Library of Parliament

Through the years they have come and gone—men of the moment; but the old library remains, ageless and aloof

I. NORMAN SMITH April 15 1940

Library of Parliament

Through the years they have come and gone—men of the moment; but the old library remains, ageless and aloof

I. NORMAN SMITH April 15 1940

THE NIGHT Mackenzie King sent 245 Members of Parliament back to their homes with $25 instead of $4,000, there was a great sense of frustration in the Government Buildings. As one member put it, quoting an epitaph on a child’s tomb:

If so soon I would be done for,

What, on earth, was I begun for?

Members wandered up and down the corridors, pondering this new order of /IliUkricg and wondering what was in store for them. In the Commons temirers had run high, and even in its Valhalla-like sister chamber the Senators had put on something of a scene. One place alone on Parliament Hill retained its dignity and calm—the Library of Parliament.

I looked in for a moment at that time, felt its quiet austerity and got a very real impression of the j>assing nature of the much ado about nothing which was going on outside. That old creaking floor, those beautiful tiers of shelves, the books, books, books; the ‘‘men may come and men may go" atmosphere of it all made me determine to go in again some time when I could pay more leisurely respect to everything it stixxl for.

The second visit only whetted an appetite to learn more about the place. Here were the records of all our yesterdays, and, if studied properly, the shadows of our tomorrows. Someone has said the future has a long past, and if that is so, a long visit to the old library which escaped the 1916 Parliament fire is like doing a bit of crystal gazing. The French say of life that the more it changes the more it is the same, and to know the contents of the library’s 500,000 books would undoubtedly support that maxim. I aim here not to tell of the contents of those books (!) but of the contents and history of the library itself, of its place in our social scheme.

But before getting right into the thing, let’s get that

500.000 figure straight, because it is a point of contention.

Some will be surprised to learn there are no more than about 500,000 volumes in the library. One look at the place and the catacombs below gives a fellow mental indigestion. But those who thought there were a million or so, used to

be put in their places neatly by the late parliamentary librarian, the Hon. Martin Burrell. He’d ask these people how many days had passed since the birth of Christ. The answer would be an offhand couple of million, but Mr. Burrell (whose successor is not yet appointed) would tell them there were just over 700,000. “A million is an awful lot.” he’d add.

The library isn’t nearly large enough today, and apparently it wasn’t large enough back in 1885 when Sir John A. Macdonald confessed to the same conclusion. Moreover, it picks up another 5,000 books each year. The law of square feet will eventually plop right down to the near-by House of Commons to present an unanswerable demand for more room. Then it will be a case of granting the library another hall, or moving out the Commoners to make room for the books—a choice not as easy as it sounds.

How did it all start? A glance back to 1791 shows a letter from the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, written to the President of the Royal Society in England, saying: "1 hope for a sum of money from the Government which might be expended in buying of such books as might be useful in the Colony.” Libraries were thereupon founded for both Upper and Lower Canada, but in 1813 the Americans fired York and up went the Upper Canada Library. However it was started again, and by the year 1830 had 1 .OCX) books; but 400 of these, reported the librarian with sadness, were out on loan over the years and hadn’t been returned.

This habit, which we have hitherto thought was a Twentieth Century affair, was reported in Lower Canada in 1834. when the librarian was highly perturbed by the gradual disappearance of his treasures. Laws were passed making such "borrowing” illegal, but nothing is mentioned of the success of this legislation.

In 1841 the Upper and Lower Canada libraries were merged, as were the provinces, but in 1849, while the capital was in Montreal, a mob burned the library in protest against the Rebellion losses Bill and only 200 of the

25.000 volumes then amassed were saved.

Again the money was voted for replacement, and all was going well until 1854 when, while the capital was at Quebec, the library was burned again, this time half of the

17,000 volumes going up in smoke. These fires, plus the losses occasioned by the repeated transfer of the capital between Quebec, Montreal, Kingston and Toronto every four years, proved grievous opposition to the best laid schemes for creation of a fine Canadian library. But in 1859 the plans of Thomas Fuller for construction of a Federal Parliament at Ottawa were approved, and by 1876 —nine years after Confederation—the present library was opened at Ottawa with a formal ball. It contained 83,883 volumes, most of which had been purchased for the Government by Alpheus Todd, who made a special mission abroad in 1856 and spent $50.000 on books.

