Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review—The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia by David Obee (2011)

The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia by David Obee. Vancouver, British Columbia Library Association, 2011. 264 p., illus., $50.00. Available at the British Columbia Library Association website.

A modestly sized coffee table book with 300 photographs is an unusual entry for a library history but, in this case, well worth reading and possessing. The Library Book covers more than a hundred years in three major sections with eighteen chapters. David Obee is a respected journalist, a local-family historian, as well as a genealogist; and he has combined his knowledge and skills to craft an informative and entertaining history of all types of libraries in British Columbia from the late eighteenth century up to the present. With the help of a number of prominent BC people in the library community, this book was published to celebrate the centenary of the British Columbia Library Association in 2011.
     David Obee covers the development of a valued provincial service to many different clienteles by public, school, college and university, special, government and legislative libraries. While 'service' is a keynote theme, Obee also includes details and chapters on intellectual freedom, information technology, library associations, and library organization. The text is divided into three main periods with fairly even treatment: 1796 to 1926; 1927-1959; and 1960 to today. Often, of course, books that celebrate contemporary milestones concentrate on the latest period, but that is not the case in The Library Book.
      In the first part, we learn that James Strange brought books to BC on a fur-trade mission in 1796; that New Westminster established the first 'public' library in 1865; that the Legislative Library was formed in 1863 to serve the small British colony on Vancouver Island; that three Carnegie libraries had opened by 1905 (Victoria, Vancouver, and New Westminster); that a training course in librarianship appeared in 1913; and that the University of British Columbia library opened in 1915. Progress was never easy, of course. Few municipalities took advantage of the Free Libraries Act of 1891; however, when this act was thoroughly revised in 1919 it also established a Public Library Commission and granted financial aid to 'library associations' which became eligible to receive travelling libraries (small boxes of books) from the Commission's headquarters. This was an important landmark to provide all provincial residents with some form of library service.
     The second section begins with the Commission's efforts to promote the development of regional libraries (a Canadian innovation) under the stewardship of the dynamic Helen Gordon Stewart. In 1930 she began a successful Carnegie funded regional demonstration in the Fraser Valley which led to the creation of two other library systems, the Okanagan and Vancouver Island. The Great Depression and WWII stymied other progress but regional systems and bookmobiles were a major step in reaching rural Canadians. The postwar era saw new buildings, larger collections, better-trained librarians, and the spread of business, government, and school libraries. But perhaps the most interesting chapter in this part touches on a personal confrontation between a librarian, John Marshall, and the Victoria library. During the height of the Cold War and anti-Communist rhetoric, in 1954, Marshall was summarily terminated for his ties with 'Red' organizations. At the same time, pro-Communist books came under fire. Half a century later, in 1998, the Victoria Library publicly apologized to Marshall. By this time, libraries had become advocates of intellectual freedom not guardians of political and moral standards.
     The final section begins in 1960; this is not a seminal date, but perhaps the 1960s decade was for Canadian libraries of all types. There was a boom in new library buildings across Canada and British Columbia was no exception. New universities and colleges--Simon Fraser (1965), Victoria (1963), Capilano (1968), and Okanagan (1963)--rapidly developed with a need for new library operations based around computer technology. Outside cities, the days of the one-room rural schoolhouse had come to end as more centralized schools with better libraries and staffing became the norm. In 1961, a School of Librarianship was established at the University of British Columbia to provide more librarians with a standard degree for professional training, the BLS. Obee concludes his history with chapters on the "tsunami" of technological change that has swept libraries since the 1970s, the explosive growth of the internet, and the emergence of the "library without walls." This period is necessarily compressed, but Obee gives the reader the basics without delving deeply into library jargon and administrivia.
     One feature of The Library Book that deserves special comment is the design and format of the volume. Excellent black and white/colour photographs are sprinkled throughout. Boxed texts with quotes and outlines of important events or people who have made valuable contributions are helpful additions that complement the chronological format. Deserving individuals who receive particular attention are E.O.S. Scholefield, John Ridington, W. Kaye Lamb, Lois Bewley, Basil Stuart-Stubbs, Margaret Clay, and Helen Gordon Stewart. They made contributions on a national level, as well as in British Columbia. At about 12" x 12," the book is still easily readable and displays nicely. There is an excellent timeline and appendices detailing various topics on associations, award winners, etc. The index provides convenient access to persons, subjects, and institutions. Researchers and historians will have to be satisfied with the narrative and pursue their interests elsewhere because there are no footnotes or a bibliography!!! But most general readers can do without the academic apparatus.
     David Obee and the BC Library Association must be congratulated for bringing The Library Book to press. It stands as the most complete Canadian provincial history of libraries produced to date and an important addition to the history of libraries in Canada.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Review—A Book in Every Hand by Don Kerr (2005)

A Book in Every Hand: Public Libraries in Saskatchewan by Don Kerr. Regina: Coteau Books, 2005. 279 pp.; $19.95. Still available via email from Saskatchewan Library Trustees' Association.

