In Ontario library review, March 1982 Volume 66 Number 1 pages1 to 16
In 1882, Ontario passed Canada’s first Free Libraries Act. The following article was prepared to mark the occasion of the centenial in 1982. It was required reading at UofT’s FLIS for almost two decades after its publication.
Although not an unknown land, Ontario before the middle of the eighteenth century was virtually an empty land. The seventeenth-century French settlements had not survived. The first to achieve permanence was a small farming community established near Windsor in the 1750’s. While there is evidence of lending libraries existing as early as 1606 in other parts of French Canada, it is unlikely that this settlement had a library, since its first provision for education — a small school for girls — was not made until 1786.
With the change of suzerainty in 1763 came a royal proclamation inviting British subjects to settle in the new land. There were few takers until the arrival of the United Empire Loyalists after 1783, followed by waves of immigrants from the United Kingdom. The earliest wave, some five hundred Scots, settled Glengarry County in 1786.
The reports of the commissioners for loyalist compensation claims show that large numbers of the Loyalists had a trade or profession. Thus, most were likely to be literate. Once they had cleared the land and built villages, and gained some leisure time, the settlers began to look for reading matter. A legion of local newspapers sprang up (see Early Toronto Newspapers 1793/1867, Toronto: Baxter; 1961), and nearly all newspaper offices and many shops sold books and periodicals as a sideline. Numerous advertisements of books for sale appeared in the early papers. Few settlers, however, could afford to build up large private collections.
The need for lending libraries was obvious, and it is difficult to believe that none existed in Ontario before 1800. Many settlers came from Scotland, where parochial, presbyterial, and synodical lending libraries had been familiar institutions since the beginning of the eighteenth century. The 1709 "Act for erecting public libraries in presbyteries" had created at least one library in every presbytery in Scotland. The subscription library attached to a bookstore is also of Scottish origin: the first was the Edinburgh Circulating Library, set up in 1725. By 1730, most towns of any importance in Scotland possessed subscription libraries. In Canada there was the example of Quebec City to follow. James Bain in a "Brief review of libraries of Canada" (Library Journal XII, Sept./Oct. 1887) writes: "In 1779 a number of the officers stationed at Quebec and of the leading merchants undertook the formation of a subscription library."
In spite of the Scottish experience, there is little evidence of lending libraries existing in Ontario before 1800. James Bain in "The Libraries of Canada" (Library XII, 1895) writes: "In 1795 a bill was brought in to the Legislative Council for the establishment of a Public Library, but in the military troubles which followed the project remained in abeyance." Joseph Willcocks’ diary for 1799 to 1803 (published as an appendix to J.E. Middleton’s The Province of Ontario) tells of evenings spent reading newspapers, magazines, and books. The titles add up to an extensive list, but Willcocks does not say whether he drew on a private collection or a subscription library. Alexander McDonell’s diary (in J.E. Middleton’s The Province of Ontario and E.G. Firth’s The Town of York 1793-1815) for 8th January 1799 mentions his borrowing an encyclopaedia from Allan and Wood, but this cannot be considered evidence that this York dry goods store was operating a subscription library.
The first subscription library for which records exist is that of Niagara-on-the-Lake, established in 1800. The opening words of the membership register show that the settlers felt the lack of books:
"Niagara Library, 8th June 1800. Sensible how much we are at a loss in this new and remote country for every kind of useful knowledge, and convinced that nothing would be of more use to diffuse knowledge amongst us and our offspring than a library, supported by subscription in this town, we whose names are hereunto subscribed, hereby associate ourselves together for that purpose and promise to pay annually as agreed upon by a majority of votes at a yearly meeting to be held by us at this town on the 15th of August annually, when everything respecting the library will be regulated by majority of votes.
The subscription or association library is an obvious way to meet the demand for books in a new land where not everyone could afford to build a private library. In Ontario, subscription libraries were started either to make books available to anyone or for circulation amongst the subscribers. Poorer households were unlikely to have belonged to the second group. In an age when the average monthly wage was below $10, the four dollar annual fee of the Niagara Library was beyond their means. Many "mechanics, artisans and manufacturers" could not even afford to belong to the parish-run subscription libraries with "annual payment of one dollar so that none might be excluded by poverty." But so pervasive was the belief in the power of the printed word to transform a person’s status — financially, socially, and morally — that the setting up of free libraries became a favorite project of philanthropy. In the early 1820’s, prosperous Quakers donated funds to set up and maintain the Quaker library in Aurora; it was open to all without charge. In 1830, in what was then the Town of York, James Lesslie established a free lending library for his employees.
