Ontario's Travelling Libraries began modestly and developed over six decades before the system was wound down in the 1960s when new ways to reach rural and isolated readers became prevalent. Although travelling libraries were not uncommon at the turn of the twentieth century, the Ontario Department of Education was at first reluctant to engage in this type of work. Its officials preferred to reach rural localities through schools and encourage "association" libraries (requiring small fees for membership) for adults. However, a new Minister, Richard Harcourt, struck out on a new course in 1900, influenced by Alfred Fitzpatrick, the founder of Frontier College. Fitzpatrick was a force to be reckoned with and almost single-handedly was responsible for the inauguration of this type of service in Ontario, first in the region of "New Ontario," the vast area north of Muskoka and Lake Superior that extended to the Manitoba border before the First World War.
You can read about Fitzpatrick's drive to establish "reading camps" in Northern Ontario and his interaction with Harcourt's department in my article just published in Historical Studies in Education / Revue d'histoire de l'éducation. After a half decade, Fitzpatrick reoriented his efforts to eventually establish Frontier College, but small libraries remained part of his broader vision to provide learning opportunities for adults along Canadian frontier areas. A précis follows and the complete article is available for consultation online at Historical Studies in Education.
In 1900, the Ontario Department of Education and Alfred Fitzpatrick engaged in an experiment to supply books to reading camps for lumber, mining, and railway workers in Northern Ontario. The center-periphery interplay between education officials and Fitzpatrick gave birth to two important adult education agencies: Frontier College and Ontario’s travelling library system. Although the Department partially accepted Fitzpatrick’s original plan for library extension, he garnered enough public support and employer endorsements to leverage government action on key issues related to a systematic book supply, the reduction of illiteracy, and non-formal adult learning techniques. This paper uses primary sources to examine the differing objectives held by Fitzpatrick and the Department during their initial joint venture prior to the Ontario election of 1905. The study highlights why travelling libraries became a provincial responsibility; as well, it shows Fitzpatrick reshaped his original plans by practical interactions with resource workers that led to new approaches for adult learning at the outset of the 20th century.