DONALD GUNN’S HOUSE
Before there was a ‘Selkirk’ or even a ‘Manitoba’, this area of the country was home to several libraries, thanks to the region’s fur trading posts and settlements.
These libraries offered pioneers relief from their rigorous work. More importantly, the library books encouraged literacy in the Red River Region, so our ancestors were able to share their exploits with us in writing.
he Hudson’s Bay Company established a library in York Factory, the oldest permanent settlement in the region (founded in 1684).
And, in the early 1800’s, the Red River Settlers created a library from books Lord Selkirk sent them. Half the books from this “Red River Library” were compiled in Lockport, in Donald Gunn’s house (see picture). The collection grew over the years, thanks to contributions from various parties. In 1822, Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor Peter Fidler bequested his 500-book collection to the colony. Among Fidler’s contributions were the navigation books and maps he used to explore and survey the Red River Region. And British military officers — sent to the area to protect Fort Garry in case of a possible war between Britain and the United States — donated books sent to them from their homeland.
No doubt these books were greatly treasured in those days of limited luxury and even more limited entertainment. According to a Manitoba Library Association article, “Reading those books, printed with small type and little illustration, was a labor of love. Lighting was from a primitive bowl filled with grease from which hung a strip of rag. Later, candles were introduced. Much reading was before the glowing fires. Books were appreciated then only to a slightly lesser extent than the Bible and the catechism.”
Although these books were appreciated, they were not necessarily well-kept. Manitoba Culture and Heritage reports that many of the books “bear the scribbles of the settlers’ children, and one includes the jotted recipe for cheddar cheese. All can today be recognized by their somewhat dark and dirty appearance — the result of smoke from wood stoves and open fires.”
The surviving books from the Red River Library are now in the Manitoba Legislative Library’s Rare Book Collection in Winnipeg.
CARNEGIE LIBRARY on EATON & EVELINE
The citizens of the town of Selkirk were as progressive as their Red River ancestors. The origin of a public library in Selkirk dates as far back as 1901 — less than thirty years after the creation of the province of Manitoba.
In those days, Selkirk had a cultural group named the “Selkirk Literacy Association”. The members of this group took part in debates, listened to music and political readings, heard from guest lecturers — and opened a reading room in Selkirk’s Town Hall.
In 1901, the association opened this reading room to the general public, and in the following year, Selkirk’s citizens agreed to support the library with their tax dollars. The Selkirk newspaper, the Selkirk Expositor, supported the notion. “The offer [of a public library]…is a generous one, and everyone who takes an interest in the progress of our town and wishes to see Selkirk possess a free library and reading room which will be a credit to us and a lasting benefit to all who take advantage of the privileges offered, should do their utmost…in order that the [library] bylaw may receive the necessary number of votes required to become law. We all know the great benefit in many ways our citizens have derived from the library in the past, and if the bylaw is carried these benefits will be largely increased. It would be an act of folly to refuse such a chance as is now offered us.”
The library was a success. According to Selkirk’s first public librarian, Florence McDonald: “The reading room and library was well-patronized — the reading room especially providing a place where the bachelors and lonely men of the town would gather to read and play chess or checkers. There were only one or two tables and chairs, but there was a long reading-desk at which the reader had to stand to read. She says there were one or two who were there so long and often she feels sure their feet wore a depression in the floor!”
Selkirk’s Carnegie Library (see picture) opened on Eaton Avenue near Eveline Street in June of 1909. The previous year, Andrew Carnegie agreed to build the $10,000 building if the town of Selkirk provided a site and contributed $1,000 annually to the library’s upkeep. It was only the second public library built in Manitoba at this time. According to author Barry Potyandi: “Inside, there were two large reading rooms on the main floor (one for men, one for women), a board room and a library room…In the basement, provision was made for a bathhouse and a gymnasium.”
Over the next fifty years, however, the quality of Selkirk’s library service declined. By the 1950’s, the Carnegie Library’s space had been taken over by other services and clubs such as the County Court, the Boy Scouts, and a kindergarten. By 1956, the library had been confined to a room 30′ x 20′, with wooden shelves and a small service counter.
