Older Than It Looks: Origins of the University of Calgary Library

By Brydges, Barbara | Alberta History, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Older Than It Looks: Origins of the University of Calgary Library


Brydges, Barbara, Alberta History


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As Alberta moved toward provincehood in 1905, citizens in its two most populous cities were in fierce competition to be named the provincial capital. When Edmonton was given the honour, incensed Calgarians assumed that they would be awarded the university but Premier Alexander Rutherford had other ideas and the chosen site was Strathcona. In November 1905, Calgary was granted the consolation prize--the teacher training facility, or normal school, and with its development came one of Alberta's first libraries.

The Alberta Normal School initially operated in temporary quarters in Calgary's Central School, but almost immediately construction began on a new building with fourteen-loot ceilings and oak fittings--a building grand enough that today it houses the southern offices of the provincial government. On the second floor, space was specifically designated for a proposed library. Classes began in 1908, the same year that the University of Alberta offered its first classes, so depending on how quickly the University of Alberta organized its library, it's possible that, when opened, the Normal School Library was the first post-secondary library in Alberta; certainly it was the first publicly funded library in Calgary.

Libraries are not built overnight and in his 1909 annual report the Normal School principal, W.H. Thompson, stressed the need for the library. (1) He had already taken the step of hiring Helen F. Mason as stenographer and librarian. In 1911 she was replaced by Laurie Jost, who in turn was followed by Annie Shaw in 1915. All three combined a secretarial role with their library responsibilities but it seems unlikely that they had any library training. This is not surprising since the only rudimentary library training that existed in Canada at the time was in summer courses in either Toronto or Montreal/No information is available about their library practices, but they were certainly responsible for purchasing books, probably at the suggestion of teaching staff, organizing books on the shelf, and setting up circulation procedures. They may have had access to publications about library organization and cataloguing since later evidence suggests that the books were organized in a standard classification scheme.

In his 1911 annual report the new principal, Dr. E.W. Coffin, was able to say:

   It is a great satisfaction to report that our
   library is steadily increasing and that the
   use thereof by the students is becoming
   more general. Special library periods have
   been set apart in the weekly programme in
   order to enable the students to become
   more freely acquainted with the books and
   periodicals. (3)

Not surprisingly, the library collection alone was not sufficient to meet the needs of the students but the Calgary Public Library, itself just three years old, was there to help. In 1915 Coffin said, "The Library staff have gone out of their way to direct the students in their reading, and have granted privileges that are really more than could have been fairly expected." (4) Clearly it was not just the collections of the public library that Coffin valued, but the expertise found there, probably in the person of Alexander Calhoun, Calgary's first public librarian, a former teacher and a man of wide-reading and formidable intellect. (5)

By the beginning of the 1920s, the Calgary Normal School (6) had outgrown its quarters. In 1922 it moved into an imposing red brick gothic building, situated on 123 acres of land on the brow of North Hill. It was to share this building with the Institute of Technology, the precursor of SAIT, which had been operating out of temporary quarters in east Calgary since it was established in 1916. The library was also a shared facility, located in the central tower, the demarcation line between the two institutions. It was housed on the third floor, along with the gymnasium--a juxtaposition that created noise issues that were to plague the library for many years. …

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