The regional library systems that cover Saskatchewan took many years to establish, and the strong intestinal fortitude of a small group of people.
Included in this group was Grace Campbell, who died at 104 last month in Victoria, B.C., where she spent her final years.
Born in 1908, Campbell spent her earliest years in Scotland, moving with her family to Charlottetown when she was three.
Taking an interest in libraries, she received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Acadia University -- an effort that included several library courses that were new at the time.
Fellow Saskatchewan regional library pillar Marion Gilroy met Campbell during a trip to the Maritimes, and in 1950 encouraged her to come out to Prince Albert to start the prairies’ first regional library system.
“It was rare in these early days to get professional librarians,” Saskatchewan poet laureate Don Kerr said. “At that time, there were probably three or four professional librarians in the province.”
Kerr wrote about the regional library system’s formation in his 2005 book, A Book in Every Hand.
Although Campbell brought a professional element to the formation of a regional library system, Kerr notes that the schools “taught her lots about libraries, but nothing about rural Saskatchewan, rural councils and farming and stuff like that.”
Plunked in Prince Albert, Campbell joined Gilroy, Marion Sherman and a handful of others in an effort to start a regional library system, opening up their first office in the basement of the old Prince Albert Club, at 56 12th St. W., later expanding through the rest of the building.
The early days of the regional library system weren’t easy, current Wapiti Regional Library director John Murray said, noting that they had to travel between the various communities they were trying to link together with the regional model.
“They had to overcome physical things, like flat tires, breakdowns, travelling on roads that didn’t lead anywhere,” he said.
“That story is echoed through all of the year, from the early ’50s right up to later when we became a region.”
It wasn’t just the rough terrain of the area that caused them grief, but the various municipal politicians they had to sell the regional library system to.
“They had to convince the town councils that libraries were essential and a good thing for the community,” Murray said.
“The key thing that Grace Campbell and Marion Gilroy would have faced would be convincing people in the rural areas who did not have a lot of money that joining a regional concept was more efficient and cheaper than, say, trying to establish a library in a rural community.”
With sexism prevalent in municipal politics, Kerr notes that in some cases, the ladies had to bring Prince Albert Mayor John M. Cuelenaere with them to speak on their behalf.
After a tough couple of years, Campbell returned to Prince Edward Island, only to return in 1955, when she accepted a post as regional librarian and head librarian for the Prince Albert Public Library.
During the subsequent 18 years, Campbell’s significant influence on local and regional libraries continued, from the daily little things to significant longer-term efforts.
While researching Campbell for his book, Kerr uncovered a story about a youngster who’d incurred a $5 late fee and was unable to take out a book until it was paid off. Campbell paid the bill, asking that the kid not tell anyone she’d done so.
The regional library system blossomed, counting a book stock of 68,934 by 1959 – a number that Campbell praised in an article she wrote for the Daily Herald, capping off the regional library’s 10th anniversary.
“It is encouraging … to take stock and realize that six more branch libraries have been opened, and that 53,000 people of north central Saskatchewan may now have the treasures of a fast growing library,” she wrote.
Encouraging additional regional libraries spring up throughout the country, Campbell helped produce a short film in 1961.
They had to overcome physical things, like flat tires, breakdowns, travelling on roads that didn’t lead anywhere ... That story is echoed through all of the year, from the early ’50s right up to later when we became a region. - Wapiti Regional Library director John Murray
Books for Beaver River outlined what a regional library system means, and how it operates.
In 1967, Cuelenaere died, leaving a third of his estate for the construction of a new public library.
Campbell worked closely with architects to plan the new building that now stands at 125 12th St. E., retiring in December, 1973 -- weeks prior to the John M. Cuelenaere Public Library’s grand opening.
Present for its grand opening, her contributions were honoured when the library’s art gallery was named the Grace Campbell Art Gallery.
Campbell’s legacy continues
With the regional library system Campbell helped established thriving today, Murray said that her influence is still very much relevant.
With regional library systems linking library services together, in turn linking their catalogues with other regional library systems throughout the province, the breadth of material any resident has access to has grown significantly, Murray said.
“Throughout the entire province, now we can access a catalogue of four million items,” he said. “This allows local libraries to borrow things rather than have to say ‘no, we can’t get it.’”
Otherwise unaffordable to individual libraries, a significant database of computer-based material has also become available.
“We’re still trying to blend the print with digital content, and movies and things like that.”
The impact of Campbell, Gilroy, Sherman, and other library pioneers continue to be felt, he said.
“It’s rather humbling for current administrators to remember the obstacles that were overcome -- that pioneering spirit in the things they tackled … It’s humbling these obstacles these women overcame for future generations.”