This year marks the centennial of the creation of the Red Deer Public Library. It is one of the most important public services in our community. It is also one of the oldest public, tax-supported libraries in Alberta.
Central Alberta already had a long history of libraries before the Red Deer Public was created. The Tindastoll (Markerville) Icelandic debating society started a small library in the early 1890s. Innisfail established a public circulating library in 1902, although there was a membership fee required and there was no financial support from the town.
In 1902, a public reading room was started in Red Deer.
Most of the money came from local businesses and residents. However, Red Deer Town council agreed to pay the rent for the space in the Michener Block on Gaetz Ave.
Unfortunately, the Michener Block and the reading room were destroyed in a fire in September 1904. The Town did create a small library for the local fire brigade, but this library was not generally accessible to the public.
A big push to establish a new reading room and recreation centre was launched shortly thereafter, with strong support from the local Independent Order of Odd Fellows and Rev. W.G. Fortune, the local Presbyterian minister.
Unfortunately, this proposal eventually faltered.
In March 1907, the provincial government passed the Public Libraries Act. It set the rules for the creation of municipal tax-supported public libraries. A petition containing the signatures at least 10% of the ratepayers had to be submitted to the local municipal council. The council could then draw up a library bylaw, which in smaller communities, had to be ratified by a special vote of the ratepayers. Once these necessary requirements were met, the new municipal public library was eligible for a matching grant from the provincial government, up to a maximum of $300 per year.
The first community to take advantage of the Public Libraries Act was Calgary. It created its first library board in May 1908. Andrew Carnegie, a wealthy American industrialist and supporter of public libraries, provided a grant of $80,000 towards the cost of constructing a library. The building officially opened on Jan. 2, 1912 and still operates today as the Memorial Park Branch.
Edmonton soon followed suit. However, its first petition failed to garner the necessary number of signatures. Another was launched in 1909. This time the petition succeeded, with Edmonton City council then passing the required by-law.
The adjoining City of Strathcona succeeded with its public petition in the fall of 1910. The library bylaw was subsequently endorsed by a large majority. The application for a grant from the Carnegie Foundation was initially unsuccessful as the Strathcona was considered too small. The Foundation was also concerned about having the Edmonton library located nearby. However, these problems were eventually sorted out after the two cities amalgamated in 1912. The Strathcona building opened in February 1913.
Meanwhile, in the spring of 1909, Dr. Henry George opened a library in Red Deer in his museum on the northwest corner of Ross St. and Nanton (48) Ave.
He did not receive any money from the Town. Instead he relied on a $1 annual membership fee and a charge of 5¢ per book borrowed. In the fall of 1910, the Gaetz Cornett Drug and Bookstore also established a 300-volume circulating library, with an annual fee of $1 and a charge of 10¢ per book borrowed.
In 1913, Red Deer’s civic centre plan was developed. A proposal was made to have a public library constructed on either what is now City Hall Park, or on the block to the west, now occupied by the Federal Building (the old Post Office).
In early 1914, J.F. Boyce, a local school inspector, and A.W.G. Allen, of the Red Deer Horticultural Society, made a formal pitch to Red Deer City council to have a public library established. Their proposal was well received by the councilors.
Work quickly began on circulating the petition necessary to have a bylaw drawn up.
(to be continued).