The Advent of the Public School Libraries

Today, a library is an essential part of a good school. But this has not always been the case. In the early years of British Columbia's public education system, a school library, if one existed at all, was apt to be a random collection of books on a shelf or in a case within the classroom. School officials might have purchased a few of the books, but parents and community organizations had probably donated most of them. And even then, students did not have had ready access to the books.

Books have always been an important part of the public school system. The 1865 Common School Act stipulated that "books inculcating the highest Morality shall be selected" for use in colonial schools. But this section of the act referred to authorized textbooks, rather than school library books. Likewise, the first provincial Public School Act, 1872 contains several references to prescribed textbooks, but no mention of supplemental books or school libraries. The omission is curious, because the British Columbia's school act was patterned on legislation from Ontario and in that province Egerton Ryerson had already established a successful model for government-funded school libraries.

School libraries were not specifically acknowledged until 1919, when the Manual of School Law and School Regulations was published. The government was authorized to provide a grant of fifty cents per student up to a maximum of fifty dollars per school to establish a library, as long as the school district was willing to pledge an equal amount. The school trustees were to supply bookcases for the school and monitor the circulation and preservation of the library books, and all books had to be approved by the Superintendent of Education before they were purchased.

In 1919 a comprehensive syllabus of study was published for the first time in British Columbia. Entitled Courses of Study for the Public, High, and Normal Schools of British Columbia, it included Regulations and Rules for School Libraries. The Rules and Regulations stipulated that all library books were to be stored in a 'suitable book-case, under lock and key.' Only one book -- a dictionary -- was to be kept outside the library area and only students in grades four and higher were permitted to use it.

The 1919 Rules and Regulations also included notes on what kinds of books were acceptable for use in a school library. The notes were very broad and were supposed to be interim guidelines until a list of acceptable books could be published. This twenty- eight-page list, entitled Catalogue of Books Suitable for Pupils of Grades I - IX appeared in 1923. It was divided into three main sections according to grade: books for students in grades one to three, four to six, and seven to nine. A section at the end gives a list of reference books for school libraries.

Although the Department of Education published a book on how to store and handle library materials, this is not to suggest that adequate libraries existed in provincial schools. School libraries often consisted of a haphazard collection of books donated by parents and community groups. In many cases, the books did not appeal to young readers and did not relate to the curriculum.

Inadequate funding was another problem, particularly in rural school districts. Students who attended one-room rural and assisted schools, and who did not have access to city or municipal public libraries, were especially disadvantaged. However, some assistance was available through the Legislative Library in Victoria. In 1898 E. O. S. Scholefield, the Provincial Librarian, secured $1,000 from the legislature to establish travelling libraries. The travelling libraries were a collection books, ranging in size from fifty to 500 volumes, sent to communities in rural areas of the province. In order to participate in the program, local trustees had to pay a one-time fee of six dollars, which provided them with a locking case and with a list of rules regarding the careful handling of the books.

The freight charges proved to be a burden to the Travelling Library Department, but the Canadian Pacific Railway alleviated the situation in 1901 when it agreed to ship the books free of charge. This worked well until 1917 when the railway rescinded its offer of free shipping. For a while, it looked as though the travelling libraries would cease to operate because of the freight charges. Herbert Killam, the appointed assistant in charge of the travelling libraries, and Dr. Helen Gordon Stewart, director of the Victoria Public Library, lobbied for a new Public Libraries Act, which was passed by Legislature in 1919. This act created the Public Library Commission, whose function was to oversee all aspects of the public library services in British Columbia, including the operation of the travelling libraries. Under the Commission's direction, the travelling libraries continued to provide rural schools with a small but dependable supply of books.

In 1923 the travelling library program was renamed The Open Shelf Library Service. By 1930 it had a stock of 12,000 volumes and several thousand pictures for classroom use. While the library service suffered during the economic depression, it continued to operate and towards the end of decade even managed to extend its services. In 1938, for example, teachers in the rural areas could borrow professional literature maintained by the Open Shelf Library. The cost of this service was subsidized by the Department of Education. In 1943 all children who did not have easy access to a public library were allowed to borrow books from the Open Shelf Library. In 1944 the Open Shelf Library also provided services for 5500 students taking high school and elementary correspondence courses from the Department of Education.

