Friday, July 03, 2015

Review—Report on Canadian Libraries (1941) by Charles F. McCombs

Report on Canadian Libraries, 1941, 81 p. Originally unpublished with three appendices, index, letter of transmission, and schedule of Canadian travel by Charles F. McCombs, New York Public Library, on behalf of the Rockefeller Foundation. Reprinted photographically with extensive commentary by William J. Buxton and Charles R. Acland, Philanthropy and Canadian Libraries: The Politics of Knowledge and Information Montreal: Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, and The Centre for Research on Canadian Cultural Industries and Institutions, McGill University, 1998. 51 and 88 p.

The Charles McCombs Report was the last of many American philanthropic Canadian studies begun in the 1930s. It was undertaken in 1941 to discover if further assistance might enable Canadian libraries to work with American institutions, especially the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) which previously had not been active on Canada's library scene. At the outset of WWII, the Foundation was exploring the development of international exchanges through librarianship and, with the development of microfilm systems and readers, it was interested in capturing the historic record of countries using this relatively new technology for newspapers, books, and periodicals. But before taking action in a new theatre of operation, the RF needed to explore the state of Canadian libraries and the merits of their newspaper holdings.

The senior administrators at the RF, especially John Marshall, the Assistant Director of the Humanities Division, felt more thorough examination of Canadian libraries (particularly research collections) was necessary in terms of collections, staffing capabilities, and national coordination before recommending courses of action. Accordingly, in May 1941, $2,750 was allocated to allow for the secondment of Charles McCombs from the main reading room of the New York Public Library to conduct at study of Canadian libraries. McCombs was an experienced librarian, born in 1887, noted for his bibliographic talents. In four trips, from June to November 1941, McCombs visited almost seventy libraries in eight provinces (omitting P.E.I.), submitting his report shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the American entry into WWII.

What did Charles McCombs report on? Because his report remained unpublished for almost six decades, its contents were never adequately referenced in postwar Canadian studies. Two researchers, William Buxton and Charles Acland, finally dealt with the context and importance of McCombs' work in their admirable study published in 1998. They took care to reprint the 1941 report in its entirety while at the same time discussing his recommendations and the aftermath of the Rockefeller Foundation's and Carnegie Corporation's subsequent financial aid to Canadian libraries and librarians. They demonstrated that the impact of American philanthropy on Canadian library development in the 1930s and 1940s was directed to particular projects that intersected with Canadian aspirations for progressive steps, coordinated assistance from the American Library Association, and also the policy interests of the two foundations in the immediate postwar period. The intersection of this multiple engagement provided crucial, initial assistance for the formation of the Canadian Library Association in 1946 and the subsequent legislation for a National Library in 1953.

Thus, it can be said that McCombs' work helped advance two vital postwar developments. He observed that the most pressing concern in Canada was "lack of national coordination of activity" and recommended financial aid for the new Canadian Library Council, which had coalesced in June 1941 and held its first meeting later in October with RF financial support. The RF was quick to promise $17,500, funneled through the ALA, for use by the Canadian Library Council in 1942 with the objective to establish microphotography and general advisory services (e.g., fellowships and field visits) for Canadian libraries, another important concern of McCombs. Subsequently, the Carnegie Corporation made five payments from 1944-48 to the Canadian Library Council, through the ALA, totalling $20,000. With this seed money, the CLC transitioned into the Canadian Library Association, hired Elizabeth Morton as executive director, and opened an office in Ottawa. CLA published its first list of microfilmed newspapers in 1948 and championed the cause of a national library.

Buxton and Acland make the case for American influence on Canadian activities in their well documented study. But the McCombs study also is revealing at many points for it was conducted through personal interviews and observations: "I did not submit a questionnaire, or make my visits armed with notebook and pencil" (p. 2). His use of statistics was brief, confined mostly to larger universities and colleges. Many comments appear in his report that otherwise would have been expunged before publication. McCombs seems to have been influenced a good deal by André Siegfried's Canada (translated into English in 1937) which treated the English-French divide, Canada's nascent nationality, our national east-west and north-south economic pull, and our British-European and North American ties. McCombs referenced these points throughout his report, e.g. the regionalism of the "five Canadas," isolation, and absence of cooperation, even amongst libraries on the downtown campus of the University of Toronto (p. 9). He suggested a reorganization of Ottawa's Parliamentary Library (to make it more efficient) and formation of a national library with co-equal French and English speaking directors (p. 74).

Because of the RF interest in the potential of Canadian content for researchers, McCombs spent the most part of his report on larger libraries in universities. On the personal side, he got on well with Toronto Public Library's chief, Charles Sanderson, who was enthusiastic about the prospects of microduplication in libraries. McCombs was disappointed that W.S. Wallace, University of Toronto, did "not show much interest in microphotography." Two female university chief librarians, Elizabeth Dafoe at Manitoba and Mary K. Ingraham at Acadia, were commended for their work. He found that the Citizen's Free Library, Halifax, was "a disgrace." (p.62). He spoke of the need for advanced library training and education--Canada's library schools at McGill and Toronto were a "Type II" ALA category offering only one year of professional education. McCombs judged the other schools at Montreal and Ottawa would not meet ALA standards for accreditation. He found the provincial legislative libraries lacking: "with the exception of British Columbia, they lack adequate catalogues, and pay little attention to standard library methods, although there are occasional signs of progress" (p. 48). For the most part, his criticisms and compliments were designed to foster improvements in administration, finance, and collections as well as bolstering his own recommendations.

McCombs knew the limitations of his brief travels. In his letter to John Marshall on 1 Dec. 1941 he wrote, "I am acutely aware of the shortcomings of this lengthy document; there is much more that I could have said, but I have tried to give an impartial account of conditions observed, including impressions of personalities." On balance, many of his observations updated the study, Libraries in Canada by Ridington, Locke, and Black published in 1933. McCombs died in May 1947 after a lengthy career as a reference and bibliographic expert spanning more than three decades at the New York Public Library. The CLA continued the newspaper project he had advocated into the early 1980s. The importance of his original proposal was recognized in 1958 when the newly formed Canada Council granted $10,000 to CLA to continue microfilming papers in order to further Canadian research. Some CLA newspapers from the microfilm project are searchable today in the Google digital newspaper archive, e.g. the Toronto World.

Also, Buxton and Acland, "A Neglected Milestone: Charles F. McCombs' Report on Canadian Libraries, 1941," in Peter McNally, ed., Readings in Canadian Library History 2, p. 265-74 (Ottawa: Canadian Library Association, 1996).

For a listing of CLA microfilmed papers go to http://www.cla.ca/Content/NavigationMenu/Shop/CLAMicrofilmCollectionCatalogue(2013).pdf 
 To see if a newspaper is available go to the Google News Archive Search site and type your paper, using quotations, e.g. "Toronto World" and click on the Search button.