Sunday, December 01, 2013

Review—Libraries in Canada: The Commission of Enquiry (1930-33) and creation of a national perspective on libraries

Libraries in Canada: A Study of Library Conditions and Needs by John Ridington, chair; Mary J. L. Black, and George H. Locke. Toronto: Ryerson Press; and Chicago: American Library Association, 1933. 153 p. index.

In the spring of 1933, thousands of printed copies of Canada's first national survey of libraries were delivered to the offices of newspaper and magazine editors; school and university officials; federal, provincial and municipal politicians; as well as librarians and trustees. It marked the culmination of three years of work by Carnegie-funded commissioners who had traversed Canada in 1930 at the outset of the Great Depression. Led by John Ridington, the chief librarian of the University of British Columbia, the Commission had sought to ascertain the state of Canadian libraries and made recommendations to improve conditions. The three commissioners were primarily interested in public libraries but also included chapters on government and universities and colleges.

How was the report received? What impact did Libraries in Canada have? A case can be made that it influenced library development for many years and was a landmark Canadian study that set a standard for library surveys, reports, briefs, and planning documents in the era before social science techniques and data gathering took hold in library science.

According to one American reviewer in The Library Quarterly, Ridington, Black, and Locke had produced a "human story" about library progress (or lack thereof) and aspirations for future growth that might inspire contemporaries to attain higher standards and to provide a blueprint for planning. A friend of Ridington, Edgar Robinson, noted that "tangible results," in the form of Carnegie funding for a regional demonstration in Prince Edward Island, were already in evidence. Decades later, the Canadian librarian who has provided the most extensive study on the work of the Commission, Basil Stuart-Stubbs, described its report as a "vision document" that spoke to the community at large and realized its vision decades later--the establishment of a national library, regional libraries, improved library legislation, published standards, better funding. Even a national library association, which the commissioners felt impossible to establish in the Depression, would eventually be formed in 1946. None of the commissioners lived to see their ideas become conventional principles: Locke died in 1937, Mary Black in 1939, and Ridington in 1945.

Libraries in Canada (LIC) attracted some modest press and magazine attention in 1933. A Saskatoon Star-Phoenix editorial on March 14th indicated the lowly state of library service in many regions of Canada might come as a shock to those who were comfortable with present service levels. It noted the three basic improvements the Commission advocated: 1) the development of larger administrative units of service or cooperation between urban-rural libraries in regions; 2) the extension of services via branches, bookmobiles, etc; and 3) the need for better trained staff. On March 25th, Toronto Globe lamented that the report offered up a general "discouraging picture" and editorialized that Canadians were "book hungry." Some papers, such as the Montreal Gazette, highlighted comments about local conditions: it reported "Parish Libraries Plan Commended," on March 15th and followed with "[McGill] Library School is Doing Great Work," on March 16th. The April and May issues of the Canadian Bookman and Canadian Forum also commented briefly on the work of the surveyors for their readers.

While explicit "next steps" and tangible results were not immediately forthcoming, the Commissioners' ideas were sketched on a national canvas for the first time. Their work prompted Canadian librarians and educators to rise above parochial thinking. After LIC suggested reduction of postal subsidies for book loans by mail, British Columbia and Ontario librarians reiterated this position in Briefs to the dominion government's study on federal-provincial relations (the Rowell-Sirois Report) a few years later. A special postal "book rate" became reality in 1939 and still exists today. Although LIC admitted formation of a national association was not feasible during the Great Depression, new steps were undertaken to form a national body with support from A.L.A in 1934. Eventually, a national association came into being in 1946. After the Second World War, the concept of regional libraries took hold across the country. The establishment of more library schools and library training in colleges was firmly implanted by the late 1960s. To be sure, many improvements in libraries can be traced backed to LIC, in part because the report was brought to the attention of decision-makers such as Quebec Premier, Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, and the Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. While the Commission could be faulted for not doing more extensive work on university-college libraries and school libraries, few could argue that the $10,000 Carnegie grant was not well spent.

Further, Libraries in Canada pointed the way to conducting more published analysis on library problems, especially on a geographic basis. Previous studies, especially in British Columbia, had focused mostly on specific provincial concerns. Now a national study unveiled and legitimized ideas -- principles, even -- that could be developed on a broader basis. Studies in the later 1930s such as Nora Bateson's two works, Carnegie Library Demonstration in Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown, 1936) and Library Survey of Nova Scotia (Halifax, 1938); and Norma W. Bennett, Library Service in Saskatchewan (Saskatoon, 1937) benefited greatly from LIC. More than a decade on, another national study by the Canadian Library Council, Libraries in the Life of the Canadian Nation, published at Ottawa in 1946, revisited numerous ideas from the Commission of Enquiry. Many of the subsequent studies began to utilize data gathered on a biennial basis by the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, a resource that LIC neglected. But, by this time, the influence of the initial efforts by Ridington, Black and Locke had taken hold. It was the power of words and ideas rather than explication of numbers and facts that prevailed.

The concluding chapter of Libraries in Canada is available at Libraries Today.

More reading:

Review by Edgar S. Robinson and Harold L. Leupp, Bulletin of the American Library Association 27, 4 (April 1933), 197-198

Review by Clarence B. Lester, Library Quarterly 4, 4 (Oct. 1934), 662-66

Basil Stuart-Stubbs, "1930: the Commissioners' Trail," Feliciter 47, 3 (2001), 140-41

Basil Stuart-Stubbs, "1933: The Commission Speaks," Feliciter 48, 3 (2002), 126-28

Basil Stuart-Stubbs, "1934: CLA Redux . . . Almost," Feliciter 49, 3 (2003), 161-64