This month, the Prince Albert public library is celebrating 100 years of history. Along with individual memories of how the library has served each of us, I think it’s worth remembering how the local library system came to be: mainly because of some very determined ladies.
The Prince Albert public library dates back to the early days of our city and occupied a number of different locations before settling in to the spot that many of us still remember from our childhoods: the two-storey brick building on 12th Street West. The children’s section was on the second floor, so to reach all the wonderful books there, you had to climb up the creaky stairs. Even more exciting was when you were old enough to take out books from the main floor, the section for adults – a whole new world, and you felt so grown up.
The building housed not only the P.A. Public Library, but also the offices of the regional library. The story of how the regional library system started for Saskatchewan, in Prince Albert, has often been told. It even warranted a book – Like Being a Millionaire, by Max Braithwaite – and a film, but it’s a story worth telling once more.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, two Marions – Marion Sherman and Marion Gilroy – were the driving force behind the creation of a regional library system. Marion Sherman came to Prince Albert in 1942 as a young mother. The city she moved to was lacking in many things: paved streets, sidewalks, and facilities. A visit to the library with her children found only 100 books in the children’s section. She decided to do something about these problems, running for city council and going on to be our city’s longest serving councillor. She would also become chair of the local and regional library boards, among her many involvements.
Looking beyond the boundaries of the city, she and others saw a need for library service in the rural area, too. One of those supporters was John Cuelenaere, law partner to John Diefenbaker and Prince Albert mayor. Another was the wife of the editor at the Daily Herald, who is rumoured to have taken to writing editorials for her husband in order to get the library story told. Never underestimate the power of the press – or of a determined woman, with access to a press.
As well as in the pages of the newspaper, the story was told over and over again at local town, village and rural municipality meetings. When the province, under the CCF government of Tommy Douglas, passed the bill in 1946 for the establishment of regional libraries, some funds came with that decision and Marion Gilroy came to Prince Albert to be the first supervisor of regional libraries in Saskatchewan. She joined the trek with Marion Sherman and John Cuelenaere through the rural regions, on roads that were as bad as the weather. She is remembers as a librarian with vision, tenacity, diplomacy – and many hats.
Clearly, their hard work paid off since the first regional library system, today known as the Wapiti Regional Library, was formed in 1950. It took until 1965 for the next regional library to be formed, but today the entire province has library service. And it all started in Prince Albert.
With the passing of Cuelenaere and his bequest to the city, a new public library building was constructed. Right next door is the regional library. The relationship has been difficult at times, since the needs of a city and those of rural municipalities differ, but their stories are intertwined.
Over the years, there have been other determined women who fought for the library. There have been many female librarians over the years, but I think of Eleanor Acorn first, as the person who was at the helm of the JMC Library for most of her career. Marge Wettergreen was chair of the local board for many years – another lady with tenacity, diplomacy, and many hats. The library board has been a place where women have had an equal or greater presence, unlike many civic bodies. I count myself among that group, having served two tours on the board, including a term as chair.
Libraries have obviously changed greatly during the past 100 years. The focus has changed from enlarging a collection of books to providing information in many forms. It was during my time as JMC board chair in the late 1980s that we moved away from the card catalogues to a computerized system of tracking books. The internet was just gaining popularity, and no one really knew what it might mean. But there was then – and still is today – a wealth of books on the shelves.
It’s easy to think that with so many websites, e-books and ready access to information that perhaps the need for libraries has passed. I don’t believe it has. The public library remains the best used civic facility around, with more people using the library than any skating rink or swimming pool.
It’s a treasure we often take for granted, but should remember, with gratitude for those with the foresight to make it a reality.
Barb Gustafson is a lifelong resident of Prince Albert and a former managing editor and publisher of the Prince Albert Daily Herald.