Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Review—The Amulree Commission Report, 1933: The Impetus for Newfoundland Public Library Service

Newfoundland Royal Commission 1933: Report. William Warrender Mackenzie, 1st Baron Amulree, chair. London. H.M.S.O., 1933. vi, 283 p., maps.

Important advances were made in Canada in the 1930s by the provision of Carnegie grants for library development in British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. However, in Newfoundland library development was sparked by a different investigative process. In the bleak depression year, 1933, the Newfoundland government, which had held official Dominion since 1907, requested Great Britain for loans to alleviate its dire financial state. The British government responded by establishing a Royal Commission the following year to examine the future of Newfoundland and make recommendations on the island's finances, fisheries, and political status. For most Newfoundlanders, it marked the end of almost eighty years of "Responsible Government." For the next fifteen years (1934-49) Newfoundland and Labrador would continue to be administered by an appointed Governor and unelected Commission.

The Royal Commission was chaired by Lord Amulree, William Warrender Mackenzie, 1st Baron Amulree, who conducted an extensive (and controversial) survey of Newfoundland's political, economic, and social conditions with a few colleagues. One feature of the Commission report, seldom commented on by library historians in Canadian studies, was observations and suggestions about the island's libraries. In a chapter on subsidiary considerations, the Commission reported:
We were much surprised, on our arrival at St. John's, to find that there was no public library in the capital. The need for such a library need not be stressed. The provision of a public library is wholly beyond the immediate resources of the Government, nor could we expect that an appeal for subscriptions for this purpose could be launched with success at the present time.(p.221)
Of course, by "public library" the commissioners meant a tax-supported library freely open to the public. Subscription libraries and mechanics' institutes had long been the mainstay of island library provision since the early 19th century. In its concluding sections, the Amulree Report recommended "We understand that arrangements are in view for the establishment of a public library in St. John’s. We think it is important that public libraries should be established in the larger out ports as opportunity offers and that steps should be taken to extend and improve the recently instituted service of travelling subscription libraries." In the 1920s, the Carnegie Corporation had provided $5,000 for the Bureau of Education to establish a rural travelling library service. Deliveries were made to schools and coastal ships provided service to outport communities. However, the service had languished at the outset of the Great Depression after Carnegie resources ceased.

The Amulree Report's comments spurred immediate action in St. John's. A few citizens, headed by the Commissioner for Public Utilities, Thomas Lodge, formed a committee to begin planning for the establishment of a city public library. By January 1935, a Public Libraries Act was passed to allow a Public Libraries Board to establish libraries and services, in effect a system similar to emerging regional library systems which had already been demonstrated in British Columbia. The fourth section of the new Act stated: "It shall be the duty of the Board to establish, conduct and maintain a public libraries or libraries in St. John’s and in other places in Newfoundland as the Board may deem expedient and to establish and maintain travelling or circulating libraries if the Board shall deem it expedient." The Board reported to the Commissioner of Public Utilities.

The St. John’s Gosling Memorial Library (named for William Gilbert Gosling, a popular mayor from 1916-20) opened on 9 January 1936. The Gosling Library was the beginning of an expansion of public library service across Newfoundland and Labrador in the ensuing decades. At this time, the concept of "regional libraries" was more limited on the island. According to Jesse Mifflen, in the 1930s, "it referred to all libraries set up in relatively large towns; libraries were supposed to serve not only the town itself but schools and groups in neighbouring communities, and also to provide some of the bookstock for any small libraries situated in the area, and which were known as Branch Libraries." There was no formal demarcation of regions with Newfoundland at this time.

After the Gosling library opened in downtown St. John's, the Public Libraries Board, headed by Dr. A.C. Hunter and through the work of its Outport Library Committee, eventually established a five-year plan to provide library services to communities with a minimum population of 1,000 people to serve people in its "region." This plan was approved in 1942 by the British appointed Commission, helped with another timely grant of $10,000 from the Carnegie Corporation. This scheme proved to be successful and included larger towns such as Corner Brook. All these activities can be traced back to the Amulree Report, the beneficence of the Carnegie Corporation, and the dedicated work of local citizens.

The Amulree Report was an important motivation for improved public library services. Although it gave only fleeting reference to libraries and did not fit with the typical Canadian library survey or report on development of services in the 1930s, its impact was evident. As a result, the Commission style government would become an important incubation period for Newfoundland's public library system.

Further reading:

Jesse Mifflen, The Development of Public Library Services in Newfoundland, 1934-1972. Halifax: Dalhousie University Libraries and School of Library Service, 1978.

The entire Amulree Report is available at the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website -- The Newfoundland Royal Commission, 1933

An Act to Create a Public Libraries Board approved in January 1935 is available at the Memorial University Digital Archive (commencing at page 28).