One more fire was to threaten the Parliamentary Library, the one that on the cold night of February 3, 1916, suddenly swept through the corridors of the main building of Parliament and left it a pile of twisted iron and smoking debris. The library alone was standing next morning, smoked and flooded but comparatively intact. A strong north wind blowing away from the library probably was chiefly responsible for its safety. But there was something else.

The steel door in the short passage which joined the library to the main building had been jammed tight upon the outbreak of the fire, by the officer in charge, Mr. M. C. MacCormac. A couple of members were in the library at the time and protested that they wanted to get out that main door. But MacCormac held his ground and they retreated through a back entrance. The very noteworthy floor of short slats of oak, ash, cherry and walnut was damaged that night by the rush of water under the doors. But it is still in service, although squeaking rather loudly for a place where quiet is requested for the benefit of those who have retired into books.

The library, it is true, did lose about 20,000 volumes by the fire of 1916. They were books that had been in the Commons and Senate reading rooms, including an extensive collection of rare editions of the Bible printed in every language of the world. The collection was probably the largest on the continent and virtually irreplaceable. One Bible was seven columns wide, each column in a different language. Also lost was a fine collection of the reports of the American Bar Association, obtained at great cost not long before the fire.

Library of Parliament


Through the years they have come and gone—men of the moment; but the old library remains, ageless and aloof


But these losses did not strip the library of any great portion of its literary wealth. Within its Gothic frame, enhanced so notably by beautiful flying buttresses, and laden upon its artistic wood-carved and wrought-iron shelves, are numerous treasures that would excite the most sophisticated of huntsmen.

There are autographed volumes of the “Speeches and Addresses of the Prince Consort,” bearing in Queen Victoria’s own handwriting: “Presented to the Library of Parliament, Canada, in Memory of Her Great and Good Husband, by his broken-hearted Widow, Victoria, 1864.”

There are ten volumes printed in 1786 of “Statutes at Large, from Magna Charta to the 25th year of the reign of George III.” There is a complete set of all the British Statutes since that time, and a collection of Imperial Documents, dating back to 1801, which the Colonial Office acknowledges as of outstanding value. The U. S. state documents date back to 1790, and there is, of course, a complete collection of Canadian documents, and Hansard, from their beginning.

The four volumes of Audubon’s great work on the birds of America are owned by the library, sold to the library by Audubon himself not long before his death in 1851. There are 400 colored drawings, some bearing Audubon’s critical annotations such as “too light here,” and “not bright enough here.”

Very valuable is a set of Jesuit Relations of Canada, an early history ranging between 1633 and 1673. Another possession of this class is a history of the settlement and progress of the Mississippi Valley. This latter set, by Captain Pitman, was published in Í726 and obtained by the Canadian library before the British Museum or the Colonial Office was able to get copies. It is said that even now the Colonial Office has only a reprint.

Two interesting features of the library were described not long ago by James G. Bloom, an Ottawa writer. He found in the Canadiana of the library, books and pamphlets published about Canada prior to 1820, of great sentimental as well as historical value. Among the volumes mentioned was an almanac published in German in Newfoundland. He described, too, a complete set of the newspaper, North American, published by H. J. Thomas at Swanton, Ver-

mont, from 1839 to 1841, about the time of the rebellion in Upper and Lower Canada. “This is possibly the only complete collection of this newspaper in the world,” wrote Mr. Bloom, “and it is in remarkably good condition.” Probably the oldest books in the library are the four volumes by Antonini which were printed in 1477 to 1487.

The late Mr. Burrell used to point with pride to the old newspapers, such as the first number of the Quebec Gazette, issued June 21, 1764. He was always fond of the advertisement that appeared in a later issue of that journal, adorned with the picture of a young darkie girl in flight, which read:

“Sept. 1, 1766, RUN AWAY. A Negro Girl, of about 24 years of age; pitted with the Small-pox, speaks good English; had on a black gown and red Callimanco Petticoat; and supposed to have Cash, both Gold and Silver, with her. Whoever apprehends said Negro Girl and brings her back shall have one Pistole reward, and all necessary Charges paid by I. Weden.”

Another advertisement of unlimited scope was:

“Some choice dryed Cod Fish, for Family Use, a few boxes of Sperma-ceti Candles, and four very handsome Sets of China, compleat, may be had on reasonable terms at JOHN Lee’s Store in the Lower Town.”