At the start of the 1930s, a national study funded by the Carnegie Corporation, Libraries in Canada, reasoned that Saskatchewan, which had almost a million people, might prosper in the years ahead if public library proponents worked hard to achieve services outside a few major communities. A base existed. Regina and North Battleford had Carnegie library buildings. Saskatoon, Prince Albert, and Moose Jaw were major centres with book collections. But the vast majority of people were rural dwellers who depended on a Travelling Library service of boxes of books for loan, an Open Shelf system of 'books by mail' operated from the provincial Legislature, and small struggling mostly subscription funded libraries. One solution highlighted by this report seemed to be the development of regional libraries through cooperative efforts--of course, 'cooperation' was a buzz word during the Great Depression. It became a byword for library progress in the latter part of the 20th century.
     Don Kerr's welcome volume on public library development in a large province with a small population outlines the successful efforts of library supporters, politicians, governments, trustees and librarians over seventy years up to 2005. Canadian provinces have distinct public library systems and Kerr (a former Saskatoon library trustee) best describes Saskatchewan's development as a 'one-library system' with administration centralized and public services decentralized. The Provincial Library, formed in 1953, is a central coordinating body. Regina and Saskatoon serve as resource centres. Eight unified regional systems gradually formed after 1950 are important hubs. Three in the south: Chinook (1971), Palliser (1973), and Southeast (1966). Four in the centre: Wapiti (1950), Wheatland (1967), Parkland (1968), and Lakeland (1972). Lastly, in the north an autonomous board for the Pahkisimon Nuye?├íh Library, a federated structure of communities and school libraries, formed in 1991. Initially, the province provided the majority of funding for regions. Today, the regions are funded principally by local levies supplemented by provincial aid. Kerr concludes that Saskatchewan has one of the best library systems in Canada.
     This study is organized in a chronologic-geographic mode with theme chapters from the very early days when Saskatchewan was a territory to early 21st century arrangements based on a union catalogue, reciprocal borrowing, and interlibrary loan. As mechanics' institutes changed to community libraries, as travelling libraries and the open shelf service disappeared in the 1960s, a provincial-regional partnership emerged. A Regional Libraries Act (1946) and formation of a Provincial Library (1953) set the stage for growth in the 1960s. As the system expanded, periodic reviews took place to update legislation in 1984, in 1996, and to create a multitype library authority to coordinate work and access by all types of libraries to collections and information. For Canadian library history readers there are familiar names scattered through Kerr's history: J.R.C. Honeyman, Marion Gilroy, Mary Donaldson, Don Meadows, and Frances Morrison. In many ways, the success of equitable service throughout the province is underlined by the personal commitments by strong-minded individuals. Although individual effort and local initiative was essential in building Saskatchewan's libraries, Kerr credits the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation governments with much of the initial impetus towards equitable service in rural areas. The CCF under Tommy Douglas was sympathetic and ready to assist library planners.
     A Book in Every Hand details the arduous efforts to form and create regional systems one by one over three decades. 'Planning from below' was never easy--mandatory participation by municipalities in regions did not come into being until 1996. Often, local autonomy trumped universal access, a familiar library theme. The development of urban services in Saskatoon and Regina provide insights into library planning and community building through branches and online access via the internet. Also, budget struggles with city elders! There are interesting separate chapters devoted to the Saskatchewan Library Association's (SLA) contributions; the development of a provincial multitype system in the 1990s; and aboriginal library service that began to function in the 1960s. The SLA was an early supporter of the creation of a National Library in Ottawa in the 1940s and, and along with the Canadian Library Association, a constant source of professional development for the province's librarians. When the federal government began assistance in earnest for Indian band libraries in the mid-1960s, there were plans to train persons, to build suitable collections, to finance and assist aboriginal communities. These efforts usually (but not always) met with success. The short chapter on multitype service offers some information that is comparable to efforts in neighboring Alberta.
     Don Kerr is an excellent writer-poet-scholar, with many books to his credit. His text sweeps the reader along with personable comments from his own interviews and from documentary sources he consulted. He offers a personal account at the outset about his love of libraries and a general outline of his history. Book chapters are interspersed with tables, black and white illustrations, and some beautiful colour plates of public libraries provided by the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation. More on library architecture would have been a definite plus for A Book in Every Hand. There are frequent scholarly footnotes that will lead researchers to additional information and sources of study. A great index too! Kerr's work impressively documents the development of equitable access and better services hinted at by Libraries Canada in the depression years. There are not many histories of public library development for an entire Canadian province but this is one that makes me wish there was a digital version.    

