A Brief History of Ontario public lbraries


The local public library, open to all and virtually free of charge, is an institution so familiar to us today that it is hard to imagine a time when public libraries did not exist. Yet here in Ontario, public libraries have existed for little more than a century, since the passage of the Free Libraries Act in 1882. This Act was the first of its kind in Canada.
There were, of course, libraries in the province before this time. The first subscription library on record in Ontario was established in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1800. Later, other subscription libraries were set up and Mechanics Institutes also began to fill the role of the public library. The Mechanics Institute libraries gradually converted into free tax-supported libraries after 1882, but many subscription or association libraries, supported by membership dues, survived into the 1960’s.
After 1932, county library cooperatives sprang up to pool meager resources and provide access to better trained staff at a central location. The legislation of 1953 and 1957 allowed the formation of cooperatives for districts and regional cooperatives in Northern Ontario. The role of the cooperative was to supplement the resources of the smaller libraries with rotating deposit collections and bookmobiles, and to provide the services of competent professionals.
While the large multi-district regional cooperatives were largely successful in the north, the county cooperatives in the south did less well, due to the lack of authority and low budgets. The solution appeared to be the tax-supported county public library, allowed under the 1959 Public Libraries Amendment Act. However, it was permissive legislation, and by 1963 only one county had adopted it. As a result, the regional cooperative concept was extended to Southern Ontario in another amendment to the Public Libraries Act.
It was the St. John Report of 1965 which really brought Ontario libraries into the modern age. This comprehensive study found that library service in many areas was still poor. It was critical of the anachronistic association libraries, many of which operated on less than $200.00 a year, and recommended that the regional cooperatives expand their services.
Most of St. John’s recommendations were met in the 1966 Public Libraries Act. The regional library cooperatives were renamed regional library systems and given a key role in planning and coordination, and provincial funding of association libraries was cut off. In the three years following the passage of the new act, the number of local library boards dropped from nearly 500 in 1965 to 300 in 1970 as a result of the act and because of the formation of 13 county public libraries.
Nineteen seventy saw the introduction of a new provincial funding formula, the unconditional per capita grant, and provincial encouragement that small municipalities contract with larger libraries to provide library service to their community. The non-operating or pro-forms board – library boards set up solely to collect provincial grants – was born. The number of local library boards increased to 528 in 1982, but of these, 167 were non-operating. Many of these non-operating boards are still with us today; small operating public libraries have become dependent on the contract revenue.
The 1966 Act did not stipulate services which must be offered or procedures which must be followed by regional library systems. As a result, there was great variation from one region to the next in the services offered. By the 1980’s, the state of Ontario’s regional library systems was a contentious issue. The Ministry set up the Ontario Public Library Programme Review (the Bassnet Report) in 1980 and over the course of the next two years received recommendations from trustees, librarians and concerned citizens.
Some of the suggestions for improvements were introduced before the introduction of a new Public Libraries Act in the spring of 1984: the regions were given new boundaries and new names, their financial operations were made more strictly accountable under contract to the province and services to be offered were clearly laid out. The Ministry engaged experts in the fields of Francophone, Native, audio-visual and disabled library services to help develop province-wide plans for improving these areas of service and to assist local libraries. Other improvements came after the passing into law of the 1984 act. Before the end of the century many of the experts and services provided by the province were transfered to the regional library systems which were reduced to two, OLS-North and SOLS (the number recommended in the Bassnent Report,) The one thing that has not changed over the past century is the firm belief that public libraries are for everyone and that every change ought to result in better libraries for the people of Ontario.
 

About thebows99krug

Hi, I am Eric, a retired librarian. I was born in St. Michael's Hospital, Toronto and raised in the downtown area north of the Art Gallery, south of the University of Toronto. I went to Orde Street Public School, Harbord C.I., University College at the UofT and the UofT's Faculty of Library and Information Science. I meet my wife Patricia at FLIS; our first date was on November 15, 1968. We were engaged February 14, 1969 and married on June 21, 1969. Our family includes son, James; daughter-in-law, Erin; (both writers), grand-daughters, Vivian and Eleanor; and Sonic, a very friendly ginger tabby. My beloved wife died January 7, 2017 and our 19 year old cat Pooka died January 8, 2017. I would like to hear from any other class of '63 alumni of Harbord C.I. and class of '67 alumni of UofT's University College.
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