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Saturday, June 23, 2012


Just over a century ago, in 1911, Lawrence Burpee published an article entitled “A Plea for a National Library” in Andrew MacPhail’s February issue of University Magazine, an influential literary magazine to which many leading Canadian academics, politicians, and authors contributed. Burpee came up with a great idea: he suggested that the Dominion government create a national library in Ottawa close to Parliament Hill. Just like other European and American countries! Burpee obviously was dissatisfied that Canada lagged behind other nations. He asked: “Are we Canadians either so inferior, or so superior, to the rest of the world, that we cannot use, or do not need, such an institution?” Obviously, Burpee was a progressive thinker!

You can read his entire article on the Internet Archive. Some parts of “A Plea” are inspirational, even in today’s jaded atmosphere about the benefits of government institutions. Only the more important points from Burpee’s piece are highlighted here. What did he propose? He wanted Parliament to enact legislation to create a national library, to erect a suitable building to house national collections, and for the library to serve as both a reference and circulating library. He felt the new entity should work with the National Archives, which had been established in 1872, and with the Library of Parliament: “What is really needed is a Canadian national library, working in harmony with the two existing institutions, but filling its own field, a field which belongs neither to the national archives nor to the legislative library.”

Burpee was impressed with the workings of the Library of Congress in Washington. A smaller Canadian equivalent could be started by removing more general items from the Library of Parliament that did not suit parliamentary use, thereby establishing the working core of a national collection, about 200,000 books he estimated. By housing the national library close to Parliament Hill, a synergy of sorts could be built by employing new ideas and new technologies. “The national library would then be within easy reach of the archives, the Library of Parliament, and all the government departments, and, as has been done in Washington, it could, if necessary, be connected with the other government buildings by pneumatic tubes, for the conveyance of both messages and books.” Of course, the national library could lend to major libraries across Canada, both public and college ones.  At a time when Canadian college research libraries were meager in content and free public library service in short supply, even in major cities, his proposal was a cogent one.

Nonetheless, sufficient support for Burpee’s vision was short lived. The Dominion government had more immediate considerations, like equipping the newly founded Canadian navy, and fighting an bitterly contested election. Forty years on, Burpee was still pressing for a national library. He penned a short article, “Only Canada has no National Library” in Saturday Night on August 21, 1943, a few years before he died. He had a dream but did not live to see its fruition.

But others took up his cause. Libraries in Canada, a national study conducted by John Ridington, George H. Locke, and Mary J.L. Black, which was released in 1933, also argued the merits of a national library. Later, after the Second World War, the Canadian Library Association, in conjunction with other national organizations, issued a call for its formation in Ottawa. The idea Burpee advocated was too sound to remain a vision—it would become a reality in 1953.