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HERstory: Remembering female pioneers at the Public Library

This week we learn about four local women who led the library during its first 60 years of operations

Over the past 125 years of its existence, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library has operated under the hard work and dedication of a great number of women.

Although both men and women of years gone by have served the community as employees of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library, numerous women held leadership positions at a time when men historically dominated the professional workforce.

The 125-year-old story of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library must feature its female leaders from the earliest years. This week, Remember This features four local women who led the Sault Ste. Marie Public library during its first 60 years of operation.

And so, the story begins….

In 1890, a branch of the Mechanics’ Institute, a precursor to the public library, was formed in Sault Ste. Marie.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “Mechanics’ Institutes established first in England during the 1820s, began as voluntary associations of working men seeking self-improvement through education. The community-based institutes offered evening lectures, lending libraries and periodical reading rooms."

Patrons paid an annual membership fee of $1 to the Mechanics Institute in Sault Ste. Marie.

In 1894, a local woman named Miss Vaillancourt was hired by the Sault Ste. Marie branch of the Mechanics’ Institute. Miss Vaillancourt, who held the official titles of Librarian and Janitor, was paid $6 per month during the summer months and $7 per month during the winter months.

The dollar wage increase was given for the additional work she would have to do hauling coal and shovelling ashes during the frigid Northern Ontario winters.

In August of 1896, Dr. Samuel P. May, Superintendent of Public Libraries, conveyed the advantages of having a free public library, in place of a subscription-based Mechanic’s Institute, to local officials. Dr. May’s suggestion was taken seriously, and the concept of a free library was adopted.

In November of 1896, the first meeting of the Public Library Board of the Town of Sault Ste. Marie was held. John Dawson was elected President of the Board and W.W. Ireland was appointed Secretary / Treasurer.

Miss Vaillancourt would hold her titles of Librarian and Janitor, making her the first official Librarian of, what is now known as, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library. (A Short History of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library)

Fast forward in time to the year 1924.

The Chief Librarian at the Carnegie Public Library was Miss. Jean Florence Smith. Miss Smith was born in Woodstock, Ontario. She moved to Sault Ste. Marie in the early 1900s where she received her education.

Miss Smith continued her education in Toronto, where she completed her Librarian training. Upon the completion of her professional training, she returned to Sault Ste. Marie and worked at the public library for 12 years before becoming the Chief Librarian in 1924.

During the time of Miss Smith’s 27-year directorship, the Public Library was located in the (second) Carnegie Library on Queen Street East and at the Steelton Branch Library (290 Wellington St. West).

Under Miss Smith, the library expanded from one room to six separate departments, which included a children’s room and children’s summer extension services. Miss Smith was actively involved in the arts community in Sault Ste. Marie. She was one of the founding members of the Algoma Art Society and one of the first members of the Sault Historical Society. Miss Smith died suddenly on June 27th, 1951.

In the summer of 1930, a separate Children’s Library was created on the second floor of the Carnegie Library. Miss Evelyn Davis was the first official Children’s Librarian. In 1933 Miss Davis established a regular children’s Story Hour.

Miss June Munro was a librarian at the Carnegie Public Library in Sault Ste. Marie from 1939 to 1951. She was highly educated and accomplished.

She was born and raised in Echo Bay, Ontario. After graduating from Sault Collegiate, she completed her schooling in library studies. Eventually, Munro went on to graduate from Carleton University with a Bachelor of Journalism and from the University of Toronto with a Master of Library Science.

Munro’s career began at the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library shelving books after school in her teen years. After graduating from library school she returned to Sault Ste. Marie and took on the role of Children’s Services Librarian.

She conducted a story hour for children on Saturday mornings and could also be heard on the radio. Munro left her position at the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library in 1951.

After her departure from the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library, she held positions in London, Ajax and Leaside, Ontario. While in Ajax, Munro helped establish a new library there as the Chief Librarian.

In October of 1961, Munro accepted a prestigious position with the Provincial Library Service in Ottawa. Her official title was Supervisor of Extension Services, Provincial Library Service, Ontario Department of Education. As Supervisor of Extension Services, Munro was responsible for communicating with libraries across Ontario.

She and her colleagues decided on the provincial grants, and with the smaller libraries, participated in book selection and administrative matters. Munro met with the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library Board and city officials throughout the early sixties to discuss the new Centennial Library.

She would advise which services should be included in the new building. She was very much in support of a new, larger library with expanded services for the community of Sault Ste. Marie.

On May 18, 1971, Munro was honoured as Librarian of the Year by the Ontario Library Trustees Association. This award was given for outstanding achievements which have furthered the advancement of libraries in Ontario.

At the time this award was presented to Munro, she was the Coordinator for Acquisitions, Community Colleges of Ontario. Munro’s research laid the foundation for the first library technician’s course at Lakehead University and at various community colleges. This award also included a bursary for further education. Munro was working toward her Master of Library Science at the University of Toronto at the time.

Munro went on to hold the position of Chief of Public Relations and the Display Division of the National Library of Canada in Ottawa. In 1973, Munro moved to St. Catharines, Ontario to take on the role of Chief Librarian at the St. Catharines Public Library.

In 1977, Munro was the lucky ticket holder of the Wintario Lottery. She won $100,000, and donated some of it to the St. Catharines Library reconstruction project.

After a long and successful career, June Munro retired in 1982 as the Chief Librarian at St. Catharines Public Library.

Although June Munro left the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library in 1951, it is important to recognize the contributions this local woman made to libraries in Ontario and librarianship over the course of her career.

Stay tuned for another article featuring the women who lead the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library in days gone by.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more Remember This? columns here.