Ep. 19: A Library for Ontario: The History of the Legislative Library



Tuesday, January 10, 2023 12 minutes (audio)



Erin: Welcome to the ON Parliament Podcast, where we help spread the word on Parliament! Our episode this month is one that I have wanted to make for a long time now.



David: Lucky for you, the time has finally come to make your dream a reality!



Erin: I know! And I can’t wait! But before we get into the episode, I’ve also come up with a new game for us David!



David: I do enjoy the little interludes with the games – what have you got in store this time?



Erin: I call it: Time Machine Trivia!



David: I have always wanted to go back in time, Erin. Especially as I’ve gotten a little more… umm… mature, I would say.



Erin: Then I guess today’s your lucky day David! Because today we’re going to go back in time and test your knowledge about some key dates that will be particularly important later in the episode.



David: I think you’re making these games harder every time on purpose…



Erin: Only because you keep beating them! Are you ready for today’s first piece of Time Machine Trivia?



David: Why not? What’s the first question?



Erin: The British Parliament passed a piece of legislation that split the old province of Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada in what year?



David: You know, I think I actually might know the answer to this one.



Erin: Of course, you do! What is it then?



David: If my memory serves, I believe the piece of legislation was called the “Constitutional Act” and that it was passed in 1791.



Erin: Correct! I’ll have to make my next question harder then. In what year, was the Act of Union, or British North America Act – which abolished both Upper and Lower Canada and established the new Province of Canada - officially proclaimed?



David: Hmm… That’s a trick question, I think. The legislation was debated and approved by parliament in 1840 but I think by your wording, you’re actually looking for the year 1841 which was when it was proclaimed in Canada.



Erin: You know, I really can’t stump you. Correct again!



David: You really are testing my memory from some pretty obscure trivia right now. But I think I caught on to the theme we’re going to be exploring in this episode. Can I ask you the last question to see if I’m right?



Erin: Let’s see if you figured it out. What’s your question for me?



David: In 1909, there was large fire within Ontario’s Parliament Building. What was one of the major spaces that was destroyed in the blaze?



Erin: It was the Legislative Library and a large portion of its collection of books and documents. Very good – you figured out today’s theme!



David: You did have me stumped for a moment there, but I had a… spark… of inspiration.



Erin: Love it! And I also love the theme for today: the Legislative Library through the ages.



David: This could turn out to be a very “hot” topic for all the wrong reasons!



Erin: You might be right, but let’s not give too much away! It all starts way back in 1791, with the establishment of Upper Canada. At that time, a small collection was established to assist the colony’s parliamentarians but there was no physical space allocated to the library. Instead, it was only a very small collection of manuscript journals from the Legislatures of both Upper and Lower Canada, and ordinances and statutes from the old Province of Quebec.



David: However, tragedy struck in 1813 when invading American soldiers set fire to the Parliament Building, burning the small library collection that was housed inside along with the rest of the structure.



Erin: Following the fire, they rebuilt the Parliament at the same location and a few years later, in April 1816, a new official Legislative Library was formally established by an Act of the Legislature.



David: This piece of legislation was somewhat vague as it didn’t set out specific guidelines for the purpose or scope of the library, but it did allocate a budget of 800 £ for the purchase of new books.



Erin: Fun fact: that’s a budget of just under $20,000 in today’s dollars, for reference.



David: But it would take until 1827 before the position of a Legislative Librarian was created to administer the collection of the growing library. This position was also created because books had a way of disappearing from the collection and they thought having someone to officially oversee the library would solve this issue.



Erin: By 1841, the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada were abolished and, in their place, was the newly established Province of Canada. Adding to the confusion, was the fact that both colonies had bicameral systems – that means they had two Chambers and so each had two libraries too.



David: As a result, both libraries from the two colonies were amalgamated, and eventually all of the books were combined and so the library’s collection grew. Fun fact: the newly combined collection contained over 12,000 books and documents.



Erin: The library continued collecting and growing and would eventually go on to form the basis of the Library of Parliament for Canada’s Federal Parliament in Ottawa after Confederation in 1867. But what about the libraries for the new provinces of Ontario and Quebec? Have no fear, they were each awarded financial compensation for the establishment of their own Legislative Libraries.



David: With the construction of our current Legislative Building in the 1880’s it looked like Ontario’s Legislative Library had finally found its home. The grand opening of the new building at Queen’s Park was on April 4th, 1893.



Erin: The Library was located on the mezzanine floor of the west wing and had soaring windows on three sides. One writer described the library’s new space as being “one of the handsomest and largest rooms in the whole building.”



David: By the end of 1896, the library’s collection contained just shy of 50,000 volumes – a truly amazing feat when you think of where it started back in 1791.



Erin: Agreed David. But that’s not the end of our library’s epic tale. By 1908, the collection has almost doubled in size – the librarian at the time, a man named Avern Pardoe, reported that there were over 90,000 volumes and that the library was running out of space to house them all!



