The Library of Parliament

The First of a Series of Articles on National Institutions

Madge MacBeth July 1 1915

The Library of Parliament

The First of a Series of Articles on National Institutions

Madge MacBeth July 1 1915

The Library of Parliament:

Madge MacBeth

The First of a Series of Articles on National Institutions

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed. and some few are to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to he read only in parts, others to he read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly and with diligence and attention.”—Bacon.

PASSING either from the Senate or the House of Commons at Ottawa under a covered archway of solid masonry, one enters that marvelously beautiful combination of Gothic strength and grace—the Parliamentary Library.

To the cursory observer who merely accepts things as they are, giving no thought to “first beginnings,” this vast temple of 500,000 odd volumes represents nothing more than that which is, and ought to be; but to the student of evolution, of the Dominion’s growth and triumph over obstacles, the history of the Federal Library will be one of the most interesting in the group of national institutions.

Mirrored back more than a hundred years, one traces the reflection of young Quebec and infant York upon the shelves of our present library, for these places both of which figured large topographically and politically in the history of the Canadas, possessed small collections of books, and thus were the progenitors of our national library. The two became one at the union of Upper and Lower Canada, but considering that for about fifty years after their foundation, the two libraries were totally separate and distinct bodies they must be treated separately.

In 1791 Lord Simcoe, who had just been appointed first Governor of Upper Canada, apparently anticipated some difficulty in securing books—once he had taken up his residence in the colonies. So, acting upon a suggestion made by his friend the Marquis of Buckingham, he endeavored to raise funds for a library. In a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, he said: “I hope for a sum of money from the Government, which might be expended in the buying of such books as might be useful in the colony.” He also hoped that the library when an accomplished fact, would become an object of royal munificence. In the furtherance of this hope, Lord Simcoe proposed to name the capital of the infant colony “Georgiana.” But he evidently

thought better of it, whether from a spirit of revenge or not, is unknown. Certain it is, however, that the royal munificence hung fire, and the small collection of books which formed the “library” was composed in a large degree of the treasures which the Governor himself brought out to Canada and afterward donated to the colony.

This collection, was from time to time augmented by private subscription and gifts but it had achieved only very modest proportions when in April, 1813, it was destroyed with the York Public Buildings.

Three years later the Legislature of Upper Canada passed an Act by which £800 was voted for the foundation of a Parliamentary Library to replace that which was lost.

From then until 1827, upon the appointment of Mr. Robert Sullivan—subsequently judge of the province—little interest was taken in the institution. Mr. Sullivan received £50 a year.

His enthusiasm fired many members of the Legislature to such an extent that in

1827 another appropriation was made — $500 this time — and a quantity of books were bought to fill the gaps on the shelves. For there were alarming vacancies; the Library had actually diminished in proportion. In 1830 there were 1,000 books catalogued but only 600 could be found upon the shelves, a startling fact explained by a report stating that “in consequence of the neglecting to return many books borrowed by honorable members, the library is in a very imperfect condition — many complete works lost, and others rendered imperfect.” (At least one point of resemblance between the Federal Institution to-day and the imperfect collection in little York of long ago, is that same disinclination on the part of some honorable members to return the books they have borrowed!)

Dr. William Winder succeeded Mr. Sullivan in 1836 with Mr. Alpheus Todd as his assistant. Dr. Winder abandoned a medical career in order that he might treat literary rather than human ills, and Mr. Todd entered upon his library career at the age of fifteen—a remarkable youth who fulfilled the promises of his early manhood and whose association with the library was life-long.


Now, having started the Legislative Institution of Upper Canada on its way with only such vicissitudes as must be expected, we may revert to the year 1791 and glance at the conditions in the Province of Quebec.

The Legislative Assembly decided in that year that “a library be formed which should be devoted to the use of the deputies of the Canadian people,” but just where the books embodied in this collection came from is not very clear.