The library has the newspapers of Canada dating back in most cases to their origin, the London Times dating back to 1848, and innumerable files of periodicals and magazines. These newspapers present a problem in themselves, inasmuch as the space required to store them is growing with alarming rapidity. Just now they are stored in basement shelves, yards and yards of them; potential records of great value of the ordinary life and times of Canada at any period in its history. The Library of Parliament, however, may yet have to follow* the example of the British Museum in London, which solved its problem of storage by keeping in the library the current copies of Britain’s papers, but sending the rest out to Hendon, some twenty miles away.

Wide Range of Reading

DUT WE mustn’t run aw*ay with the idea that the -L' Library of Parliament is a sort of museum of old rarities. It has today’s best seller in fiction and biography, and stocks detective novels in great quantity.

Of the 5,000 or so volumes which enter the library each year, about ninety per cent are paid for, at the publishers’ discount of twenty-five per cent to libraries. The library doesn’t attempt automatically to stock every book off the printing presses. On the contrary, its officials spend much

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time in perusing book magazines and periodicals, watching for new books of all types which they believe ought to be in the library. Books are selected for quality, popularity, and their degree of interest to Canada.

In addition to this type of literature there is of course a complete record, in most cases six of each, of all Canadian documents, reports, investigations, legislation, Hansard and the like. This information encyclopaedia is maintained of all the Empire countries, and indeed to a great extent of every country of the world. The Library of Parliament specializes, however, in maintaining a thorough collection of books and papers related to constitutional questions, economics, history and international relations.

Much of this, it might be argued, is rarely if ever used. But this is not the place, nor is this writer the authority, to dwell on the shortcomings of our national taste for reading. We might recall, however, what Mr. Burrell wrote for the McGill News in 1935, of Members of Parliament and their choice of reading.

“One must not disclose secrets of the prison-house, but in the first place I can frankly say there is a healthy (or unhealthy) demand for detective stories. One may have a feeble doubt as to whether fiction should find a place in a parliamentary library. I fear there would be a riot if the librarians cut off that very lusty branch of literature. Many quite distinguished parliamentarians find relief, to minds jaded with many cares and constant diet of Blue Books, in ‘thrillers.’ Can you blame, them? After all, parliament is a crosssection of the whole country. There are members who read very little, others who read widely and well, and one sometimes gets a curious sidelight on the intellectual make-up of the user of the library by noting the class of books he borrows.

“If you polled the whole country, I rather imagine that you would find the average member a wider reader than the average Canadian citizen.”

Which, on examination, is not nearly the compliment it seems; but Mr. Burrell was never a man to be rude.

The Library of Parliament, it ought to be made clear, is not a National Library but an institution devoted to the needs of Federal legislators. During the parliamentary session the borrowing of books is practically confined to members and senators, judges and high officials, but during recess this privilege is extended to their friends, Government employees and responsible citizens or students whose face value is reassuring.

But the librarians learn over and over again that face value and high-sounding title do not assure the return of a book. Countless hundreds of books, perhaps many thousands, have been missed from the shelves; some have gone to the homes of high officials, judges. Members of Parliament, Cabinet Ministers. Letters have been written the offenders, but they might as well have been addressed to the moon. Such is life in high circles.

Criticism is often heard in Ottawa from lawyers and others who would like to enter the library to browse about on a general subject. They claim that the indexing system is not such that they can poke about for themselves. They find the library staff is well nigh perfect in hunting a particular book out for them, but they contend it is not always possible to know the book they are after.

“In the library at Washington, for instance ...” they will argue; and thereby hangs a tale. For the Library of Parliament is essentially a Library of Parliament, for the reference of members and senators, and it receives scarcely sufficient money to meet that need. When the public seeks a broader service it ought first to realize that, in contrast to the Library of Congress in Washington, which spends something like $3,500,000 a year, the Library of Parliament expenditure for 1939 was $80,960.

Of that $80,960, salaries account for $58,810 ($12,(XX) of which is for two librarians and $24,(XX) for the steadily increasing crew of “temporaries”), leaving only $19,000 for the purchase and binding of books, and $3,150 for other miscellaneous expenses with regard to administration. This does not provide much money to furnish a nation’s library witli all the books dealing with parliamentary procedure, economics, finance, constitutional law and so on. Nor does it give much scope for the

acquisition of historical and biographical literature, together with the belles-lettres and a limited selection of scientific material. Yet this lamentably small appropriation for books could probably be doubled—with no loss to the efficiency of the library’s administration and with no greater demand upon the nation’s treasury—simply by adjusting the library staff, with discretion, to some basis more commensurate with the labor required and to a cost more commensurate with the relative amount of money spent on the lxx>ks themselves.

