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13 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Nelson Public Library

As the library marks its centennial, here’s a baker’s dozen of historical factoids
This cartoon by longtime Nelson librarian (and Nelson Star columnist) Anne DeGrace appeared in the Kootenay Sunday Journal on April 24, 1988, helping make the case for a new library.

As the Nelson Public Library marks its centennial, we recount some key historic details you may not be aware of.

1) This month is the 100th anniversary of the library becoming a municipal entity. On Jan. 20, 1920, the City of Nelson adopted Bylaw No. 310, establishing a municipal library, following a successful referendum. Former mayor Dr. William O. Rose was the first library board chair and Fred L. Irwin the first secretary (he held the job until 1947).

2) Earlier libraries existed in Nelson. Private and public reading rooms were around as early as 1891. But the current library traces its ancestry to late 1898, when a group of civic-minded bibliophiles rented three rooms in the Broken Hill Block, on the northwest corner of Ward and Baker.

Subsequently, the Nelson Library Association was incorporated on April 7, 1899 with Barbara Anne Robertson (always referred to in the newspapers as “Mrs. J. Roderick Robertson”) as president and H.G. Harrison as librarian.

3) Lack of money was a problem at the start. The library association’s first request for a city grant was either denied or got bogged down in process. As a result, the association held a series of lectures, cooking classes, and other fundraisers, including a grand ball at the opera house, to raise money for books.

4) The library moved around a lot, but was partial to one intersection. The library relocated in 1900 to a small building on the northeast corner of Victoria and Stanley, owned by Harold Selous.

In 1910, it moved across the street to the northwest corner of Victoria and Stanley, which was actually Selous’ home, and had been the Christian Science reading room since 1908.

It moved again around 1916 to the YMCA — now the Royal Canadian Legion and soon to be Traction on Demand as well — at the southeast corner of Victoria and Stanley; in 1920, to a storefront in the Annable Block on Ward Street; in 1927 to the A.H. Green annex on Victoria Street (now the Capitol Theatre lobby); and in 1937 to the Civic Centre.

5) The Library Association applied in 1901 and 1906 to the Carnegie Foundation for funds to build a new library. But it was not successful partly because the city was unwilling to meet a requirement to fund 10 per cent of the annual operating budget. (The city did provide various grants, however.)

The library board tried again in 1926, without luck. The only Carnegie libraries built in B.C. were in Vancouver, Victoria, and New Westminster.

6) In 1920, children weren’t admitted to the library without parental supervision. They weren’t allowed to borrow books either. A couple of years later, the provincial public library commission dispatched children’s librarian Marguerite Fahrni to rectify this situation. She spent three weeks redecorating, unpacking and shelving children’s books.

7) The library’s move into the Civic Centre was supposed to be temporary, but lasted decades. Oddly, when this all-purpose building was constructed in 1935, no provision was made for a library. Instead, a second-storey gym was converted into one. But it was cramped and posed problems around access, lighting, heating, ventilation, and sound.

8) Various alternate locations were suggested over the next several decades. When the old post office was vacated in the 1950s, the library board was interested in moving there, but instead the building was converted into city hall (it’s now Touchstones Nelson).

Other proposed sites included the Civic Centre grounds (now the Nelson and District Community Complex parking lot), land registry office, fire hall, Wood Vallance building, old hospital site on High Street, CPR station house, and even the parkade (by adding another storey).

9) It took three referendums for the current library to become a reality. In 1988, residents of Nelson and RDCK Areas E, F, and part of H voted on a proposed regional library. While it passed in Nelson and Area F, it needed support in all four areas to succeed.

A second vote in 1990 to put a new library at the corner of Vernon and Hall (in the building now home to Patina’d and Social Room Interiors) was limited to the city and Areas E and F. City residents said yes, but the rural areas said no.

A third vote in 1991 asked city residents if they would support a new library and police station in the former RCMP building on the southwest corner of Victoria and Stanley (the only corner of that intersection the library had not yet been located on). The vote passed overwhelmingly and following a three-day move, the present library opened on June 25, 1992.

The Friends of the Nelson Municipal Library, incorporated in 1983, held a fundraising blitz for furniture and equipment and sold shelf sponsorships, with donors identified on little plaques.

10) By 2010, Nelson’s library remained a municipal service. Residents in neighbouring rural areas still couldn’t check out books without paying an annual fee. That year a referendum was held to see if Area E, F, and H residents would support the library through their taxes. Area E said no, but Areas F and H said yes — whereupon the Nelson Municipal Library became the Nelson Public Library.

11) The library expanded in 2010. Following several years of fundraising, the children’s library moved to the building’s lower level (previously a multi-purpose room).

12) There have been 13 chief librarians since 1920. The first, Agnes Williamson (later Cane), had already been on the job for many years before the library became a municipal service.

She stayed until 1931 and was succeeded by Margaret Hincks (1932-42), Molly Irving (1942-54), Angela Holmes (1954-64), Gerda Stockell (1965-78), Eva Walters (1978-83), Bonnie Sullivan (1983-88), Deb Thomas (1988-2004 and 2005-06), Trish Miller (2004-05), Wayne Cole (2006-07), Charlie Kregel (2008), June Stockdale (2008-17), and Tracey Therrien (2017-present).

13) In 2018, the library welcomed 146,500 visitors. It added 1,113 new members and 5,692 new books. Its 11,332 members borrowed 205,760 items. There were also 45,448 online visits and 26,486 eBook and eAudiobook downloads.

Sources: Nelson’s Library, 1895-1985, Frances Welwood; The Story of the Nelson Public Library 1986-2013, Eileen Holland; Nelson Public Library 2018 Report to the Community

Illustrating the library’s inaccessibiity when it was located on the upper floor of the Civic Centre, chief librarian Deb Thomas welcomes Fran Riesterer to the library’s open house in June 1988.
Barbara Ann Robertson was founding president of the Nelson Library Association, incorporated in 1899. Always referred to in newspapers as Mrs. J. Roderick Robertson, her given names were only recently rediscovered on