It is certain that literary works in the Lower Province were neither plentiful nor good, although a few copies of Voltaire and Jean-Jacques had filtered in and were ranged beside “The Thousand and One Nights” which appeared to have had quite a vogue at the time. Books were obtained, however, and in 1792 the Assembly appointed Mr. Samuel Philipp custodian of them. He was not in the accepted sense, a librarian, for he had no official title be-

yond that he had borne before—Clerk of the House. The title of Librarian was not given for forty years after the institution of a library. As Clerk of the House, Mr. Philipp bought all the books, had full control of the lending and return of them and, after an Act passed in 1802, he was required to make an annual report of his work, expenditure, etc. From one of these reports we learn that in 1817 the library contained 1,000 volumes, many of them priceless treasures, being the earliest history of Canada; some, in manuscript.

Mr. William Lindsay succeeded Mr. Philipp, and M. Etienne Parent followed Mr. Lindsay. He is said to have been an enthusiastic librarian, a fact one hardly doubts upon reflection. For he performed the triple duties of French translator, Clerk of the House and keeper of the books, for a salary of $800 a year.

From M. Parent’s first official report, after being appointed Librarian in 1834, one might gather that the leakage in libraries is universal and well-night incurable; he ; complained to the Assembly of the disappearance of many volumes which could not be replaced, and urged that the Legislative body formulate some system which would make it impossible for books to be taken away from the Library. He also recommended keeping the doors open until dark, in order that books might be accessible to those who were employed during the earlier hours and thus were not free to use them.

‘Until dark!” What would M. Parent’s staff have though had he suggested keeping the Library open half the night or all night, depending upon the violence and length of debates in the Green Chamber!

Mr. Joseph Brewer became custodian of the 5,500 volumes in 1835 and in all probability would have figured prominently, upon the union of the Upper and Lower Canada Libraries, had not a severe illness forced him to retire from public life. This being the case, Dr. Winder received the appointment as Librarian-inChief, and Mr. Todd, his assistant.

The two provinces became one in 1841 and their respective libraries merged; the Legislative Council retained its separate collection until 1849 then it, too, joined the other, giving quite creditable proportions to the Parliamentary adjunct, and all went smoothly for a few months. Then in April, 1849, the Government Buildings in Montreal, in which city the House was holding session, were sacked and burned by an infuriated mob, as a means of showing its disapproval of the Rebellion Losses Bill.

The small portion of the Library saved from the flames and the fury of the rioters, was moved with the seat of Government, to Quebec, and in 1851 an agent wa. sent to Europe with funds to replenish ic Twice more, and both times in the city of Quebec fire claimed a part of the collection, but in the last two cases, the burning was accidental—unlike the deliberate incendiarism in Montreal.

The seat of Government moving from Kingston to Montreal, to Quebec, to Toronto, and again to Quebec, every four years, the Library was constrained to follow its itinerant Parliament, and naturally, had little opportunity for growth. Works frequently became sepa-

rated, some being in one capital, some in another, and any system of cataloguing was almost impossible. Losses in transportation, damage due to much packing and unpacking took their toll upon the volumes, and had Confederation not giver, a permanent home to the books, Canada would have possessed but an imperfect Parliamentary Library always, rather than the magnificent institution which ia source of pride to our country to-day.

The struggle for the honor of becoming the Dominion’s capital was so bitter between Montreal, Kingston, Toronto and Quebec, that it was decided to follow the exampie of the United States and break fresh ground; consequently her Majesty Queen Victoria announced her choice as being Ottawa, and on the first of September, 1860, the Prince of Wales laid the corner-stone of the Parliament buildings. The blazing quarrels between the four contestants were reduced to mild simmerings, and about seven years later the actual transference of the capital took place.

Turning back the pages a few years, we find that in 1859 on the 7th of May, a competition for “plans and designs for the Parliament and Public Department Buildings” was opened to the public. The broad term Government Buildings evidently was not used, then. The structures specified were those occupying such picturesque eminence on “The Hill.” Prizes were offered for designs and plans, two for the Parliament Building, of £250 and £100 for first and second; and two of similar amounts for the Eastern and Western Blocks, as we know them to-day.

