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Saturday, July 18, 2020


A century ago, in June 1920, the Farmer-Labour government in Ontario introduced a new public libraries act, mostly through the work of the Education Department's provincial library Inspector, William O. Carson. He had been London's chief librarian for a decade before moving to Toronto in 1916 to undertake the task of vitalizing Ontario's libraries during the difficult years of the First World War. The contemporary act he inherited dated back as far as 1882, with major revisions issued in 1895 and 1909. But, with the appearance of Carnegie buildings (125 in Ontario), better training for library assistants and librarians, and far different economic conditions facing municipalities after four decades of population growth, the provisions of the older act (which had at one time included mechanics' institutes) no longer suited a province that had suffered rural depopulation and was becoming increasingly urbanized after the 1911 census.

Carson spent his first few years in the small library office of the Education Department at Queen's Park studying the province's public libraries, the free ones with mandatory library tax rates and the association-membership ones that depended on fundraising for their operations. By early 1920, an entirely new act with revisions to older sections was ready to be introduced into the legislative process for three readings. The new law came into effect on June 4th, 1920, after a relatively easy passage through the Ontario legislature. No less than George Locke, Toronto's energetic chief librarian, pronounced that the new act was the greatest step forward in public library development on the continent. Mary J.L. Black was also enthusiastic, writing that the act "may well be considered as the most progressive and practical Library Act that has ever appeared in any statue book, the world over."

The new act was indeed praiseworthy, but not perfect; it served Ontario's public library community well until it was replaced by an entirely new act in 1966. The prominent feature of the new act was its provision for local financing of free public libraries. Previously, library boards had relied on a mandatory minimum municipal levy of one half-mill on the assessed valuation of property (real or personal) in their communities.  Of course, municipalities varied in population, local assessments differed as did tax rates, and many local councils considered the half-mill to be a maximum rather than a minimum. Consequently, Carson introduced a mandatory annual minimum fifty cents per capita levy for municipalities, police villages, and school sections where free libraries existed. The rationale: libraries served people, not property! Municipal councils were also authorized to increase the "public library rate" by majority votes (a seldom used clause as it turned out).

The new act adhered to the concept of enabling municipal based library service. Following the successful vote of eligible electors, a board could be established; these boards, usually composed of nine members in cities, were governed by appointed members and the appointing powers were divided among school and municipal authorities to ensure the semi-independence of each board. For rural library development, the province continued the long-standing tradition, dating back to 1851, of allowing the formation of association (membership) libraries that elected boards of five to ten members from its membership each year. Association libraries were not eligible for the minimum fifty cents per capita rate and had to subsist on members' fees and fundraising events for their operations. Often, Carson's departmental travelling library sections supplied associations with small boxes of books as supplemental reading for their membership.

For its role in library development, Ontario, through its Department of Education, the act authorized provisions for the minister (an office usually held by the sitting Premier) to pay grants to public libraries to a typical maximum of $250.  These provisions encouraged local growth on a "self-help" basis:
1) city branches became eligible for grants on the same basis as main libraries, a stipulation that Toronto enthusiastically endorsed;
2) legislative regulations provided for a grant of fifty percent on book purchases up to $400 and fifty percent on periodicals and newspapers not to exceed $100;
3) a grant of $10 for a reading room open a certain number of hours a week;
4) a few special grants were set aside for small libraries and reading room service.
Carson was also able to convince the government to empower the minister of education to encourage additional services in the interest of public libraries, notably authority to maintain a library school and library institutes. Carson had lengthened the time for library education and training using the Toronto Public Library as a practice facility. Library institutes were shorter workshop sessions aimed at improving the trustees' knowledge about modern library development. The minister also was given the right to pass regulations governing the qualifications of librarians and assistants. Carson, and other leading Ontario librarians, such as George Locke and Mary J.L. Black, considered the librarian and staff to be essential to the success of library service.

For many years, Ontario's library law was cited as a model for other provincial jurisdictions. The 1933 Carnegie sponsored report, Libraries in Canada, noted it was the most complete library act in Canada and could be used as a guide. However, Ontario's act had not adequately dealt with the problem of the small rural library. Union boards could be formed, but this section of the act was seldom used. The commissioners who reported in 1933 singled out Ontario's problem and pointed to the essential provisions of a "good" library act:
1) a statement of purpose for the public library;
2) a central supervising and "energizing" agency;
3) a representative and responsible local management;
4) a sure and adequate income.
Further, the three Carnegie commissioners suggested a statutory Library Commission (like the existing one in British Columbia) would strengthen the hand of the Department's library inspectorate. County and regional library amendments were also necessary to ensure cooperative efforts in rural areas. A Commission, of course, had been rejected by Ontario's government as far back as 1902. County library cooperative legislation was introduced in 1947, regional co-operative could be formed after 1957, and, eventually, county libraries were authorized in 1959. These amendments were the most significant changes to the 1920 Act over the course of forty-five years.

When the new Act of 1966 came into effect, it eliminated some prominent vestiges of the past that were features of the 1920 Act: the need for local plebiscites to establish libraries, the requirement to be a British subject, the voluntary Library Association form of governance, and the minimum per capita library rate of 1920. From the perspective of a century, the 1920 Act, although hailed at the time as a modern advancement, fell short in vital areas. From the very first, a Michigan librarian familiar with Canadian and American conditions, Samuel Ranke, estimated that $1.00 per capita would be more a more suitable rate. The new act lacked provisions to permit, or encourage, cooperative services between library boards, except for the union board clause. Trustees, for the most part, need not look beyond their community. Library operations in smaller places frequently were in the hands of self-trained local appointments because there was no requirement to hire trained personnel. Boards assumed a "hands-on approach" and made decisions about book selection and finances. Reappointment of trustees, rather than an infusion of new blood, was standard practice.

In many respects, the 1920 Act consolidated previous ideas about how library service should develop within Ontario's municipal structure, which dated to 1849. But future progress in Ontario would depend on ideas and attitudes quite unlike the ones which characterized the successes of the public library movement from 1880-1920. By 1950, it was evident changes would be necessary and new library amendments began to appear with regularity. Indeed, Ontario's municipal framework began to undergo similar reviews to accommodate changing demographics and social issues.

The full text of the act is available on the Internet Archive.