Documentary evidence shows the existence in 1830 of subscription libraries in Aurora, Niagara, and Toronto and the failure of two others before 1830. The Toronto Library, established in 1810, did not survive Chauncey’s raid in 1813 and Egerton Ryerson chaired a meetingin 1827 that failed in an attempt to set up a York subscription library. Considering the often casual record-keeping of the times, very likely there were other success
and failures for which no records have survived. These early subscription libraries, though later supplanted by the Mechanics’ Institutes, were the true origins of the public library movement in Ontario.
The first two Institutes were established in the early 1830’s in Kingston and Toronto Mechanics’ Institutes were for the most part voluntary associations of mechanics and workingmen intended to provide their members with technical and general knowledge by means of lectures, classes, reading rooms and lending libraries. In the 1830’s and ’40’s, subscription libraries and Mechanics’ Institutes co-existed. They filled distinctly different functions- all early Mechanics’ Institute had lectures as their basic feature; subscription libraries existed to circulate books. Often, communities established one of each. The period saw the establisment of Mechanics’ Institutes in Brantford, Dundas, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Niagara, and Toronto and of library associations or subscription libraries in Hamilton, Norfolk ‘Sarnia, Tecumseth Township, and Toronto. Toronto was unique in that it had besides Lesslie’s library and a Mechanics’ Institute, two subscription libraries: the City of Toronto ethical and Literary Society and the Toronto Atheneum.
The 1835 grants by the Legislature to the Kingston and Toronto Mechanics’ Institutes are often cited as the first library grants in Ontario. In fact the $800 paid to the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute was for the purchase of "philosophical apparatus": in modern terms, scientific equipment. The Kingston Mechanics’ Institute received $400 to buy books and apparatus. In 1847 both Institutes received $200, again for the purchase of equipment. From 1849 to 1858, the Legislature paid annual grants to Mechanics’ Institutes. The purpose of each grant made from 1835 to 1858 as listed in -Special report of the Minister of Education on the Mechanics’ Institutes, Ontario" (44 Victoria Sessional Papers, 1881); most were for "philosophical apparatus." During the same period, there is no record of any grant to a subscription or association library.
In 1851, the Legislature felt it "expedient to encourage the establishment of Library Associations and Mechanics’ Institutes, and for that purpose to provide for the incorporation of such Institutions, and to grant them certain powers enabling them better to protect their property and manage their affairs " The Legislature passed an "Act to provide for the incorporation and better Management of Library Associations and Mechanics’ Institutes" (14 & 15 Victonae. Provincial Statutes of Canada. 1851). The main objective of the Act was to allow both Library Associations and Mechanics’ Institutes to incorporate, but it did not make financial provision for their maintenance. The Act states that Library Associations and Mechanics Institutes could be founded by the charitable contribution of "not less than Twenty-five Pounds in money" by not less than ten well-disposed persons. It provided for the management of the institutes’ and libraries’ affairs by Directors or Trustees with the power to make by-laws and to hold real property.
The Act of 1851 was to have an unexpectedly adverse effect on the development of both Mechanics’ Institutes and subscription libraries, which lasted for over thirty years. The root of the problem lay in the payment of grants to Mechanics’ Institutes only. Although the Act made no mention of grants, it enabled groups to incorporate as combined Mechanics Institutes/Library Associations, not simply as one or the other.
Both the Institutes and the libraries had, up to 1849, depended for funds on membership subscriptions and private donations. Neither source of revenue proved very reliable, in contrast to the assurance of annual government grants. To receive the grant, a body need only incorporate as a Mechanics’ Institute rather than as a library association. After 1851, therefore, few library associations were formed, but many more Mechanics’ Institutes sprang up, some of them little more than lending libraries with irregular discussion groups held as if for form’s sake, or with no lectures at all. A questionnaire sent out by the government in 1858 revealed the sham and the annual grants ceased. Dr. S.P. May, in the appendix to a "Special report of the Minister of Education on the Mechanics’ Institutes, Ontario" writes. "This was the last year in which the Government grant was paid to Mechanics’ Institutes in Upper Canada. There are no records to show the reason of the grant being discontinued, but the presumption is that it was on account of the Institutes being merely Circulating Libraries, as the returns do not show that any of them provided Lectures or conducted Evening Classes."
