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Remember This? The city's first librarian was also the library's janitor

A brief history of the local library system
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From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

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Remember This…. The growth of library service in Sault Ste. Marie

A public library is a staple in any community and the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library has served this community for over 120 years.  However, in the years prior to the establishment of Clergue’s industrial empire, the area was sparsely populated and the individuals who were well read usually resorted to bringing their own libraries with them when they arrived in the community. 

The lack of a library in Sault Ste. Marie led to the formation of a Literary Society in 1873.  The Literary Society met every week to trade books and discuss literature, a forerunner of today’s ever popular book clubs.  

In 1890, the Mechanic’s Institute opened a branch in Sault Ste. Marie, charging a subscription fee of $1 a year.  The Mechanics Institute frequently ran into financial problems however and had to move locations repeatedly due to their inability to pay their bills and rent. 

One of the locations for the Mechanic’s Institute was in the Dawson Block at the corner of Queen and East Streets.  The first librarian was Miss Vaillancourt, who also acted as the janitor.  She was paid $6 a month during the summer months and $7 a month in the winter.  The increase in pay in the winter was due to the amount of coal and ash she would need to shovel in order to heat the library.  

In August of 1896, Dr. Samuel May, who was the Superintendent of Public Libraries addressed the local government on the advantages of a free library.  Dr. May seemed to have been very persuasive because in November of that same year the first meeting of the Public Library Board took place.  John Dawson was elected as president of the board, W.W. Ireland was appointed secretary/treasurer and Miss Vaillancourt remained in her role of librarian/janitor.  The new public library was assigned to two small rooms located in the Town Hall.  

Soon after its creation however, the library outgrew the two small rooms of the Town Hall and in 1901 local architect Russell Halton contacted Andrew Carnegie (a benefactor of libraries) in order to acquire funds for a new library. 

The municipal government was initially reluctant to accept the funds since it came with two conditions.  The first condition was that the town had to maintain the library once it was constructed and secondly the town had to provide the land for the building.  The municipality rejected the offer at first but after a great deal of debate the offer was finally accepted.  In 1903, a new building was constructed on Queen Street near East Street.  This site was quite controversial since Councillors William H. Munro and Dr. Edwin Gimby felt it was not central enough and was unfair to west end residents.  The building housed the Library, Fire Hall and Town Hall.   

Unfortunately, this complex (including the library) would not last long.  In 1907, it was destroyed by fire.  It was believed that fire was caused by faulty wiring in the ceiling of the library.  The library was temporarily moved to the Harris Block.  Andrew Carnegie was approached a second time and reluctantly financed the second library for $15,500 and it was completed in 1909.  

In 1919, the first library branch was opened at 290 Wellington Street West and was named the West End Branch (Steelton Branch).  Initially it was called the West End Branch since it was not considered proper to use Steelton due to the recent amalgamation with Sault Ste. Marie in 1918.  However due to financial problems the branch was closed in 1923 but soon re-opened in 1924 and remained open until June 30, 1992.

The Centennial Library was built in 1966 as a centennial project.  Shortly after this library was completed the Korah Branch opened in the west end of the city on December 1, 1967, in the former Korah Township offices.  Churchill Branch had opened the previous year in March of 1966, and was originally intended to be a circulating library only, with no reading room or reference services.  

Over the years, as the community changed so too did the Centennial Library.  In 1982, an elevator was installed to make the library more accessible.  Twenty-five years later, the first elevator was replaced with a modern elevator.  By the early 1990s, the Centennial Library was dealing with significant space restrictions and after consultation with city council it was decided that the existing space would be redesigned. 

In April of 1993 a series of major renovations began.  The Centennial Room was closed and the administration offices were moved into that space.  The brick wall between the children’s and adult area was removed, creating a more open floor space.  The children’s, circulation and reference service desks were relocated as well, in order to be more visible and customer-friendly. 

In 1997, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library stepped into the modern computer age by making the library’s collection fully automated with the Dynix library automation system.  This allowed staff and patrons to search the collection using computers rather than card catalogues.  Dynix was replaced with a new automated system called TLC (The Library Corporation) in recent years. 

The Public Library has changed dramatically over the last 120 years in order to serve the community better and it seems likely that it will continue to change in the near and distant future.   

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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 www.ssmpl.ca and look for more Remember This? columns here