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Review—Library Spirit in the Nordic and Baltic Countries (2009)

Library Spirit in the Nordic and Baltic Countries: Historical Perspectives edited by Martin Dyrbye, Ilkka Makinen, Tiiu Reimo, and Magnus Torstensson. Tampere, Finland: HIBOLIRE, 2009. 188 p. illus. Still available for purchase through the HIBOLIRE website for 17 euros - http://granum.uta.fi/english/kirjanTiedot.php?tuote_id=19199 .

       The authors involved in this publication belong to HIBOLIRE, The Nordic-Baltic-Russian Network on the History of Books, Libraries and Reading, a multinational and multidisciplinary network of scholars. They consider the development of Nordic public libraries to be relatively influential and successful in a broad northern geographic arc from Greenland to the Baltic States. My interest in this library history is on the comparative aspects that I recognize from a Canadian context, not surprising because the Nordic "library spirit" often incorporates Anglo-American ideas about public libraries stemming from the 19th century that were also prevalent in Canada.
        In terms of public library development, several countries evolved services from a variety of pre-1900 'public' institutions: reading societies, school and university libraries open to the public, commercial and scientific groups, parish libraries, and folkbiblioteken (Sweden) to assist lower classes with less access to reading materials. In many ways, this parallels the Canadian experience with a host of "social libraries" -- library associations, mechanics' institutes, athenaeums, literary societies, mercantile libraries, etc. -- that existed in Canada prior to 1900. The transformation of these libraries into free public libraries, i.e. libraries regulated by government legislation, managed as a public trust, financed by municipal tax levies and open to local residents, is recounted a number of times, especially for Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, where Anglo-American concepts took hold at an earlier stage. Of course, state aid was crucial in the development of the public library concept. It is interesting that financial assistance begins in Norway in the 1830s in the same time period as Canadian colonial government grants to mechanics' institutes commence. By the last quarter of the 19th century, popular or people's libraries in the Nordic-Baltic countries were prominent in many communities.
      Canadian provinces began experimenting with general legislation for local libraries and government support as early as 1851. Of course, proximity to the American border states and colonial association with Britain sparked many ideas about libraries, especially after Confederation in 1867 colonial status after 1867, when Canada began to emerge as a fully sovereign nation. Public library legislation for the Nordic-Baltic experience evolved at a slower pace, but many Anglo-American ideas circulated and help promote library progress. Especially, important was the "library spirit" -- the idea of the library as an active educational force that facilitates access to collections and promotes community development though a variety of ever-changing services. Fused with two major concepts, Bildung and Volksbildung, the Nordic library spirit continues today, a combination of self-cultivation or improvement and popular or adult education in the broadest sense. I find these underlying philosophic ideas to be unique, and really without parallel in Canada where early library promoters were mostly influenced by Utilitarian ideas disseminated from Britain.
       The formation of national library associations and librarianship is another focus I found interesting. In Canada, association formation came at the provincial and local level prior to a national organization in 1946, promoted mostly by the need for a national library "voice" and coordinating body. Major Nordic countries had formed national bodies decades before this date, inspired by leading intellectuals and publications about libraries/librarianship. A Finnish association was formed as early as 1910, even before the country's independence from Russia during WW I. Associations not only attempted to improve library services, they sought to improve the social standing and working conditions of librarians. There are insightful chapters on the development of the library profession -- from volunteer status, to vocation, to profession -- in Denmark. The concept of public service for professional librarians was expanded to align with societal needs. As in Canada, this change mostly took place after 1945 as national systems of libraries developed rapidly and educated personnel were required. The development of Library Science as part of the Nordic educational curriculum and training for librarianship also was a crucial development during this period.
       It would be too much to try and summarize all seventeen chapters that record the history of libraries within national cultural and educational progress in the Nordic-Baltic spectrum. Some presentations, such as the Soviet era in the three Baltic Republics, represent discontinuity in library development and a complete rejection of Anglo-American influences. The Scandinavian style of library architecture was obviously influenced by the International Style at an earlier stage than Canada, thus functional forms, open interior design, and horizontal elements as evidenced by the Nyborg Public Library had arrived by 1939. Comparative analysis, like the final chapter which summarizes the work of preceding authors, is important, yet in many ways each chapter has a distinct history based on differing perspectives about libraries.
       Comparative histories usually follow the path of identifying a variable, such as "library spirit," examining various cases to determine similarities (and differences), and then offering an explanation for why (or how, who, or when) the variable succeeded, developed, changed, or varied by case or geography, etc. An important journal in this field is Comparative Studies in Society and History from Cambridge University. A historiographical study by Marc Bloch, The Historian's Craft (translated from French in 1954), still is a reliable and useful guide to comparative history. Bloch was a pioneer in comparative studies, specializing in medieval feudal societies.
        Hopefully, the HIBOLIRE network can continue to produce informative histories that broaden our knowledge about libraries, books, and reading. The comparative approach offers the possibility of identifying recurring social mechanisms and structures as well as observing how different outcomes are possible.