In an attempt to return the Mechanics’ Institutes to their vocational education role, the Legislature in 1857 incorporated "The Board of Arts and Manufactures for Upper Canada." The duty of this board was to develop through the Mechanics’ Institutes a system of elementary, practical, vocational education for "the mechanics, artisans and manufactures generally." The Institutes were to "supply as well the sons of farmers and others with opportunities for obtaining such practical knowledge of agriculture, chemistry, and mechanics as would enable them to better understand the properties and capabilities of the soil and improved modes of cultivation, as well as such knowledge of mechanical arts as would materially assist in agricultural operations." This agricultural aspect explains why responsibility for grants to the Institutes rested with the Minister of Agriculture.
In an attempt to reduce the library function of the Mechanics’ Institutes, the Board of Arts and Manufactures set up a Provincial Reference Library of technical books and patents. By 1862, this library held 1,048 volumes for the use of the Institutes, which were encouraged to let the recently created County Common School Libraries deal with the popular demand for general reading matter.
The County Common School Libraries constituted a free public library system, operated by boards of school trustees, housed in school buildings, and available for use by students, teachers, and the local residents. The system was the creation of one man, Egerton Ryerson, Chief Superintendent of Education in Upper Canada. Ryerson was impressed by the development of the district school library in the United States, and determined to introduce his own variation into Canada. In 1846, he wrote:
"…There is, however, one more of so general and vitally important a character, that I cannot omit mentioning it. I mean the establishment of Circulating Libraries in the various Districts, and so far as possible in the School Sections. To the attainment of this object, local and voluntary co-operation is indispensable. The government may perhaps contribute; it may assist by suggesting regulations, and recommending lists of books from which suitable selections can be made; but the rest remains for individual and local effort to accomplish."
In 1847, Ryerson noted that, "In New York, the Legislature appropriates a large sum for libraries while not a farthing has yet been appropriated by our Legislature for the same objective in Upper Canada. I hope, before the beginning of another year we shall have reason to congratulate our country in this respect also, in comparison with that of our American neighbours." It was not for another four years that the Legislature made its first grants for library purposes, one year after the passing of the "Act for the better establishment and maintenance of Common Schools in Upper Canada" (13 & 14 Victoriae, Provincial Statutes of Canada, 1850).
The Act empowered school trustees of cities, towns villages, or rural sections to start up Common School Libraries. Under the Act, councils of townships or counties could also make their own arrangements for general lending libraries. If large enough, a township or county was empowered to set up a travelling library that would circulate deposit collections among schools and in outlying areas. Municipal councils were enjoined "to raise by assessment such sum or sums of money as it shall judge expedient, for the establishment and maintenance of a County Common School Library." The duty of the Chief Superintendent of Schools in each district was "to employ all lawful means in his power to procure and promote the establishment of School Libraries for general reading, in the several Counties, Townships, Cities, Towns and Villages." The Act and subsequent amendments provided for financial support of the libraries by a general rate upon property and Provincial aid equal (up to a fixed maximum) to amounts contributed and expended from local sources.
To help the new school libraries build up their collections, Ryerson set up the Provincial Educational Depository in 1853. By-passing the Canadian publishers/jobbers, the Depository imported books directly and obtained the best possible discounts. A school library ordering from the Depository received a grant of books equal in value to its purchase: possibly Ontario’s first "two for one" promotion. Mechanics’ Institutes, too, were allowed to order from the Depository: they received the same discount, but not the grant of books. From its beginning to its end in 1881, the Provincial Educational Depository was under attack from the Canadian publishers/jobbers. It was, after all, an agency of the government that held an almost complete monopoly over the supply of all library books, as well as text books, maps, and other school materials. The Globe of the 1860’s carried many attacks condemning the Depository for depriving Canadian booksellers of a
legitimate share of the orders for the schools and libraries.
The schools and libraries became a rich market for books once the MacNab-Morin administration secularized the Clergy Reserves in 1854. Many communities were persuaded to use the money realized from the sale of Clergy Reserve lands to set up school libraries. In 1856, Ryerson’s letter to heads of city, town, township, and village municipalities supplies the main argument for such use of Clergy Reserve money. Ryerson wrote:
"But the Legislative Grant for School Apparatus and Public Libraries is appointed to each Municipality according to the amount provided in such Municipality for the same purposes. In applying your Clergy Reserve Money, therefore, to these purposes, you double the amount of it; and confer upon the rising generation and the whole community advantages which will be gratefully felt in all time to come, and develop intellectual resources, which, in their turn, will tell powerfully upon the advancement of the country in knowledge, wealth and happiness."