The Department of Education's Text Book Branch also mentored rural school libraries. The branch was established in 1908 under the direction of David Wilson, a former school inspector and an enthusiastic proponent of school libraries. In the Annual Report of the Public Schools for 1917-18 and 1918-19, Wilson notes that the Text Book Branch had supplied schools with several reference works, including Canadian Civics, World Relations and the Continents, The Rhodes Scholarships, and Flora of Southern British Columbia. Wilson's department also helped with the logistics of transporting library materials from suppliers in Vancouver to schools in remote parts of the province.

In 1924 J. H. Putnam and G. M. Weir were commissioned by the provincial government to investigate the public school system. In their report, Survey of the School System (1925), they praised the government for its slow but steady progress in education but recommended a number of changes in order to make school libraries an integral aspect of the school system and not simply a place to store books. In their opinion, books were a vital part of a progressive education system.

Putnam and Weir felt that the Catalogue of Books Suitable for Pupils of Grades I-IX: Reference Books for School Library contained many 'admirable books;' yet, they noted, few of these books were found of the shelves in either the rural or in the urban schools. They stated that the shelves housed unused supplementary readers and books that were poorly edited and illustrated. In addition, the shelves lacked books on literature, history, geography, nature study, and works suitable for silent reading. In E. S. Robinson's report on Vancouver school libraries, which was included in the Putnam-Weir Report, he stated that many of books were still under lock and key, as demanded by the 1919 Regulations and Rules for School Libraries. Robinson also noted that children were not encouraged to take the library books home. Putnam and Weir believed that every child should have access to quality literature as a means of stimulating his or her interest to read more.

But as Putman and Weir recognized, in the 1920s very few British Columbia teachers had any training in library studies. Indeed, when their survey was made, the Normal School in Vancouver did not have a professionally trained librarian on staff. Future teachers were trained by being given a reading a list of suitable books for children and by looking at a 'model library' set up in one of the offices in the Normal School. This was not adequate training for someone interested in becoming a teacher-librarian. Robinson recommended the Normal School appoint qualified librarians who had 'adequate professional training and successful teaching experience before technically qualifying as a librarian,' a recommendation endorsed by Putman and Weir. They also recommended that a trained librarian should be hired by for every middle school and high school that had enrolled more than five hundred students. If a school had less than 500, the commissioners said, then the duties normally associated with a librarian should be 'systematically' shared amongst the teaching staff. The Vancouver School Board acted on some of the recommendations. By 1935 a few Vancouver schools had specific areas designated as libraries and some schools even had trained librarians on staff.

Finding trained librarians was difficult due to the fact that British Columbia lacked a librarianship program. While some individuals from British Columbia pursued studies in the United States, not all returned to share their newly acquired expertise. In the late 1920s, Walter Lanning, a graduate of The University of British Columbia, was persuaded to accept the position of librarian at the Vancouver Technical School on the condition he spend the next four summers taking a series of courses 'at his own expense" at Columbia University. Subsequently, Lanning imported many advanced ideas regarding school libraries from the United States into British Columbia.

Beginning in 1938, Lanning's ideas were promoted at The University of British Columbia's summer school sessions, which were taught by B. C. Carruthers and Helen Creelman. By 1939 night school classes were established at Vancouver Tech. under Lanning's direction and summer school courses in cataloguing and classification were taught by Nina Napier in Victoria. Elementary school teachers who completed the courses were granted a "Library Specialists Certificate" by the Department of Education. These courses provided the foundation for a more extensive School Librarian's program in 1957, which was directed by Lanning, and, eventually, for the professional School of Librarianship established at The University of British Columbia in 1961.

