary Black was a captivating speaker and a progressive librarian who championed the idea of public service during her lengthy career as chief librarian of the Fort William Public Library from 1909 to 1937. Her brief talks at the OLA annual meetings in Toronto and her performance as a librarian had rapidly gained her the respect of her colleagues. By 1917, she was invited to give a lecture on libraries to students at the Department of Education’s library school. Black was eager to rectify the conventional conservative, bookish images of the library and librarians when the Association met at the Public Reference Library on College Street in Toronto. This purpose formed the core of her Easter presidential speech on April 1, 1918, when Black used a humorous theme to demolish what she termed “popular fallacies” held about libraries and librarians. She began in a serious tone because the war in Europe was still raging—its conclusion was still an unknown. She asked a series of questions: “Our Motto for our convention this year is ‘Service.’ It is perhaps a rather hackneyed one, but how could we get away from the choice? What else is there for us to think about, in this year of Grace, 1918, when all the rest of the civilized world is thinking of nothing else? What explanation have we for being where we are? … What can we as librarians do to show that we too are serving? Is the task in which we are engaged, be it great or small, an essential one?”

Mary J.L. Black, c. 1918

Her answer followed the wartime public mood that the post-war would be the time for new beginnings. “Now, however, times have changed. The psychological moment for aggressive construction has arrived, and one of the first difficulties that present itself is the accumulation of false impressions of the library and its aims, to be found both among the general public, and many actual library workers, which stands as a barrier to our progress. As is often the case with popular fallacies, many of these have a shade of truth in them, but not a sufficient amount to make their influence other than prejudicial to the library.” 

    What were these popular misconceptions that Mary Black sought to negate? She gave an energetic address about several major fallacies held by the public, by library workers, and by both that she felt needed to be thoughtfully considered and remedied.

• — “anyone who works in a library is a librarian.” She denied getting a salary or passing examinations qualified one to be a librarian. Instead, she felt individuals needed to possess the “spirit of librarianship,” a characteristic that she developed in stages in her talk. Black believed librarianship was in a maturation stage; its spirit consisted of the service ethic, knowledge of people, book expertise, library training, and business acumen.

• — the “librarian is almost omniscient, and if she is not, then she should be.” She responded by saying everyone had intellectual limitations and that it was the librarian’s duty to know where to find information, not to be a walking encyclopedia. To be successful, the librarian had to have the “personal touch” and demonstrate “heart and soul” rather than the impressive intellectual strength which Black humorously associated with the era of “bluestockings.”

• — “Many people view the desirability of the library being in the town, in much the same way as that the church which is never entered is considered. Its general influence is good, and it is a very desirable ornament ....” She remarked to create public awareness that the library is a community resource was an important step in promoting service. Another was to show people that they own the library and that “if they do not see what they want, it is their right to ask for it.” Unfortunately, she felt too few librarians could explain to readers the arrangement of books and their connection with a catalogue.

• — the librarians “failure to understand, that they are only employees of the public.” A supercilious tone and standing over readers to protect books was not a proper way to cultivate the public’s trust. Understanding the range of citizens’ needs and engaging people directly was a primary quality.

• — the tendency for “librarians take their work too seriously; that the library is only a business concern, in which they are engaged to give a definite service, for a wage.” Wrong, of course! “The library employee who does not experience the pleasure of wanting to do work for which she knows she will never be paid, is very foolish to remain in it. Librarianship is undoubtedly a profession, even though a very immature one, and the person who thinks differently is holding a fallacy, the dissemination of which will do great harm.” She recommended terminating library workers who could not grasp this essential attribute.

• — “it does not do us any injury for them [librarians] to write humorous articles for general publication taking as their topic, the foibles and limitations of librarians, and the absurdity of many of our beliefs.” Wrong, again. There is a fine line to humour:  she asked if library workers did not take their work seriously, who would?

• — “Is there not, however, a very general fallacy held by us, that in having defined our work, we have accomplished it?” She believed carrying the right book to the right reader was the fundamental mission of the public library. Yet, more could be done: “our library unit is too confined, and we must have it changed from the municipality to the township, county, or district, in order to really reach the people of the province.” She realized Ontario’s public library system in 1918 had a narrow reach. “When are we going to get to work and show the people of Ontario that the mistakes and errors of the past have not been in vain, but having learned our lesson, we are able now to go ahead, with a willing and cheery heart, confident that ways and means will be found for the library's fullest development?” It was a call to action.

    Mary Black briefly mentioned, but did not elaborate, on other popular public fallacies such as the failure to see that library was a non-sectarian institution, that the library catered to “the supposed ignorance and innocence of the high school girl,” or that the library censored items or had no right to exclude anything in its collection. She said these false impressions would take her an entire evening to discuss, not a short half-hour speech. The President was more concerned about emphasizing the importance of public service. “We too do serve!” should be a rallying cry for library workers across the province, especially during wartime. During her presidential year, she spoke at  small gatherings to promote libraries.

    During her lengthy career, Mary Black tirelessly promoted the service ethic and work with immigrants in public libraries. The reputation of the Fort William Public Library grew throughout the 1920s and 1930s. At the outset of the 1930, she served as one of the three Canadian commissioners for the American Library Association’s survey, Libraries in Canada: A Study of Library Conditions and Needs, published in 1933. She retired, in 1937, due to ill health and died in Vancouver on 4 January 1939.

Further reading:

Mary Black’s entire speech can be viewed on the Internet Archive of books for the Ontario Library Association Proceedings and also in the May 1918 issue of Public Libraries.

Read Mary Black’s biography in the Canadian Dictionary of Biography authored by Brent Scollie.