The new source of funds gave a strong impetus to the development of the school-board-administered libraries: by 1870, 1535 of them had come into being. But by the late 1860’s, the system was already in decline. Egerton Ryerson now seemed to forget his earlier words (quoted above) concerning the local initiative and co-operation so essential to the health of public libraries. Under the authority of the 1850 School Act, regulations were passed on everything from the number of desks required to the titles of books that might be purchased.
Without exception, the school libraries were restricted to buying only the titles listed in "A General catalogue of books in every department of literature for public schools in Upper Canada". The General Catalogue contained 4,000 titles and was a useful tool with which to build up a collection; but was rarely updated, and included few of the "lighter and more amusing works" desired by the public. Even those libraries holding all 4,000 titles rapidly reached the stage where their patrons could find nothing more of interest to read. Restricted in this way, it is surprising that Ryerson’s public libraries lasted as long as they did. Gordon Thomas Stubbs (The Role of Egerton Ryerson in the development of public library service in Ontario, UBC, 1965) writes: "There is no evidence of any of the libraries under Ryerson’s jurisdiction maintaining their independent existence and becoming transformed into units of the new system created by the Act of 1882."
The School-Board-administered public libraries gave the public a taste of free library service and whetted their appetite for more. Having read through the collection of their local school library, people began, as early as 1857, turning back to their local Mechanics’ Institute library for further reading matter. The cost to members of the public was a membership fee of usually $1.00 a year. According to Michael Pearson ("Some aspects of early Ontario libraries", in Ontario Library Review. June 1967), book selection in the Institute libraries "was done by a committee of the members, and was mainly based on the suggestions of the membership at large." Many communities came to regard their Mechanics’ Institutes as sources of entertainment, a situation that led directly to the Legislature’s 1857 attempt to return the
Institutes to their original educational role.
The attempt failed. After annual Legislative grants were cut off in 1858, the Institutes’ income was directly related to their level of membership; and the members generally got the books that they wanted. The reports of the Institutes for the decade following 1858 are filled with apologies for the prevalence of non-technical books in their libraries.
After Confederation, the Ontario Legislature tried once again to restore the original function of the Mechanics’ Institutes. Annual grants came back with the 1868 "Act for the encouragement of Agriculture, Horticulture, Arts and Manufactures". (31 Victoria Statutes of Ontario. 1868). Mechanics’ Institutes were granted a dollar for every dollar from local sources, up to a maximum of $200. The grant was paid on only that portion of local funds spent on instruction and the purchase of library books "on mechanics, engineering or chemical or other manufactures". To ensure that an Institute was complying with these conditions, its Secretary was required to attest by affidavit that the amount to be matched by the grant had been contributed locally for the specific objectives stated in the Act. There was to be no annual inspection, but, an Institute was required to forward "to the Commissioner of agriculture a properly certified copy of its Annual Report, for the year in which such aid has been granted".
The Reference Library for Mechanics’ Institutes was transferred to the department of the Commissioner of Agriculture; then, in 1887, to the Ontario Agricultural College. The Board of Arts and Manufactures for Upper Canada was replaced by the Association of Mechanics’ Institutes. The Act of 1868 required each Institute to contribute five per cent of its grant to support the association, which in turn was to "make by-laws…for any purpose consistent with the objects of the Mechanics’ Institutes". At its first meeting, on September 23, 1868, the Secretary of the Association set forth the following objectives:
"1st. The establishment of a centre of action, or bond of union for the various (now) isolated Mechanics’ Institutes."
"2nd. The preparation of and continued completeness of a catalogue of books suitable for Mechanics’ Institute libraries,
especially of books of a technical or practical character."
"3rd. To have arrangements at all times open for the procurement of such works by the association, for the Institutes, at the lowest wholesale prices."
"4th. The imparting and receiving of information, by discussion or otherwise, on the questions of Institute evening class instruction, lectures, libraries, reading-rooms, exhibitions and other operations."
The library role of the Mechanics’ Institutes was a central topic at this meeting. The Association gave considerable attention to book selection and the need for a classified catalogue of books suitable for Institutes and to the question of Provincial aid in meeting the public demand for general reading matter. The Legislature’s response was prompt, if not quite satisfactory. In his 1868 Report, the Commissioner of Agriculture wrote; "I have caused to be prepared a classified catalogue of such books as I deem to be of the character of technical works to assist the institutions, in making suitable collections. I have also caused to be added to this catalogue some good standard and popular works on Agriculture and Architecture." The January 1869 amendment to the 1868 agriculture and Arts Act (32 Victoria. Statutes of Ontario 1869) struck out the word "technical" as a modifier of the word "library" and permitted the purchase of books on agriculture, horticulture, science, fine arts, history, and travel as qualifying for matching grants.
