From Andrew Carnegie to Margaret Atwood: Toronto’s “Unelected” Champions of Public Libraries.

Used with the permission of Toronto Public Library

Toronto city councillor Doug Ford, brother of city mayor Rob Ford, recently ignited public controversy over potential cuts to the city’s public library services when he claimed not to know much about author Margaret Atwood, who had spoken out against possible cuts to services and closures of library branches. Councillor Ford’s insistence that Atwood “get democratically elected” so that she could have a say in deciding library funding policy in the city was ludicrous, particularly given the Toronto Public Library’s history.

Much of the financial backing that spurred the construction of public libraries in Toronto, and Ontario more generally, in the early twentieth century came from retired American industrial steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy, more specifically his fund dedicated to public libraries. Though public libraries had been slowly gaining in support throughout the late nineteenth century, it was Carnegie’s funds that provided a valuable boost to public library growth. Carnegie’s grants helped build 125 libraries in Canada, 111 of which were in Ontario. In Toronto alone, libraries such as Yorkville (1907); Queen and Lisgar (1909); the Central Reference Library (1909); Riverdale (1910); Wychwood (1916); High Park (1916) and Beaches (1916) were built using Carnegie grants. Three more—Western Branch/Annette Street (1909), Weston (1914), and Mimico (1914)—would be absorbed into the Toronto Public Library system when the city merged with nearby communities.

Carnegie’s grants did not come without strings, however. Proposals had to meet three conditions: a suitable site had to be found and approved, ten percent of the grant value had to be guaranteed by the municipality for annual operating costs and, most importantly, the library had to be free to its citizens. Not everyone cheered Carnegie’s benevolence. Nationalists opposed the American influence that Carnegie represented. Labour activists accused Carnegie, whose steel fortunes had been built in an industry marked by labour strife such as the disastrous strike at a Carnegie-owned Homestead Steel Works in Homestead, Pennsylvania in 1892 where 11 strikers were killed and 145 wounded, of using money earned from the exploitation of workers to fund his charity. In Toronto, the Council of Allied Printing Trades and the Toronto District Labour Council both officially opposed the city taking any Carnegie Grant, with some even calling it “blood money”.

Ultimately, Carnegie won over Toronto city council, and even some opponents, with a popular call to the cause of self-help and hard work. Libraries, he argued, provided the ‘means by which those who desire to improve may do so.” Carnegie’s praise of the self-educated man, using the library as a means of bettering his lot in life was echoed by Toronto Chief Librarian George Locke in 1930:

“There is a large, and what ought to be an influential, division of education known as the public library, an educational institution with no entrance requirements, no fees, no instructors and no examinations. It has books and trained persons whose duty it is to help people to help themselves.”

Lorne Bruce, who has written extensively about public libraries in Ontario, argues that it was Carnegie’s grants which provided a needed boost to the nascent public library movement and often forced many communities to adopt free public library models in order to receive funds. After receiving the funds, however, many public library administrators, both professional and elected, shaped community libraries to suit local needs and demands such as open access to collections, multipurpose space, outreach services and specialized collections such as children’s departments.

In spite of Carnegie’s conservative views of economic forces and capital being the product of hard work and thrift, without the funds he provided, Ontario’s public libraries might not have grown as quickly as they did. Local control of libraries, provided in Carnegie’s grant requirements, remained a countervailing force against libraries becoming beholden to private interests throughout the years of Carnegie’s influence and beyond.

What does all this have to do with the Ford brothers and their dismissal of public concern with public libraries? Recent media coverage of a marathon session of city council held for public hearings into possible budget cuts, particularly to libraries, highlights citizens’ connection to libraries as vital spaces both for self-improvement and pleasure. Particularly striking however, was a moment at 2 a.m. of the proceedings, when 14 year old Anika Tabovaradan had her turn at the microphone. Tabovaradan spoke about using her local branch for research and studying and how crucial it was for her schooling.

“I’m no taxpayer,” she said, gasping for air, “but when I get to use the computers in the library and do my homework, I’ll be able to get a good job someday … and when the day comes to pay taxes, I’ll be glad that you supported people paying the extra taxes to keep the system going.”

Her testimony reveals the pervasive and continuing power of the image of the public library not just as a space for the arts, but as a space for self-improvement and shaping future citizens, in this case defined as tax payers. Cutting accessibility to these resources, then, is not simply a case of needing to know who Margaret Atwood is, or why she should matter, but rather how we view social mobility, progress and the public good. If Margaret Atwood and the many citizens who testified at city council can’t convince the Fords of the importance of free public libraries, maybe the ideas and spirit of another “unelected” figure, one of the most successful businessmen of his period, can.

Further Reading:

Lorne D. Bruce, Free Books for All: The Public Library Movement in Ontario, 1850-1930 (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1994).

Margaret Penman, A Century of Service: Toronto Public Library, 1883-1983 (Toronto: Toronto Public Library, 1983).

Siobhan Stevenson, “The Political Economy of Andre Carnegie’s Library Philanthropy, with a Reflection on its Relevance to the Philanthropic Work of Bill Gates,” Library and Information History, Vol. 26, No. 4 (December,2010), 237-257.

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