Port Elgin Library turns 110
Every town has a special building that people cherish such as a community centre, an arena or post office. In Port Elgin, it’s the public library, an iconic landmark in the downtown that celebrated its its 110th anniversary Dec. 1.
“There is a lot interest in our historic building and there is a lot of history here in Port Elgin,” said Debra Seyler, Chair of the Friends of Port Elgin library who credits Anne Judd for spearheading the celebration.
Although much has changed in downtown Port Elgin from when the library was built in 1908, the building has grown with the times. According to a short version of the library’s history compiled for the Friends of the Library by Judd, the first library building known as the Mechanics’ Institute shared space in the town hall on the site of the present post office. The original building was built with an $8,000 donation from the Carnegie Foundation. The architect S.G. Kinsey designed a building to house the library, as well as a large auditorium. But the first set of plans had to be modified to meet Carnegie’s approval.
The lot at the corner of Elgin and Goderich Streets had been the site of the Royal Hotel and was occupied an apple evaporating plant and chopping mill, which had burned in 1901.
Work began in the spring of 1908 to construct a library. By June, they were working on the second level, and by the fall, the furniture was ordered along with an acetylene plant for lighting and 10 tons of coal for heating. The original circulation desk and large tables remain today.
The history of the public library has been intimately linked to the evolution of the city that grew up around it. The grand opening of the library building took place on December 18, 1908. By the end of the month, council was holding its sessions in the large lower level meeting room. Saugeen Township’s council met in a smaller room, as did the Port Elgin Women’s Institute. The first librarian was Flora Ann MacKay a teacher from Bruce Township.
During WW 1, officers of the 160th Bruce Battalion used space in the library as a recruitment centre – those who gave their lives are remembered on the memorials placed in front of the library during Port Elgin’s 1924 reunion. The memorials now rest at Cenotaph Park.
Bruce County council met in the library for its June 1937 session where steps were taken to create Bruce County forests. The library also provided space for short courses held by the Department of Agriculture. During the 1940s and 50s the library was a popular place for studying, completing homework assignments or attending Junior Farmers or Junior Institute meetings.
That tradition continues today as students use the library for working on homework assignments. Julia Park is a single mother and nursing student at Georgian College in Owen Sound finds the library a quiet refuge and place to do homework assignments. “I always think of Carnegie who donated the money for these libraries. . . what an incredible gift to give a community and look how long it has lasted. And the fact that it has been so sympathetically renovated,” said Park.“ “It’s such a wonderful gift to the community, it’ such a great resource. It’s such a wonderful thing to have in our community,” she said.
A video of the history of the library was part of the public display along with scrap books with pictures and newspaper clippings as part of the 110th anniversary celebration.
The county wide co-operative – the forerunner of the Bruce County public library system- began in this library; it was home base for the bookmobile and collection of books and magazines which travelled to other towns and villages.
The 1970s brought big changes to the library with renovation and expansion of the lower level for children’s books and activities. In 1990, the library received a provincial designation as a heritage building, recognizing its significant design elements and ensuring they would remain.
Growing concerns about accessibility prompted the 1994 municipal council to consider installing a lift to help patrons reach the upper level. Unfortunately, provincial funding for the costly project was dropped. Some of the renovations and changes of the next decades included refinishing the hardwood floors, addition of music tapes and movies to the collection, and more programmes for young children, such as story times and craft activities.
In 2009, there was a grand opening of the expansion of the library, which added about a third more space on both levels. As well, a lift was installed between the two floors of the building which brought accessibility to all levels and allowed more services particularly with public computer stations and other technology.
Among the many visitors to the library’s 110th anniversary party was Marzio Appoloni, former CEO of the Bruce County library system, who retired in 2012. He noted the Port Elgin library was one of five Carnegie libraries in Bruce County. When the library was renovated (2009) accessibility was a key concern.
“It was one of the most expensive features considering how much it cost. It pays off big time in the long run,” Appoloni said. A feature of the expansion of the building was to bring the outside wall of the original building inside the new addition and addition of large floor to ceiling windows on the main floor. “Like it was in the old days it’s kind of a hub of the community,” Asppoloni said.
Library clerk Laura Downs, who has worked in the Bruce County library system for almost a year, said she has always wanted to work in a library. “I like this library, it’s nice and open and bright. It’s always very busy place. It’s just a very welcoming place to come … it’s just a great community space for people,” said Downs who noted the library is a favourite destination in the summer for visitors and cottagers as well as local.
Saugeen Shores Mayor-elect Luke Charbonneau enjoyed the 110th anniversary festivities with his son Benjamin, 9, who got his first library card.
“It’s a great library. I it’s been here for 110 years and it’s been at the centre of the community for that long and 10 years or so ago we did this great addition, we’ve really solidified for another 110 years,” Charbonneau said. “I have every expectation that it will play an important role for that long and longer.”