Unlike the school board libraries with their General Catalogue, Mechanics’ Institute libraries were not restricted to purchasing only titles listed in the Classified Catalogue. This was a suggested list of four hundred books arranged under the following categories: (1) Architecture, engineering, and building; (2) Decoration, ornament, and designing; (3) Dictionaries and encyclopaedias; (4) Manufactures, machines, and industrial arts; (5) Technical chemistry and experimental philosophy; (6) Agriculture and horticulture; and (7) Miscellaneous. Even to qualify for the matching grants the Mechanics’ Institutes did not have to purchase titles on the list, merely books on "mechanics, manufactures, agriculture and horticulture, science, the fine and decorative arts, history and travels". The Institute libraries were allowed to use their unmatched funds for books on any other topic, including the "shallow and sensational literature" of which the Commissioner of Agriculture complained.
In his 1872 Report, the Commissioner wrote: "as our public schools improve and extend, less necessity will be felt for instruction being given in Mechanics’ Institutes in the mere rudimentary branches of secular knowledge, and more favorable opportunities will be presented for meeting
in a more efficient and practical manner than obtains at present, the special and higher wants of all different classes of artisans. It will require a watchful care in fostering the best interests of these organizations, that, in the smaller populations especially, they do not degenerate, or rise higher than mere reading rooms for the supplying chiefly a shallow and sensational literature, that is inimical alike to sound knowledge and to morality, and which, unhappily, there is too much reason to fear, amidst not a little that is healthy and elevating, is a growing characteristic of the present age."
The new Agriculture and Arts Act (35 Victoria. Statutes of Ontario. 1871-2) passed by the 1871/72 session represented an attempt to provide that "watchful care". County Inspectors of Schools were paid a set fee to inspect the Mechanics’ Institutes at least twice in every year, and annually, to audit the financial affairs of each Institute. The Act limited the creation of new Institutes to cities, towns, and incorporated villages, and beginning in 1872, would pay the Provincial grant to only one Institute in any one municipality. This grant was meant to help provide reading rooms, libraries, and evening classes of practical training at the Institutes. It was increased to two dollars for every one raised locally, up to a maximum of four hundred dollars. In addition, a grant of fifty dollars for each fifty pupils over two hundred would be paid to "any Mechanics’ Institute which, during four months in any year, had in operation classes in which efficient instruction was given in writing English grammar, arithmetic, bookkeeping, mensuration, freehand architectural and mechanical drawing, or in any of these four (sic) subjects".
While the public schools continued to improve and expand, the County Common School Libraries continued to decline. By 1873, the Legislature had recognized the failure of Ryerson’s system of public libraries and, in a complete about face, shifted the responsibility for public library service to the Mechanics’ Institutes. The Commissioner of Agriculture and Arts stated in his 1873 Report. "The bringing within the reach of the people of a wholesome literature should be among the foremost functions of these institutions, as well as to provide for the specific wants of artizans, and of the operative classes generally." That same year, The Agriculture and Arts Act was amended so that money spent on books of philosophy, poetry and biography might qualify for Provincial grants. In 1880, the Legislature acknowledged the demand for light reading, and allowed the purchase of "works in the department of Fiction as may possess decided merit, when submitted to and approved by the Minister of Education." However, only twenty per cent of the grant and of local contributions might be applied to fiction.
In 1880, the Department of Education took over responsibility for the Mechanics’ Institutes. Dr. S.P. May, Superintendent of the Educational Library and Museum, undertook to investigate and inspect the Institutes, and his thorough survey forms the bulk of the "Special Report of the Minister of Education on the Mechanics’ Institutes (Ontario)," published as paper number 46 of the Ontario Sessional Papers, 1881.
The Report is an indictment of the Institutes. Referring to its findings, the Minister writes: "From this it will be seen that the principal object for which Mechanics’ Institutes are established, of affording practical instruction by Evening Classes in technical subjects of advantage to the artizan, mechanic, and other industrial classes, is only partially accomplished, and that the efforts made in establishing Reading Rooms and furnishing Libraries in connection with this object have not proved as successful as the Provincial Legislature in its liberality had reason to expect".