David: Not only that, but the design of the space itself was pretty but not proving to be overly functional. The lighting was poor as the large windows were blocked by the stacks of books which ran around the outside of the space. The reading tables had to then be placed in the centre of the room where they did not receive adequate light.



Erin: September 1st, 1909, was an abnormally windy day. Around the lunch time hour, the calm of the day was broken when shouts of “Fire!” rang out through the halls of the Legislative Building. A monstrous blaze was working its way down from the roof of the west wing and engulfing everything in its path.



David: Once the blaze was extinguished, it became clear that the library had suffered extensive damage. In fact, all but 10,000 books and documents were destroyed.



Erin: Fun fact: reports from the time claimed that embers and bits of burning paper could still be seen up to two days later falling from the sky.



David: Although no people were injured, the library was irreparably destroyed. Luckily Mr. Pardoe, the Legislative Librarian, had already been in talks with a Toronto-based architect, a man named George Gouinlock, to design a new space for the library in an as-yet to be built north addition to the building.



Erin: Fun fact: George Gouinlock was a very well-known architect for the time, having designed many buildings in Toronto and the province, including 6 buildings within the Exhibition Place grounds down near the city’s waterfront.



David: Both Gouinlock and Pardoe worked together to create a new space for the Legislative Library that would be not only bigger, but more functional - and fireproof.



Erin: The new north wing provided enhanced safety measures, including marble floors, fireproof shutters for the windows, and metal bookstacks in the centre of room as opposed to near the windows. This ensured that the collection would be safe not only from light damage, but from water damage too. Just in case there were any future fires to contend with.



David: A fireproof hallway that could be closed off from the rest of the building with large steel doors was another feature of the new space.



Erin: Since lighting had become an issue in the old design, it was addressed too. The advent of electric lighting made the revised floor plan possible because it allowed the stacks to be in the centre of the structure – a design that wasn’t feasible before as it would have been too dark to read the spines of the books. This new placement of the stacks also meant that the reading rooms and research areas could be placed next to the windows to allow more natural light for reading and better ventilation overall.



David: Fun fact: By the time the new library opened in the north wing in 1912, the collection had already grown to about 48,000 volumes, thanks in part to many generous donations from citizens and other legislative libraries around the world.



Erin: Today, the physical space of the Legislative Library has undergone some cosmetic changes but overall, little has changed since it opened in 1912; the metal stacks are still in their central location, and many of the original light fixtures and other finishes are still in place too.



David: Despite its physical appearance, the collection of the library has continued to evolve and grow to adapt to the needs of its clientele: Parliament. Today’s library collection includes a wide range of periodicals, government and party news releases, resource files, parliamentary and sessional papers, items stored on microfilm and microform, and a rare collection of historic materials related to Ontario. The library also holds the most complete collection of Ontario Government publications in existence.



Erin: Fun fact: the oldest book in the library’s collection is a Latin text entitled: “Grammatica Latina” which dates back to 1490. Ontario’s Legislative Library is not only a repository for documents and records, but also provides a full range of information services to Members of Provincial Parliament, their staff, and the staff of the Legislative Assembly.



David: This includes answering reference questions, providing full access to online databases and electronic and paper documents, books and materials, and publishing electronic press clippings each morning. Unfortunately, the library is not open to the public. It is specifically administered to support the needs of the Legislature.



Erin: The legislative library has come a long way since its humble beginnings back in the 18th century. Today, it provides access to all sides and perspectives of issues, debates and policy. Through its collection and vast research services, it gathers reliable information from credible sources, ensuring that the information it provides to the Members and Staff is unbiased, objective and non-partisan.



David: The library remains an integral part of Ontario’s Parliament.



Erin: I’m sure it will continue to evolve in the coming years to adapt to the needs of the parliamentarians and the Legislature as a whole.



David: I don’t know about you Erin, but I feel like I just took a trip on that time machine with today’s episode.



Erin: Me too David! And what a trip it was. It’s always great to be able to highlight some little-known areas of Ontario’s Parliament and spread the word about the Legislature.



David: I couldn’t agree more. And speaking of little-known facts, I noticed that we had a return of the fun facts in today’s episode!



Erin: We sure did David! By my count, today we had 6 fun facts!



David: Well hopefully that means we’ll be able to fit in even more next time!



Erin: Challenge accepted! Thanks for listening to the On Parliament Podcast, where we help spread the word on Parliament! But we’ve got to go, I think I hear the bells.



David: Bye for now.



Erin: The ON Parliament podcast is produced by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Social media by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Additional research provided by the Table Research Office for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please support the podcast by sharing it with others and subscribing. For more fun facts about Ontario’s parliament, follow us on Twitter and Instagram : @onparleducation. Et en français: @parloneducation . Thanks again and see you next time