The school library movement took another step forward in 1936, when supervised library study periods were mandated in the junior and senior high school curriculum. This was one of the reforms advocated by Putman and Weir and the intention was to teach students how to use library resources for researching school assignments. In 1946, a compulsory course in library study was established in junior high schools; however, to the disappointment of school librarians, the compulsory aspect of this course was rescinded in the 1950s.

[Library activities for pupils in grades 1 to 6 were encouraged in a programme of study entitled The School Library. The programme guide was issued by the Department of Education in 1938.]

In the late 1930s, another recommendation from the Putman-Weir Report was implemented, when school districts and municipal libraries began pooling their resources. Prince George led the way in 1938, when the city's public library and the school district established a central repository for purchasing, distributing, and repairing books. In effect, schools became branches of the public library system. The cooperative model was further developed in the Peace River District in 1946 when Margaret Strachan was appointed librarian in Dawson Creek. She realized the need for improving library resources within the schools and made them her priority. In 1947 she delivered books from the Dawson Creek Library to schools in twenty-three regional communities and by 1948 had extended her services to the Yukon border. Through her initiative, school libraries became branches of the regional public library system.

In 1958 the provincial government established a royal commission to carry out a review of the public school system. The Royal Commission on Education headed by Dean S. N. F. Chant of U. B. C. was as thorough and as exhaustive as the Putman and Weir had been in the 1920s. The Chant Report was published in 1960 and it presented a rather discouraging picture of school libraries. The commissioners said that many school libraries did not meet minimum library standards. Many libraries lacked a sufficient number of quality books, books that should have been acquired with funds provided by school districts and the provincial Education Department. The Public Library Commission, the Chant Commission reported, was still supplying many classrooms with books. In addition, Chant noted that elementary schools outside of Vancouver rarely had a qualified librarian on staff.

Despite the Chant Report's criticisms, it is important to remember that great progress had been made in the area of school libraries. A library that once consisted of a random collection of books housed on a bookshelf in the classroom was now an organized and important aspect of the school. Also, increasing numbers of trained librarians were being employed within the school system. Additionally, many students were being taught how to use the library as a resource of information. By 1960 school libraries were an integral, not an incidental, part of public education system of British Columbia.

Written by Terra Dickson, History 349, Malaspina University-College, April 2001.


Department of Education in British Columbia, Catalogue of Books Suitable for Pupils of Grades I-IX: Reference Books for the School Library (Victoria: King's Printer, 1923);
Department of Education in British Columbia, 'School Libraries,' in Courses of Study for the Public, High, and Normal Schools of British Columbia (Victoria: King's Printer, 1919), 69-70;
Barbara Hall, 'Curriculum and Library Resource Services and Programs in British Columbia: 1850-1980,' The Bookmark, 30, 4 (June 1989): 70-78;
Marjorie C. Holmes, Library Service in British Columbia: A Brief History of its Development (Victoria: Public Library Commission of British Columbia, 1959);
J. H. Putnam and G. M. Weir, 'Text Books,' in Survey of the School System (Victoria: King's Printer, 1925), 303-312;
J. H. Putnam and G. M. Weir, 'The School Library and Extension Education,' in Survey of the School System (Victoria: King's Printer, 1925), 325-36;
E. S. Robinson, 'Appendix IV: Report on Libraries in the Schools of the City of Vancouver,' in Survey of the School System, by J. H. Putnam and G. M. Weir (Victoria: King's Printer, 1925), 545-548;
Francis M. Sbrocchi, 'School Libraries in British Columbia: From Boxes of Books to Resource Centres, 1872-1970,' The Bookmark, 30, 4 (June 1989): 32-59;
David Wilson, 'Free Text-Book Branch,' in Annual Report of the Public Schools of the Province of British Columbia 1917-1918 (Victoria: King's Printer, 1919), 69-75;
David Wilson, 'Free Text-Book Branch,' in Annual Report of the Public Schools of the Province of British Columbia 1918-1919 (Victoria: King's Printer, 1920), 82-86.