Dr. May found that in 1880 there was only one Mechanics’ Institute conducting classes in practical mechanics, one conducting classes in minerology, eight conducting classes in geometrical and decorative drawing, and eight conducting classes in freehand drawing. He found that "under the present system of management the organization of Evening Classes has been exceptional with those of Institutes receiving Legislative aid, consequently very few Institutes have conducted classes, and the large annual grants have been chiefly applied for the Libraries and Reading Rooms". In short, "the majority of the so-called Mechanics’ Institutes are only circulating libraries, and that, too, for the dissemination of light literature".
Part of the problem was due to the unreliability of local funding. Only one hundred Institutes were able to raise enough locally to qualify for the Legislative grant in 1879; of these, only seventy-four were able to qualify in 1880. Financial problems were compounded by poor management. Dr. May found that some Institutes "do not keep a Treasurer’s Book, or an Account book showing receipts or disbursements". Often, the annual Legislative grant was not applied for the purposes intended; in fact "at present the Government has no security that the Legislative grants are applied for the Institutes". Dr. May concluded that "the present system of giving $400 to every small Institute which agrees to raise $200 from local subscription is a failure".
Dr. May, however, did not go so far as to recommend the abolition of the Legislative grant. While the Report recognized that "the experience of the Mechanics’ Institutes of Ontario has proved that some light reading must be provided" it reasserts that the chief purpose was "imparting technical education, to the working classes". To return the Institutes to their educational role, Dr. May proposed that the maximum Legislative grant for Library and Reading Room purposes be reduced from $400 to $200 and "that Evening Classes be assisted by Government pro rata, according to the number of pupils". Mechanics’ institutes that were "only circulating libraries" were to continue as "in small villages the Library and Reading Room will be of the greatest importance, and will gradually operate as an incentive to establish Evening Classes".
Under Dr. May’s per pupil grant scheme, any Institute offering evening classes might receive a grant much larger than the old maximum of $400, while those which offered no classes would qualify for a grant of $200 at most. To remedy the problem of erratic funding, Dr. May recommended that the legislative grant be conditional on the local municipality’s contributing an amount equal to half the grant. In the interest of better financial management, he recommended that Mechanics’ Institutes be required to keep distinct and regular accounts of their receipts, payments, credits, and liabilities, and that these accounts be audited annually.
While he strongly’criticized the Mechanics’ Institutes that had neglected their original purpose and deteriorated to little more than circulating libraries, Dr. May did not suggest curtailing the Institute libraries. He found that they had fallen short of satisfying the public demand that had brought them into being and recommended that they be brought to a level of excellence that would justify their existence.
He wrote: "Whenever the funds will allow, I would recommend the reading room should be free to the public. The subscriptions to the library should be limited to the amount required for actual working expenses." The Report recommends "that each Institute be paid from the Legislative grant the sum of one dollar for every subscribing member, up to the maximum sum of two hundred dollars, for the purchase of books, newspapers and periodicals; provided that a sum equal to one-half of the Government grant be contributed by the municipality, and applied for the same purpose". This recommendation alone, if acted upon, would have made Institute libraries into free public libraries. The Report goes on to recommend that the Department of Education issue a semi-annual classified catalogue of new publications, showing the publishers’ names, prices, etc., and to recommend that "a proper system of classification might be introduced which should be adopted in every Mechanics’ Institute in Ontario." One particular suggestion to individual Mechanics’ Institutes was to have an invidious effect on librarians’ salaries to the present day: "One of the most serious difficulties in connection with Mechanics’ Institutes, is the excessive proportion which the annual cost of the librarian’s salary bears to the whole amount of expenditure for the Institute." "It is suggested that women can be employed at far less cost, and they make excellent librarians. Two or three of the best regulated Institutes in Ontario are in charge of women."
The Report was tabled in the Legislature on the 22nd February, 1881 but did not cause much of a stir. The Globe made no mention of the Report and there was only a brief mention in the newspaper’s "Hansard" stating that this was a special investigation and members of the Legislature were not to expect so detailed a report every year. After a long silence on the topic, the Globe’s "Hansard" of 24 February 1882 reported that: Ross (an M.P.P.) thought the feeling of the country was against continuing the grant to the Mechanics’ Institutes’ Associations. His opinion was that the Mechanics’ Institutes had never done any real good". In 1882 the Agriculture and Arts Act was amended but, in the section dealing with individual Mechanics’ Institutes the only change was in the status of the Treasurer. Although the Report had found that the Institutes derived no advantages from the Associaton of Mechanics’ Institutes, and that "the majority of Institute officials are very decided in their opinion that the Association should be abolished," the amendment gave the Association added powers, and an annual grant of "not less than twelve hundred dollars in any year". The Association was given the power to employ lecturers and to publish or procure works on the mechanical arts, science, and manufactures. The Association was "to ecure thewidest circulation among the members of the Associate Mechanics’ Institutes" of these lecturers and publications.
