Friday, October 18, 2013


Sixty years ago, in January 1953, Canada's National Library Act, took effect. The original statute was passed on May 27, 1952 during the 6th session of 21st Canadian Parliament under the Liberal leader, Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent. The year 1952 was not uneventful. The country was emerging from the immediate postwar era in a more prosperous condition; Elizabeth II became Queen of Canada; Canadian armed forces were fighting in Korea; CBC television went on the air; and a national Old Age Security scheme was introduced. For most Canadians, the National Library was a lesser consideration in nation building.

However, the idea of assembling the greatest collection of literature on Canada in the world and making it available to all Canadians had been a important recommendation of the influential Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (aka the Massey Report) when it was released in 1951. The report was clear about its national importance:
"That a National Library finds no place among the federal institutions which we have been required to examine is a remarkable fact which has been occasion of much sharp comment during our sessions. Over ninety organizations have discussed this matter, some in great detail, urging that what has been called a 'national disgrace' be remedied."

And the government agreed. It introduced a bill within a year to establish such an institution. When Dr. Kaye Lamb became National Librarian as well as Dominion Archivist expectations were high. Many librarians and researchers felt an immediate need for a large collection, a union catalogue of holdings of major Canadian libraries, and a national bibliography to replace the effort Toronto Public Library had begun in the 1920s. They wanted coordination among libraries and leadership on matters that required a Canadian voice or liaison with other external agencies like the Library of Congress or UNESCO. What did the new legislation mandate or allow? The 1952 statute was a succinct four-page document with thirteen sections.

Some formalities were dealt with in the first seven sections -- a few definitions (e.g. "book"), appointment of a National Librarian and an Assistant National Librarian (Dr. Raymond Tanghe was selected), establishment of a National Library consisting of "all books placed in the care and custody of the National Librarian," and provision for staff in accordance with the Civil Service Act. An Advisory Council was also mandated (sec. 8) to be composed of three ex officio members -- the National Librarian along with the General and Parliamentary Librarians from the Parliamentary Library that had lost many books in a fire in 1952 -- and twelve people representing all Canadian provinces. In mid-twentieth century Canada, important federal institutions featured advisory groups that provided advice and could question policy. Dr. Lamb had already formed a similar advisory committee in 1948 to look into the formation of a national library.

Section 10 was really the heart of the matter. The powers and duties of the National Librarian were as follows: a) the collection of books; b) compilation of a national union catalogue of library holdings which could be utilized for interlibrary lending; c) publication of a national bibliography of works on Canada and by Canadians to make known the country's identity and activities; d) lending, selling, disposing, and exchanging books with institutions in Canada and elsewhere; e) making the Library available to the government and Canadians "to the greatest possible extent" consistent with sound administration. Section 11 established a deposit scheme whereby Canadian publishers were obliged to send copies of books to the Library. It allowed the cabinet Minister having oversight of the National Library to regulate the deposit scheme. Previously, publishers had sent copies to the Parliamentary Library under the Copyright Amendment Act, 1931. Sections 12-13 established an account for Parliamentary grants for books, a special account for donations and bequests, and required the National Librarian to file a report each year.

In the subsequent decade, Dr. Lamb worked assiduously to develop library services in conjunction with its partner, the Public Archives of Canada. At first, Library services, the Bibliographical Centre, then the new divisions of cataloguing, reference, and ordering operated in the Public Archives building on Sussex Drive. By 1955, plans were underway to build a new four-storey building on Wellington Street for two million books. This facility would also include resources and staff from the Public Archives. Both institutions were 'bulging at the seams.' Dr. Lamb believed the national archives and library should operate complementary activities such as information services, a historical reference collection of books, maps, newspapers, and acquisitions, within a single building. It was a matter of logistics to locate the activities of the two professions in one building for better public access and for economical operation. In 1956, the homeless library moved to a new records storage warehouse at Tunney's Pasture.

Things moved slowly, very slowly. On Dominion Day 1959, a Toronto Globe and Mail editorial strongly suggested "the Government should now consider giving special priority to the National Library project. The library is needed in the life of this country, and there can be no library in any real sense until there is a building with shelves to put books on, where people can get at them." The government eventually designated the building as a national Centennial project and authorized a budget for its construction. Just in time for Dominion Day, on June 20th 1967, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson opened the new Public Archives and National Library Building.

The Massey Report recommendations and Dr. Lamb's vision of national library service had taken shape over fifteen long years. During this time Canadian society and libraries were changing dramatically. Bi-culturalism was flourishing: two months after opening the Wellington St. building, the Quebec National Assembly enacted provisions for a 'national' library in Montreal to collect materials about Quebec, books published in Quebec and by Quebec authors. The Bibliothèque nationale du Québec was mandated to produce its own bibliographic record. As well, scientific research across Canada was escalating rapidly and the National Library had already relinquished its role in these extensive areas. A few miles along the Ottawa River, the National Research Council library formally became Canada's "National Science Library" shortly before the 1967 celebrations.

Government decisions, telecommunications, computers, and new media were altering the operation and scope of libraries in Ottawa and throughout the country. The task at hand would be the development of new ideas, resources, and roles for the National Library.

Further Reading:

View the CBC coverage of the National Library opening with Lloyd Robertson at
The National Library Act, 1952 is available at (Revised Statutes of Canada 1952, chap. 330)
The Massey Commission briefs and report are available at