In 1959, the Carnegie Library building was declared structurally unsound and torn down. For the next twenty years, Selkirk — home of the second library created in the province of Manitoba — had no public library building to call its own.
LIBRARY FACILITIES at ROBERT SMITH SCHOOL
The previous era was marked by progressive insight from Selkirk’s forefathers; unfortunately this era was marked by a regression from those noble efforts. Over the next two decades Selkirk-area citizens fought hard for the creation of a new library — but to no avail.
After the Carnegie Library was demolished in 1959, the Town of Selkirk provided a small space for library services in the new Civic Centre — which was built where the Carnegie Library once stood. Over the years,
various parties in the community proposed a regional library system between the Town of Selkirk and nearby Municipalities. Unfortunately, these efforts repeatedly failed, as politicians and citizens in the communities argued over the need for, and funding of, a new library.
To make things worse, Selkirk Town Council decided in 1973 to eliminate library services altogether, in order to provide space for other municipal offices in their Civic Centre. One of Selkirk’s landmark public services was about to get bounced from the site of its own home.
From 1974 until 1982, Selkirk’s public library collection was housed in two local schools, the Robert Smith School and the Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive High School. Library services were mostly funded by Selkirk’s school board. This arrangement allowed the public access to a library, but the setup was poor. For one thing, adult fiction books were in one school, but adult non-fiction books were in another school — if an adult wanted to get both a novel and a non-fiction book they had to travel to two locations!
In 1979, it looked like Selkirk would finally get a new library building. A Town-appointed committee announced a project to commemorate Selkirk’s 100th birthday: a new public library. But Selkirk Town Council then rejected its own self-appointed committee’s decision and scrapped the library proposal, stating concerns about the costs of upkeep, personnel and supplies. Selkirk’s books remained somewhere in one of two schools, or simply deteriorating in boxes because there was no space for them.
In 1981, there was finally some progress. A steering committee, the Red River Region Library Fund, was formed to plan a new library. Selkirk Town Council increased library funding and agreed to donate town-owned land for a library building.
Finally, after two decades, Selkirk was about to open its own public library.
SELKIRK COMMUNITY LIBRARY at its 373 MAIN STREET ADDRESS
The Selkirk Community Library at 373 Main Street (see picture) opened to the public on September 1, 1982. It was an immediate success, stifling those who argued that the library was not worth the investment. Librarian Minnie Romanica claimed that within four days of the opening 274 new memberships were signed and 653 books withdrawn. By month’s end, book circulation had increased 268%. The library staff introduced new services and programs, attracting even more people.
The encouraging figures certainly justified further investment by the Town of Selkirk — but still there were hopes that the local Municipalities of St. Clements and St. Andrews would join up and form a regional system. Indeed, the mall space the library now occupied was seen as a temporary location. Unfortunately, the Municipalities still declined the invitation to join the new library. The councils claimed that not enough people in their constituencies would use the library to justify the costs of joining.
So the quest for a permanent home continued…
SELKIRK COMMUNITY LIBRARY at its 303 MAIN STREET LOCATION
On November 12, 1987, the Selkirk Community Library — at long last! — opened in its own building at 303 Main Street (see picture). It had been almost 30 years since a library in Selkirk operated out of its own building.
Within a year 47% of Selkirk’s population had a library membership.
In the oncoming years, the library continued to improve its services — by the late 1990’s the library’s circulation was fully automated, and a public access Internet computer was installed.
Then, on January 1, 1998, the dream of a regional library system came true. The Rural Municipality of St. Andrews began to contribute funds to the Selkirk library and joined the library board. The Selkirk library was renamed “The Selkirk and St. Andrews Regional Library”.
Circulation and membership figures skyrocketed — 778 new memberships were issued by the end of April. Once again, overwhelming success justified the costs of funding a public library.
Many years have passed since the opening of the first libraries in this region, and much has changed. Our early settlers often read over an open fire; we often read off a computer screen. But throughout this long history, the people of the Selkirk area have seen the privilege of a public library — and for this we have been most fortunate.