While the law respecting Mechanics’ Institutes was to remain in force, the drive to improve public library service continued. 1882 saw the passage of The Free Libraries Act (45 Victoria. Statutes of Ontario. 1882). The Globe’s "Hansard" of 28 February, 1882, gives this account of the debate over the Act:
"Mr. Mowat (the Premier) moved the second reading of the Bill providing for the establishment of Free Libraries. He rejoiced, he said, at the public agitation which called for such a Bill. They provided liberally for the education of the young, yet it was desirable that they should not overlook the education of those who had passedthe school age. He hoped they would find the same advantages from this act as had been realized from a similar act in Great Britain. It was proposed to levy a general rate for support of such libraries after the manner in which the Public Schools were supported, a rate so small as to be almost upappreciable."
"Mr. Meredith was afraid the Bill would not do much good. he thought that the powers conferred on Councils by the Bill were too large without a provision for a reference to the ratepayers."
"Mr. Young thought the Bill would go a long way towards destroying the Mechanics’ institutes. He failed to see the present necessity for the Bill."
"After considerable further discussion, Mr. Mowat said the object of the Bill was to give the people an opportunity to form an absolutely free library. Those members who had spoken of the libraries being forced upon the people forgot the whole principle of representative government as embodied in the Council upon which rested the responsibility of introducing a free library. The results which the Bill had in view had not been accomplished by Mechanics’ Institutes."
Dr. May’s Report had had an effect. The government accepted his assessment of the situation: that the demand for public library service was a legitimate one, and that the Mechanics’ Institutes, in attempting to meet the demand, however inadequately, had neglected their primary function of providing technical education. The history of the past fifty years had been a tug-of-war between government policy and public practice, in which both the official and the unofficial functions of the Institutes had suffered. The Legislature’s solution in 1882 was to create a rate-supported free public library system. Rather than restrict the amount that the Institutes could spend on their libraries, the Legislature removed responsibility for general library service from the Institutes. It encouraged them instead to build technical libraries and to expand their technical education programmes. A strengthened Association of Mechanics’ Institutes, with an annual grant, was ready to aid the Institutes in this role.
Only citites, towns, and incorporated villages were allowed to establish free public libraries. These libraries might contain "a free newsroom or museum, or both" and might establish branches. To establish such a library, it was necessary to first get the consent of the electorate: 100 signatures, (or 60 in an incorporated village), to place the issue on the ballot. All authority, as now, was in the hands of "boards of management" consisting of the Mayor, three other persons appointed by the council, three by the public school board, and two by the trustees of the separate school, if any. No member of the appointing bodies could be a member of the Board of Management.
All libraries established under the Act were to be open to the public, free of charge. To meet expenses, municipal councils had to levy a "Free Library Rate," enough to provide the amount estimated by the Free Library Board, "but not exceeding one half of a mill in the dollar". Section ten of the Act permitted Mechanics’ Institutes to transfer property to the corporation of the municipality for Free Library purposes: a means of finally subduing the popular library functions of the Institutes, and simultaneously building up the Free Library collections.
The Act was not a success. Toronto was the first to establish a Free Library, followed very gradually by other communities; but the rate-supported libraries’ dependence on a majority vote of the electorate hampered the process. Under The Agriculture and Arts Act, the Mechanics’
Institutes still received annual Provincial grants, while The Free Libraries Act made no provision for grants to Free Libraries. It was difficult to persuade cititzens to vote for a Free Library and the resultant tax increase, when the local Institute provided library service paid for by its users and the Provincial government. The Institutes, then, continued to operate primarily as circulating libraries.
The 1886 "act respecting Mechanics’ Institutes and Art Schools" (49 Victoria Statutes of Ontario 1886) was the first full admission of the failure of past policies. The act allowed a Mechanics’ Institute to incorporate solely for the purpose of establishing a library, and to function solely as a library where the majority of electors did not favour a free public library. The Association of Mechanics’ Institutes was dissolved in the year before the new Act and the Institutes never returned to their original purpose. Even the name "Mechanics’ Institute," dropped out of official use, after the passage of the 1895 "Act to amend and consolidate the Acts respecting Free Libraries and Mechanics’ Institutes." (45 Victoria Statutes of Ontario 1895). The term "public library" was adopted for both types of library.