Mr. Thomas Fuller was the successful contestant for the Parliament Building. He was an Englishman with quite a reputation for Gothic architecture—Italian Gothic, to be exact, and this style of building was much in vogue at the time. Lord Monk, who was interested in Canada’s public buildings, probably influenced the decision for an Italian Gothic design, that they might follow the form chosen for the Foreign Office and other Public Buildings in London. Ottawa, as we know adhered to this plan, and London did not.

Mr. Fuller left Ottawa and proceeded to Albany where he built the State House, and his designs were carried out by Mr. Thomas Scott the first Dominion Architect. Mr. Fuller’s design remained unchanged save in the matter of the roof, which originally had been intended for stone, and which later was changed to iron.

During the erection and for some time after the completion of the building, visitors were able to see the structure in miniature; a plaster model large enough to accommodate two or three persons stood on the cliff near the site of the Queen’s statue. This little building was brilliantly lighted at night, and for years was a source of never-failing interest to citizens of Ottawa as well as tourists.


The Library in common with the three original buildings is composed of sandstone from the Nepean quarries near Ottawa, with dressings of Ohio sandstone, from that state, and with red arches of Potsdam sandstone from New York state. The general colo effect is a soft pinkish

grey which improves and enriches with age. The building is rotund in form, “the great height of the dome supported by massive buttresses and flying buttresses, which are lightened by graceful pinnacles. The interior is equally imposing. From the floor to the centre of the dome is 140 feet (or fifty feet in excess of the height of Westminster Hall). The floor is inlaid with Canadian woods, and the bookshelves are richly carved in Canadian white pine, rising to three storeys, with galleries giving access to the books.”

The above extract is too brief to do justice to the interior architecture of the Library; indeed, no description can present an adequate idea of its beauty. But the following paragraph may serve to refresh the memory of those who have visited the building, or it may give a fuller picture to those who have never seen the Library.

“In the centre upon a pedestal about six feet in height and rising to an altitude of more than thrice that distance, is a magnificent white marble statue of the Queen (Victoria), with her sceptre in her hand. Immediately surrounding this is a row of high and ornamental desks for the use of the library clerks. Buttresses, extending inward from the wall, corresponding in position to those on the exterior, divide the outer ring of the interior area into sixteen “bays,” which are continued to the altitude of three storeys, around which run arcade galleries with floors of glass, and surrounded by highly ornamental wrought-iron balustrades.”

The “bays” referred to are so many recesses or alcoves, reminding one who is apt to confuse Gothic with Oriental architecture, of small Buddhist temples.

There being but eight provinces existent at the time of the Library’s erection, but eight provincial arms decorate the interior. A small but exquisite reproduction of Canada’s coat-of-arms hangs in the cosy sanctum of the Librarian-inChief, Mr. Martin Griffin, appointed in 1885. It may be of interest to know that the Dominion of to-day is not, properly speaking, represented in the world of heraldry. But Sir Joseph Pope, who is an authority on all such matters, is trying to arrange for a correct insignia which will include all the provinces as we stand, at present.

As books were collected from the various capitals, they were stored in what is known as the reading room, pending the completion of the Library. This room has had something of a history, developing from the reading room into a home for the Supreme Court, and after some years, being again requistioned for the overflow of the Library. At present newspapers and periodicals are to be found there, as well as several thousand volumes of books to which reference will be made later.


It was in 1876 that the Library of Parliament was formally opened with a large dance, which many attended in fancy dress. An old photograph hanging at the top of the stairs just outside the Library doors gives some idea of this occasion, although it is not, as people gen-

erally suppose, a picture of the ball, it-

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The Library of Parliament

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self. This photograph yellow with age and scorched by the penetrating rays of the sun, was taken at Government House a little previous to the opening of the Library, and upon that occasion guests were required to attend in fancy dress. Most of them going to considerable expense in the matter of costumes, they felt it a pity to miss an opportunity of airing them further; consequently most of those who had been invited to Government House appeared at the Library ball in the costumes previously worn.

Said an official of the Library to the writer recently: “There are no difficulties in the way of the serious-minded student in the matter of obtaining books, to-day. The Dominion of Canada boasts of approximately 135 libraries, including the Parliamentary, Legislative, University, and Law Libraries; Mechanics, Carnegie and those maintained by shops for the convenience of the reading public. The greatest of these in the Dominion is the Parliamentary Library.”


