History of the Cornwall Public Library

Cornwall Public Library originated as a Mechanics’ Institute in 1890. Here, in the reading room in the Turner, and later Glengarry Block on Pitt Street, was formed the nucleus of the public library’s collection. The Institute, supported by 50 cent memberships (for men – women paid 25 cents a year), donations and $100 grants from the Town, subscribed to the leading newspapers and magazines, lent out books “calculated to elevate the tastes of the reading public” and organized a night school for “a Class whose education had been neglected”.

The venture was so successful that town residents pressed the Council to take over the library and open it free of charge to all taxpayers. And shortly after the municipal library came into existence late 1895, a suitable building was erected for about $6,000, with funds from the Carnegie Foundation. At the time of its move into the new quarters at the south-west corner of Second and Sydney Streets, the library already had 710 members and contained about 3,500 books, which were mainly novels.

Cornwall Public Library was thus largely a centre for recreational reading under the supervision of Miss Linda Clarke, whose “services included dusting and care of the furnace”. Board members were actively involved in the running of the library: for example, they chose the books (each title approved for purchase had to carry the signatures of at least four board members) and dismissed a caretaker who had taken up residence in the cellar.

Not all of the library’s acquisitions were purchased: public-spirited citizens made donations which reflect the interests of the times. Mrs. Bigelow hastened to place Women’s Christian Temperance Union periodicals in the new building; and Mrs. Ada Gregg gave a magazine on theosophy which was filed for scrutiny by the board. Later on, in the 1930s and 1940s the Archie Dovers donated volumes on the Jews and anti-semitism. Three books by the Lindberghs, on the other hand, were removed during the Second World War, at the request of the Town Clerk.

This War, however, elicited a quick response from the library to pass its magazines along to the troops in the field: periodicals were sent off to the Navy League every month through the IODE. And the library duly registered its Deutsche Waffen gun, which was classed as a relic.

Some cataloguing of the books was done in 1912 and 1913 by Miss Clarke and “two ladies from Morrisburg”: but it was not until 1938 that a cataloguer was permanently added to the staff. At this time, the library was estimated to have about 3,300 nonfiction books, 5,000 fiction, 600 nonfiction for children and about 2,700 juvenile novels. It was, however, still the fiction which circulated; the children’s nonfiction remained unclassified.

In response to public requests, French periodicals were subscribed to and a small collection of French books was started during the late 1920s. And it was a francophone, Marie Tanguay, who first broached the male preserve of the Cornwall Public Library Board, as an appointee of the Separate School Board, in 1934.

Cornwall Public Library remained pretty much as it was until Miss Clarke’s retirement after the Second World War, although it had soon begun to outgrow the 1903 building. Over a thousand books were stored with George Smith in the Snetsinger Block on Pitt Street during the 1930s; these were later transferred to storage in Central Public School. And collections of books were placed in the elementary schools and Cornwall Collegiate, partly to unburden the shelves. 1925 saw the first discussion of expansion in the form of an extension – Town Council actually voted to proceed at a cost of $6,000 in 1941 – but it was not until 1956 that the Carnegie building was finally vacated (and torn down) for the Cline house, one block further east on Second Street.

J.D. Fry, who took over in 1948, was Cornwall’s first professional librarian. He had a background in engineering, and came to the city on the premise that new quarters for the library would be forthcoming. Meanwhile, he lost no time in putting the library on a more businesslike footing, by installing a telephone, for instance, and completely overhauling the collection, placing a strong emphasis on nonfiction.

Fry was forced to resign through ill-health; but his successor in 1953, Ethel Dewar, continued to modernize the public library. She hired a children’s librarian, and laid a proper foundation for the children’s department with notable help from the Kinsmen Club. In 1955 the library was able to buy 5,500 new books, which thus formed over one quarter of its collection, with a $10,000 donation from the Kinsmen; and they followed up with a $500 gift for nature study books three years later. But a well-stocked central juvenile library was not enough: the library habit had to be developed among city school children; and in 1961 a bookmobile started travelling to the elementary schools and parks of Cornwall.

The Cline house had been secured with no little assistance from the Provincial Librarian, Angus Mowat, father of the writer, Farley Mowat. The official opening was celebrated with a dinner at the Cornwallis Hotel in the presence of the National Librarian, W. Kaye Lamb. But it was only a short time before space again became limited and plans were laid for an extension: the Simon Fraser wing, Cornwall’s Centennial project, was opened by Prime Minister Lester Pearson and Robert Stanfield in 1967. Not only had the library been refurbished, but it now also contained a new technical section, established with a substantial grant from local industries. Finally, the Simon Fraser wing itself was enlarged in 1979, partly through the continuing generosity of the Kinsmen Club (to the amount of $70,000). Simon Fraser then housed fiction, and the Kinsmen Wing offices, reference and audio-visual departments and the F.B. MacMillan children’s room-named for the former principal of Central Public School and a member of the Cornwall Public Library Board for fifty years.

MacMillan also represented Cornwall on the Board of the Eastern Ontario Regional Library which was established in 1965 to provide support for small libraries in the area, partly through the development of resource libraries, of which Cornwall was one. With the help of the Regional Library, a pilot project was launched in 1968 to determine the need for library service in the outlying United Counties: a bookmobile, operated by the city library and using Cornwall’s books, went into operation among the rural communities. As a result, the County Library came into being as a separate entity in 1970, retaining the bookmobile to visit settlements too small to support the branch libraries which were set up during the 1970s, but sharing professional and office personnel with the city library. In charge of both the Cornwall Public and United Counties’ Libraries was the Director and Chief Librarian, Anne Nyland, who had replaced Miss Dewar in 1964 and was responsible for much of the libraries’ significant expansion.

The growth of school libraries in the 1960s began to obviate the necessity for the city bookmobile, and the main library established permanent branches in the 1970s (the first being the old bookmobile itself, parked at Eastcourt Mall). By the 1980s school libraries had been cut back and children were heavy users of the branches, the east one at St. Joseph’s Park – a new building was erected in 1983 – and the Fitzpatrick branch in Broadview Park – again, at first, a bookmobile trailer opened in 1975, and a permanent structure in 1982.

So from the initial philanthropic institute to a sophisticated information centre – records, films, tape-recorded books, books by mail and service to the area’s Homes for the elderly became part of its services in the 1960s and 1970s – Cornwall Public Library acted as a focal point for those who not only wanted to extend their education but also to find a necessary escape for their imaginations.