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Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Les bibliothèques canadiennes, 1604-1960 by Antonio Drolet (1965)

Les bibliothèques canadiennes, 1604-1960 by Antonio Drolet. Ottawa: Le Cercle du Livre de France, 1965. 234 p., tables.

Antonio Drolet, n.d.
Antonio Drolet, n.d.
Antonio Drolet was born in Québec City on July 31, 1904, and studied at the Petit Séminaire de Québec where many young Catholic clerics were educated. He earned his BA at Université Laval in 1925. Eventually,  he chose a career outside religious studies: he became an academic librarian at Laval. He also performed duties as a Secretary to the respected literary critic and rector of Laval, Camille Roy. Later, he organized and directed work at the library in the Faculty of Medicine at Sainte-Foy from 1955-1961. In 1964, Drolet became chief librarian at the Archives of Québec. During his career, he published important works, notably Bibliographie du roman canadien-français 1900–1950 in 1955 and Les Bibliothèques canadiennes 1604–1960 in 1965 along with many scholarly articles on libraries, especially in the vicinity of Quebec City (see below). Drolet died on June 30, 1970.

Antonio Drolet's history of Canadian libraries was a groundbreaking work in Canadian library historiography and owed much to his knowledge of Canadian bibliography and his own scholarly work on libraries and book collections in the province of Quebec. In attempting to encompass the development of our nation's libraries from the arrival of French explorers to the postwar period after 1945, the author was examining an area of research that was, for the most part, a patchwork of regional histories and unsynthesized commentaries. Drolet was largely successful in striving to weld these pieces together in a sweeping historical survey of Canadian library development. More than half a century later, some parts may seem dated or insubstantial due to subsequent research, nevertheless, Les Bibliothèques canadiennes is still a reliable, concise account which blends Drolet's narrative and analysis, notably his portrayal of the considerable influence of the clergy in Quebec's public library development. Drolet was steadfast in his account of the historical ascendancy of public services at a time when Quebec's politics and culture in the 1960s -- the Quiet Revolution -- was fundamentally changing life in Quebec. Drolet seems to be deeply aware of this trend and, as a result, his general work remains an important starting point in historical inquiry, especially for the evolution of libraries in Quebec.

Drolet chose to divide Canada's library chronology into three parts, from (1) the early libraries in the French colony established by Samuel Champlain to the British military victories in the Seven Years' War at Québec City and Montréal (1604-1760), (2) the British colonial period to Confederation, to (3) the entire post-Confederation period (1867-1960) of developing nationhood. These dates mirror the earlier dominance of political history in Canada's past established by Canadian historians in the first part of the 20th century and the ideas that emerged from its colonial experience and the aftermath of Confederation. Of course, Drolet composed his work before the rise of new social history in Canadian universities that involved a variety of studies on urbanism, ethnicity, labour, demographics, regional or societal structures, and more complex patterns of chronology. It was sometimes called "history from below" or "history with the politics left out." This new history used different viewpoints and source materials and did not focus on attempts at a national synthesis. Drolet was composing his narrative at a time when French-language historians at two major universities, Laval and Montreal, were beginning to re-interpret Quebec's history using professional standards to investigate the province's social and cultural development beyond the traditional nationalist emphasis on the survival of francophone culture in a North American setting. Les Bibliothèques canadiennes displays an interest in print culture and book history, areas of study in their own right in relation to the field French-Canadian library history. Drolet's successors who have made authoritative contributions to Quebec's library history, such as Yvan Lamonde, Gilles Gallichan, or Marcel Lajeunesse -- have followed in this tradition of interrelating library history with printing and publishing, the history of books, literacy, reading, and intellectual development. These works reflect the new cultural historiography that became more influential on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s, many years after Drolet's publication appeared.

However, Drolet was also writing at a time when institutional and administrative concerns in library history -- the growth of collections, the spread of various types of libraries, or the tenure of chief administrators -- dominated local narratives, especially in American and Canadian English-speaking accounts. Drolet chose to focus on types of libraries and their development -- a typical institutional approach that is less favoured by historians now. His contemporaries writing library history echoed the liberal-democratic premise of practicing librarians and trustees who projected the idea of public libraries financed by municipalities and administered by trustees as a powerful force for literacy and democracy. To some extent, Drolet was not subject to this overarching Anglo-American-Canadian experience because he specialized in the course of Quebec's library development which had resisted this thinking. As he notes, even in 1930 a Liberal Premier of Quebec, Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, could state that the content of public libraries posed some threat, especially to youth (p. 173-74). However, while he adhered to the cultural-religious aspects of Quebec's library history, Drolet necessarily was concocting a national interpretation of the historical record emphasizing facts and events that often were institutional, administrative, and political in focus, thus giving weight to the progress of institutional growth.

In his first time frame, Drolet examines the libraries of New France, particularly private libraries of the colonial elite and Catholic religious institutions. The vast majority of private collections were not large and, as he notes, were often devoted to religious works, as were the libraries in churches and seminaries. He covers the entire period as one -- the reader does not get a sense of the growth of libraries in the French regime, perhaps because they were small and a "book culture" with contemporary printing presses and book stores was lacking. For institutional libraries, Drolet drew on his own published work, particularly the Séminaire de Québec (see below) which is still cited by scholars. The most important library in the French colony was the library of the Collège des Jésuites at Québec City which Drolet had published an extensive article on in 1961 (see below). He calculates that there were about 20,000 volumes in about 50 personal collections in New France (p. 25) with prominent French writers, Pascal, Descartes, and Montaigne available to readers (p. 45). He concludes his section on mostly private collections by noting the appearance of libraries for the public in North America, a trend the French colony had not experienced.