Turning to a report written in 1830 we find that “the collection is singularly deficient in works relating to science and the mechanical arts, agriculture, roads, bridges, canals, banking, statistics, etc., and it is worthy of remark, that there is not in the Library a single volume relating to the political or historical state of the Canadas or the British North American provinces with the exception of the journals and statutes of the Provincial Legislature and one imperfect copy of the history of the United States by an obscure author.”

After reading this, one is constrained to ask, just what did the Library include?

To-day it would be much easier to answer the question, what does it exclude?

The system of carding and indexing is at the same time simple and intricate; official publications from Great Britain and the United States, publications of scientific societies, and the like, are not only classified and indexed, but many of them are classified and indexed in detail, which means by chapters; these being carded for reference also.

This system of carding may fairly be stated in the language of one of the officials of the Library as being “up to the day before yesterday.” In the Chief Librarian’s desk one might notice a little package of such cards, the last one referring to—let us say, the most recent attack in the Dardanelles!

One card index is wholly devoted to legal, economic and social topics, historical in character; another is devoted to pamphlets and the contents of magazines and references in newspapers to current questions of the day; another treats of the especially scientific magazines; another to American history, and so on. These card indexes are not superseded by the annual indexes such as Poole’s, the Reader’s

Guide, etc., because these latter are of necessity one year behind.

Now the general catalogue is in huge folio volumes in which all the new books are entered under their classified heads; the index to this huge catalogue is divided into several other volumes, giving the names of authors and all their separate works. An exaggerated idea is prevalent as to the amount of fiction contained in the Library. When asking what is excluded from the well-filled shelves, perhaps the only correct answer would be fiction. Not one purchase out of twenty is a novel, and the only “current fiction” in the Library occupies a very small section of a corner of the study of the Librarian-in-Chief.

About one-third of the books are written in the French language.

The visitor on entering the Library sees only the inner ring of the building; the rooms wherein are stored volumes of English, American, French and colonial blue books, official state reports, early Canadian history and what not, being practically hidden. They have to be especially examined under the guidance of some official of the Library, and they remind one of the catacombs except that they are both light and clean. Probably 10,000 volumes are stored away in these recesses, but they are easily accessible. Beside, there are six or eight huge vaults under the Library in which newspapers and back numbers of official periodicals or annual publications—such as directories, peerages, trade organizations, and reports of the Chamber of Commerce—are kept for reference. Amongst other volumes it was most interesting to find enormous red-bound books of the London Times ranged on large shelves, these issues dating as far back as 1850! Also to note the enormous tomes between whose covers were found copies of almost every newspaper printed in the Dominion! Or, to pass through a veritable sea of naval literature, the pages of which were so feverishly thumbed two years ago! Again —solid yellow volumes presenting every phase of American statesmanship; and an appalling number of books which are to our brothers across the boundary what Hansard is to us. Hearing a groan from the courteous official, as this section was being passed, one had to make an enquiry as to the reason.

“They talk such a lot in Congress,” he said, “and every word is measured by us as filling up so much space!”

Exterior to the Library and over the toom referred to as the reading-room, there is a large and valuable collection of old, bound magazines, reports of the Historical Commission, and books on special subjects. There is also stored here, a collection of Bibles, polyglot in character, and possibly the largest on the continent.


Into the Library of Parliament books come by various and singular channels,

most of them having been purchased. (This last fact, merely to disabuse the minds of those who may have thought that many collections have been presented to the Library.)