Library Staff Enigma

NOR IS this suggestion made without consideration. Criticism of Government departments is a popular sport, but the Library of Parliament is no ordinary department. For fifty-five years it has been administered by a parallel staff of

French and English, by a double-headed librarianship which makes it the only Government department with two deputy ministers. The system grew out of a political embarrassment, was scorned with contempt by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Edward Blake and Sir Richard Cartwright, but has persisted until today. What was a mistake of the moment has become an accepted grotesquerie of Parliament Hill.

Few indeed are today aware of the heat of the debate which raged about the graceful Gothic edifice. Some will say it is a feud well buried, that if politics, must, let it skirmish elsewhere than in the library’s brooding shade. And yet if we will but examine it, there is some lazy mischief in the perpetuation of an 1885 folly which ought to bestir some righteous indignation in those who would save democracy, not only from Hitlerism, but from democracy itself.

The story, no less colorful than significant, began after the death in 1884 of Alpheus Todd. He had been Librarian to the Legislative Assembly of Canada from 1856 to 1870, and the sole chief of the Library of Parliament from 1870 to his death, “and a right good librarian too.”

Upon his death it was thought his first lieutenant, one Alfred D. De Celles, would succeed him, his years of service and ability alike recommending him to all concerned. Mr. Todd died in January of 1884, but not until August. 1885, was Mr. De Celles appointed, and then only to a new role as “Joint Librarian,” a burden to be shared with Martin Joseph Griffin, a stranger to library work but, as a former editor of the Toronto Mail, not a stranger to the Conservative Government.

The Government had been in a quandary: to appoint De Celles would be fine enough, but what to do with Griffin? To appoint Griffin and overlook the worthy De Celles was impossible. So the Solomon trick saved the day and the job was served up on two platters, trimmed nicely with some garnish about there being two requirements in the library for two men, one as general librarian and one as parlia-

i Sir John A. Macdonald presented the

legislation, declaring the two officers should have equal powers but that one should look after Parliament and one after “General.”

Edward Blake, leader of the Liberal Opposition, could see nothing in the scheme but confusion and embarrassment, and Sir Richard Cartwright insisted there were “very great objections to lugging in by the head and shoulders persons from outside, with whom the House has no acquaintance, and who have no special aptitude or familiarity with the duties they are expected to discharge.”

It is interesting now to note'that Sir Hector Langevir.. then Minister of Public Works, and Sir John A. Macdonald both intimated that the double-header scheme was justified because before very long there would in fact be two libraries, a Parliamentary library and a general or National library. And so they pressed the establishment of a parallel staff which in practice became a French and English division rather than a division between the general and parliamentary phases of the library’s work.

Sir William Mulock couldn’t see the necessity of two chief librarians, and Sir Wilfrid Laurier attacked the joint scheme. No reason had been given for abandoning the old system, he said, and then went on to lay the bilingual side of the question in a final grave:

“There is not even the question of

nationality: for by keeping the present! system and promoting Mr. De Celles. ¡ there could be no objection on that score . . and his place filled by an i English-speaking gentleman. Then. ¡ when a vacancy occurs, the assistant to the librarian will be eligible for promotion. and he will be replaced by a French-speaking gentleman.”

Laurier’s direct reasoning warmed Blake up all over again and he broke in with this short paragraph:

“It seems to me an outrage. This conjunction of the two men in one office is a monstrosity; it reminds me of those fabulous animals, unicorns, griffins, etc.”

But the pun passed and so did the Bill —65 to 51. And thus down through the years we have been paying for two librarians. tw'o assistant librarians, two reference clerks., two cataloguers, two library clerks, two senior library assistants and so on right through the line into a platoon of temporary employees and cleaners.

By the narrow margin of fourteen votes, provoked fifty-five years ago for political expediency, we maintain today an administrative setup which would be laughed out of existence in any commercial establishment. and which is a living proof that Democracy, if left to run its course, is capable of perpetrating many a strange hoax.