The provisions of both the 1882 Free Libraries Act (Section 10) and the 1886 Mechanics’ Institutes Act (Section 22) allowing Mechanics’ Institutes to transfer their libraries to the municipalities were not being used as much as the Government had hoped. The 1895 Act went farther, and allowed a municipal council to take over a Mechanics’ Institute as a free public library by passing a by-law, However, no public library rate could be levied for a library established in this way and the council was restricted to paying such a library an annual sum equal to the amount of the annual Provincial grant. This restriction remained in force until 1909. The result was a very unsatisfactory type of library: the municipal library with all the powers and restrictions of the rate-supported free libraries, including the obligation to be open to the public free of charge, but without an assured income.
Income was a problem for all three types of public libraries created under the 1895 Act. The free-library (created under part one) was entitled to a public library rate levied on the local assessment. This rate was fixed at one-half mill on the taxable assessment. In the words ofW.O. Carson, Inspector of Public Libraries, 1916-1929, a fixed rate is "a good principle if rightly fixed". But the public library rate had not increased since 1882; in fact, in 1892 the maximum for cities with populations of more than 100,000 was reduced to one-quarter mill. Mr. Carson writes, "The public library rate was found satisfactory in the few places where the assessments were comparatively high, but the great majority of libraries (approximately 95 per cent) were nearly starved from the beginning, and were never in a position to serve their communities; low assessment bases were the cause".
The association libraries (created out of Mechanics’ Institutes under part three of the Act) relied upon membership fees, government grants, and sums of money raised by local entertainments. Though these entertainments could be impressive — the Port Arthur Mechanics’ Institute held an evening of entertainment consisting of songs, recitations, a play, and races on the ice for horses and dogs — they were, at best, an erratic source of revenue. Since these libraries were owned by the members’ association, they could not claim a municipal tax. The 1895 Act extended Legislative aid to all three types of public libraries, but reduced the amount available to any single library. The Act states, "The sum of forty-six thousand dollars (being the sum now appropriated by the Legislature for mechanics’ institutes) shall be set apart annually by the Legislative Assembly in aid of the public libraries and shall be distributed pro rata subject to the regulations of the education Department." There were more libraries now to share the old sum.
The Education Department regulations paid out one dollar for every dollar a library spent on books, up to a maximum of $200 in the case of cities, $ 150 in the case of towns, and in all other cases $ 100. A further sum of one dollar was to be allowed each public library for every dollar spent on newspapers and magazines, up to a maximum of $50. The Minister of Education had stated in 1881, "While the Act authorizes classes in writing and bookkeeping, English grammar, composition and elocution, arithmetic and mensuration, these are subjects which can now be better taught in Evening Classes maintained by Public Scool Boards". But, in 1895, many technical subjects were not taught by the public school evening classes and few Mechanics’ Institutes offered any evening classes at all. At this point the public libraries were enlisted in a reversal of old roles. The 1895 Act stated that public library Boards of Management "may also open evening classes for artisans, mechanics and workingmen, in such subjects as may promote a knowledge of the mechanical and manufacturing arts". The sum of $3 was granted for every pupil up to 25 pupils with $1 for every pupil over 25, to a maximum of $100 to public libraries offering evening classes. This educational role had a lasting effect on the development of the public library movement in Ontario and diverged from the British concept of publiclibraries with which the movement had begun.
The long struggle between Legislature and people over the issue of public libraries ended, for the time being, with the Act of 1895. The contest was resolved in typically Canadian fashion with a compromise. The people had wanted public libraries controlled locally but funded Provincially, at least in part. The Legislature had not wanted to grant funds to non-teaching institutions. Where grants were paid for books, as with Ryerson’s libraries and the Mechanics’ Institutes after 1868, the Legislature strictly controlled the type of books that could be bought. This control was so strict that it eventually killed Ryerson’s libraries.
The 1895 Act imposed no such restrictions on book grants; however, it did encourage the libraries to take over some of the educational functions of the Institutes.
The relationship between libraries and government was never, of course, to be entirely free of conflict. In 1900, there were 118 public and 253 association libraries operating throughout the province, an indication of the strength of the local demand for library service. Yet the maximum grant of $350 (if evening classes were given) remained unchanged between 1895 and 1900: possibly the government’s way of showing that it was still not entirely satisfied with the 1895 compromise.
The new libraries flourished, and by the 1900 had formed their own representative body. The Ontario Library Association then took up the task of winning more substantial Legislative aid, and the development of library service in Ontario entered a new phase.
For the bibliography see the article in Ontario library review March 1982 Volume 66 Number 1. Bibliography is on pages 13 to16 inclusive.