Calgary Public Library celebrates one hundred years of involvement with cityIt’s a big year for the Calgary Public Library.

A year-long, city-wide celebration has been organized to celebrate both the library’s centennial and the role it has played in the life of the Calgary over the past 100 years.

When it was decided that publishing a history of the library would be one of the cornerstones of the centennial year celebrations, Calgary Public Library CEO Gerry Meek knew what he didn’t want the book to be.

“We didn’t want the traditional dull, institutional history,” Meek says.

“We wanted to preserve, but also to recognize and celebrate all the elements of the Calgary Public Library and we wanted to share that.”

Meek says the choice of the book’s author was carefully considered.

“Libraries are about people,” Meek says. “We wanted someone who would focus on the personalities and the human aspect of the Calgary Public Library.

“So we picked somebody we thought would make a good storyteller.”

Brian Brennan, an award-winning popular historian and author, was chosen to be that storyteller. His book, “Calgary Public Library: Inspiring Life Stories Since 1912” explores the people and events that have shaped the library’s first 100 years.

Author has personal connection to Library

It was a natural fit — Brennan himself is an avid user of the city’s public library system.

“The Calgary Public Library is one of my favorite places as far as my work is concerned. I focus on historical projects and do a lot of my research there,” Brennan says.

“To have an opportunity to write about an institution that has meant so much to me and my work was very gratifying.”

Brennan spent a year on the project and says the most surprising aspect of the library’s founding was that it happened at a time when Calgary was still a very small city in a new province. Provincial legislation that was required to allow municipalities in Alberta to create public libraries did not exist until 1907.

The Memorial Park Library opened on Jan. 2, 1912 becoming the first public library building in Alberta. It was declared a historic site in 1976. By:Karry Taylor

“Right away, it seems, Calgary was on the ball when it came to establishing a public library system,” Brennan says.

Another interesting historical note, he says, was that a time when public libraries elsewhere were going into community halls, Calgary was able to secure funding from industrialist Andrew Carnegie to build a dedicated library structure — the building now known as the Memorial Park Library.

Library initiative spearheaded by women

Brennan says the public library system that Calgarians have enjoyed for the past 100 years is a tribute to a group of “enterprising women” who led the charge for its establishment by circulating a petition.

“When they put together a petition to be signed by the voters of Calgary, these women couldn’t vote on the petition themselves,” Brennan says. “Women didn’t have any status back then.”

When the initial petition failed, mainly due to the perception of Carnegie as a “robber baron,” Brennan says the women refused to give up.

“The second time around, the women needed not only to get enough signatures, but also had to convince people that Carnegie was not a robber baron, but rather a generous philanthropist,” Brennan says.

“When they finally had the signatures and money that was needed, the City of Calgary then put together a board in order to administer the operations of the library. Women couldn’t sit on the (that) either.”

Year-long, city-wide celebrations

In addition to the book, Meek says a full slate of events are planned to celebrate the centennial, including a birthday party in each of the branch libraries.

The Calgary Public Library currently has 18 branches, including Saddletowne Library which opened earlier this year.

“For us, it’s a milestone event. There aren’t many libraries in Canada with 100 year histories,” Meek says. “We want to look at it and say we celebrated it well.”

As for the next 100 years, both Meek and Brennan believe that the Calgary Public Library will continue to play an important role in the life of the city.

“At its heart, a library is a place that informs and engages the human imagination in special ways,” Meek says. “We are excited by the potential of the technology to do that, and by the role that we can play in this digital age.

“We’ve got the people and the places and the great ideas to make that happen.”

Brennan says that historically libraries have been important “gathering places” — something he expects to continue.

“In outlying communities, new libraries are not going in isolation,” Brennan says. “They are being built next to recreation centres and community facilities.”

With a full complement of programs and services ranging from literacy support to book clubs to community gardens, Brennan says the Calgary Public Library is an important resource for all Calgarians.

“It’s not operating on the fringes of society, it is very much a part of the community,” Brennan says. “I see that continuing to happen.”

“It is something that we shouldn’t take for granted. Maybe occasionally we should shake our heads and think how lucky we are.

“If that resource were taken away from us, we would be so much more the poorer.”

ktaylor@cjournal.ca