Amongst the most prized volumes upon the shelves is a set of the Anti-Jacobin, a publication of the eighteenth century. These three volumes were obtained quite by accident from a well-known secondhand dealer, of Toronto. The Librarian noting the name of James Macintosh in the first volume was led to examine into the history of the work, and on looking up the history of Sir James Macintosh, he found that this celebrated personage lived at the address in Albermarle street in London, which was indicated on the flyleaf of the book. Thus it became obvious that the Anti-Jacobin had come from the library of this most famous man, the friend of Macaulay and other distinguished literary, and political men of his time. On further examination a memorandum was found which gave the names of most of the authors of the articles incorporated in the volumes—these articles having since entered into English literature. For example there is the Needy Knife-Grinder and other equally famous pieces. Another interesting point was that the names of the authors were taken down from the lips of Dundas—Lord Melville—at his home in Scotland. An account of this find was sent to the London Athenaeum and warmly welcomed and published by that periodical. It is also worthy of note that the late Hon. Edward Blake took a great interest in this particular discovery and congratulated the librarians in having made it. Mr. Blake is remembered as being one of the most appreciative of men in all things pertaining to literature and the Library.

Perhaps the most valuable—let us say the most valuable—collection are those books which relate to early Canada including the history of the settlement and progress of the Mississippi valley. A priceless work (which has since been reprinted in an inexpensive edition) is an account of the Mississippi Settlement by Captain Pitman, published about 1726. It was for long, one of the rarest of volumes. It was obtained in a rather amusing manner ; hearing there was such a book, wanting it, searching about for it, the librarians were unsuccessful in locating a copy for many months. Then one of the officials went to London and, bearing in mind this particular, much-desired book, he went to the British Museum and asked the late Dr. Garnet if there was a copy in his collection. The British Museum also lacked this treasure. Leaving the Museum, the librarian of the Parliamentary Library hailed a passing hansom and repaired as quickly as possible to the famous Quaritch’s. With the late Mr. Quaritch, he registered an order for the book—there being no copy in the establishment—and had just completed his business when another hansom dashed up to the curb, and Dr. Garnet appeared also to register an order for Pitman’s History.

The Parliamentary Library got it first!

The late Hon. David Mills was particularly keen about this book and used it on more than one occasion. It was originally printed for the Colonial Office in London, and the copy Canada possesses is the only

original one, known. As has been said reprints are now made for quite a small sum, and it is a curious fact that there does not seem to be any copy of the work in the library of the Colonial Office at present.

It is not only amusing but a little breath-taking to hear the conversation between some clerk and the Chief Librarian. A member comes to ask for information regarding the Buddhist Temple at Kandy. “Ah,” the Librarian-in-Chief will probably reply, “exactly! Blank,” to one of the clerks, “ydu will find all that in a little volume, in—er—section 9, fourth shelf, left-hand side, about two rows from the bottom. A little blue cloth volume with white zig-zag lettering on the back!”

The member’s mouth will drop, his eyes will grow wide, and as the two other men turn away, he will mutter to himself:

“Jove! Next time I lose a needle in a haystack, I’ll send him to look for it. He can probably describe the straw it’s sticking in.

On the whole, one of the richest portions of the Library consists of what is called The Americana—that is, books relating to the history of the American continent; our library is supposed to contain the best collection in this line of any American library with the exception of Harvard. To these books many American students and scholars constantly refer. Never a summer passes without finding at least one student engaged in pursuing his studies in the Parliamentary Library and many books have been written there.

One of the most interesting points in the ordinary routine is the supplying to American families living along the border, information regarding their forefathers. The practice of librarians is to locate the family name in the lists of the Mayflower; this having been found, reference is easily made to volumes of various genealogical societies published in the United States, and the further adventures of the family are found there, as a rule right down to 1784 when the Loyalists emigrated from America and poured into Canada. The Canadian history of the family is to be found in Canadian historical works, naturally, and some further information is gathered from personal reminiscence. Finally, reference is made to the English book of Heraldry where the origin of the family may be found, and the arms traced. A copy of the arms can be made with a bit of tracing paper for the benefit of the applicants, and the whole matter concluded by forwarding this treasure to them.

Another function of the Library is to supply material for members’ speeches, for public lecturers, writers for the press, and occasional assistance is rendered professors of universities who may be making especial studies in difficult subjects. This practice is followed with great circumspection, however, as the Parliamentary authorities would not encourage a general circulation throughout the country of books provided for Parliamentary purposes. The loss under too free a system would likely be large. So the general rule is that the use of the Library is restricted to members of Parliament, subject to an order from the Speaker of the House.