The central part of Les Bibliothèques canadiennes (1760-1867) is more successful in providing details that offer a sense of colonial library development including the background of difficulties inherent in Canada's burgeoning book trade, especially in Quebec. Commercial circulating libraries, subscription libraries (which Drolet terms as public, p. 88, because they did not belong to a person and attracted a limited clientele), English language mechanics' institutes and their French counterpart instituts d’artisans, school libraries, parliamentary libraries, professional libraries, public libraries of different types, parish libraries, college and university libraries begin to appear. Drolet examines the size of collections, for example, the Bibliothèque de Québec founded in 1779. The author's interest in parish libraries encouraged by the Catholic Church after 1840 stems from his earlier research (see below) and continues his observations on the importance of religion on library development in his home province. He finds the clergy repeatedly thwarting the development of local or municipal public libraries by acting as a conservative force to actively control social and cultural institutions, especially the foundation of libraries for the public in a general sense ("bibliothèques populaires" p. 135). In two notable cases, the visit of Alexandre Vattemare in 1840-41 which resulted in the founding of the controversial L’Institut canadien de Montréal (1844-80) and the refusal to accept money from Andrew Carnegie's program to build free public library buildings at the beginning of the 20th century, the Catholic ultramontane philosophy prevailed. The development of school libraries under Egerton Ryerson and Jean-Baptiste Meilleur is also highlighted. To illustrate the growth of libraries, there is a chronological table (p. 151-54) of the foundation of many Canadian libraries during this period, perhaps a realization on the author's part that a substantial descriptive history of all library development over one hundred years was not feasible in the early 1960s. Drolet was touching the surface of library history not burrowing deeper to examine the complexities of library formation, investigating the contribution of persons (politicians, trustees, librarians), or identifying general trends or geographic differences that influenced library growth.

In his final section, Drolet moves to a national stage beyond Quebec and Ontario and covers important libraries in ten Canadian provinces. Discussion is necessarily compressed, but it engages the reader with useful information and displays the author's extensive learning and dedication to details. At the same time, the author introduces government, business, school, and academic libraries. Generally, the primacy of private and public library history lessens and types of libraries multiply. In this time frame, as might be expected because he was writing before the influence of new social and cultural history approaches, Drolet remains fixed on an institutional focus, even with library education and the development of librarianship (p. 203-04). As the formation of provincial and national library associations comes into play, he notes the bi-cultural nature of Canadian librarianship: the formation of the Canadian Library Association (still bilingual at the time of Drolet's publication) and L'Association canadienne des bibliothécaires de langue française shortly after the Second World War. There is little opportunity to consider the societal impact of libraries, although the author indicates Quebec's decision to follow the example of Canadian-American public library development in other provinces with the formation of a provincial public library law in 1959.

Les Bibliothèques canadiennes has influenced Quebec authors in the past half-century, in part because Drolet was in tune with the changes of the Quiet Revolution and the need to secularize and reinterpret library history in his home province. Conversely, Drolet's work is seldom cited in English-language publications even though it could easily serve as an introductory handbook. A variety of reasons likely account for this neglect beyond the obvious obstacle of language and its brevity. The book's all-encompassing scope provided brief information on various types of libraries or librarians; its focus on private libraries, book collectors, and reading in Quebec did not attract researchers outside the province; some of its contents gradually became dated or known through other works; some important aspects, such as regional libraries, are scarcely mentioned; and, of course, it is now more than half a century past its original publication. Nevertheless, Drolet's history can still reward readers because the author was careful to establish his facts and confident enough to interpret more than three hundred years of Canada's past, an academic project which probably would be attempted by a collegial of effort in 2020.

Drolet's Bibliothèques canadiennes is available for readers at the Internet Archive of books.


Additional works by Drolet:

Antonio Drolet, “La Bibliothèque du Séminaire de Québec et son catalogue de 1782,” Le Canada Français 28, no. 3 (Nov. 1940): 261–266.
Antonio Drolet, “La bibliothèque de l'Université Laval,” La revue de l'Université Laval 7 (1952): 34–41.
Antonio Drolet, “La bibliothèque du Collège des Jésuites,” Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française 14, no. 4 (mars 1961): 487–544.
Antonio Drolet, “L’Épiscopat canadien et les bibliothèques paroissiales de 1840 à 1900,” vol. 29, Rapport - Société canadienne d’histoire de l’Église catholique (Hull, Québec: Leclerc, 1962), 21–35.

About the author:

Alphéda Robitaille, “Hommage à un historien: Antonio Drolet, 1904–1970,” Archives: Revue de l'Association des Archivistes du Québec 70, no. 2 (juillet-décembre 1970), 32–42. [bibliography]
Charles-Marie Boissonnault, “Antonio Drolet, bibliothécaire et historien,” Proceedings and Transactions and of the Royal Canadian Society, Antonio Drolet, bibliothécaire et historien (1972), 127–134.