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Banner: National Library of Canada 1953 - 2003

50 Years of National Library Service: 1953-2003

When the National Library of Canada was created by an act of Parliament in 1953, it was an event long overdue. In 1883, Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, asserted that Canada could not have access to its own culture without a national library, 1 but Dr. F. Dolores Donnelly, in her historical study on the National Library, says that Sir John A. Macdonald’s decision in 1885 to try to cast the Library of Parliament into the mold of the Library of Congress, by creating the illusion that the former was fulfilling the role of national library as well as the legislative function, may have postponed the real issue for many years. 2

There were, however, other voices to be heard. One was that of Lawrence Burpee, who, in 1911, published an article entitled "A Plea for a National Library." He proposed that the federal government create a national library, erect a suitable building for it, and remove to it the books and other materials in the Library of Parliament not needed for parliamentary use. 3 Alas, poor Burpee, despite his efforts and those of the Ontario Library Association, did not live to see his dream fulfilled.

A national library was needed for a number of compelling reasons. Canada enjoyed "the dubious distinction," as Burpee had put it, of being one of the few countries without one. It was not just a matter of pride, however. By the 1940s it was becoming obvious that the lack of a national union catalogue listing the holdings of the most important Canadian libraries was seriously hampering research and the interlibrary lending and borrowing of materials. In addition, the country also required a current and comprehensive national bibliography. A national library was also needed to compile retrospective bibliographies, to meet Canada’s international bibliographic responsibilities, and to collect and preserve Canada’s published heritage and make it accessible to the Canadian public.

The turning point came in 1946  -  the year of Burpee’s death  -  when the Canadian Library Association (CLA) was finally formed. The association gave wide publicity to the need for a national library and focussed strong pressure on the federal government. A determined campaign, led by CLA President Freda Waldon and CLA Executive Director Elizabeth Homer Morton, gained momentum. A joint brief from the Canadian Library Association and a number of Canadian learned societies, submitted in 1946, urged the federal government to found a national library.

The Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (the Massey-Lévesque commission), struck in 1949 in part to make recommendations on the eventual character and scope of a national library, noted in its report (published in 1951), "that a national library finds no place among the federal institutions which we have been required to examine is a remarkable fact which has been the occasion of much sharp comments during our sessions. Over ninety organizations have discussed this matter, some in great detail, urging that what has been called a ‘national disgrace’ be remedied." 4

The Canadian Library Association, which had launched a vigorous public relations campaign in support of a national library, held its annual meeting in Ottawa in 1948. Some months before, Elizabeth Homer Morton, in a very politically astute move, had decided to microfilm the Colonial Advocate newspaper of 1824-34, which had been edited by the Prime Minister’s grandfather, William Lyon Mackenzie and to present the microfilm to Prime Minister King while the CLA conference was meeting in Ottawa. W. Kaye Lamb, who had been provincial librarian and archivist of British Columbia and was currently chief librarian of the University of British Columbia as well as president of the Canadian Library Association, along with Elizabeth Dafoe, the incoming president, and Morton presented the Prime Minister with the two microfilm reels in a beautiful red morocco case.

Dr. Lamb pointed out that this microfilm was made possible by the cooperation of a number of libraries that lent original copies of newspaper issues to be microfilmed. The microfilmed newspaper could now be borrowed or purchased by anyone in Canada without causing any damage to the originals. The Prime Minister was so intrigued with the gift that he entered into a lengthy conversation with Dr. Lamb regarding the potential of microfilm.

In September of the same year, Dr. Lamb received a telephone call from Secretary of State Colin Gibson asking him to come to Ottawa to discuss the position of Dominion archivist. He went to Ottawa for the interview with the idea that perhaps he might be able to do something about a national library. "It seemed to me that there was no likelihood whatever that the Government of Canada would launch such a thing as a National Library immediately and on a large scale," he recalled later. "It would be much better to begin by making it a growth on another institution from which it could branch off and have a life of its own when opportunity, conditions and finances permitted." 5

Lamb mentioned to Mr. King the "possibility of linking the Archives with the first steps toward a national library". 6 Mr. King did show some interest, but he did not commit his government, saying that he would have to consult his colleagues. When Dr. Lamb arrived back home in Vancouver, he telephoned Colin Gibson to tell him that he would not consider the appointment unless there was a definite commitment to the national library project. A couple of days later, Colin Gibson called to inform him that it had been agreed that he would be appointed Dominion archivist and that his assignment would also include "preparing the way for the organization of a National Library" 7 to gather, protect and make accessible to the citizens of Canada all that is published in our country.

On September 8, the day Mr. King recommended Dr. Lamb’s appointment to the Cabinet, he wrote in his diary that Lamb, "quite clearly is the best man in Canada for a post of this kind. [He] might never have been known to our Government but for the presentation to me of the microfilm of Mackenzie’s paper … at which time I saw in an instant the exceptional qualities he possesses and his grasp of the whole situation." 8 On September 11, 1948, the government announced the appointment of W. Kaye Lamb as Dominion archivist.

The precursor of the National Library, the Canadian Bibliographic Centre, opened on May 1, 1950, scarcely 16 months after Dr. Lamb arrived in Ottawa. With a staff of three librarians, the Centre, housed in the Public (now National) Archives of Canada in what is currently the War Museum, began the work of identifying, collecting and recording publications written by Canadians and items published in Canada or about Canada, and compiling a catalogue of the holdings of the major libraries in every region of the country.

The National Library Act was passed in 1952 and the National Library of Canada came into being on January 1, 1953, with Dr. Lamb holding the positions of national librarian and Dominion archivist. Dr. Lamb noted in the Report of the National Librarian for the fiscal year ending March 31, 1953, that the Canadian Bibliographic Centre had a total of 14 positions. By the time the National Library absorbed the Canadian Bibliographic Centre in 1953, Canadiana (the national bibliography) was well established, the holdings of some 50 Canadian libraries were recorded in the Union Catalogue, and a book location service was being provided based on the holdings listed there.

And today, even as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the coming into force of the National Library Act in 1953, the National Library is continuing to evolve as part of the Library and Archives of Canada, a new agency announced by Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, Governor General of Canada, in the Speech from the Throne on September 30, 2002. This new agency combining the National Archives of Canada and the National Library of Canada brings together in one institution all forms of information that is Canadian or about Canada and it will strengthen the visibility, relevance and accessibility of the collections and services of both the Archives and the Library.

Indeed, Dr. Lamb, who retired in 1968, never wavered in his belief that the services provided at the national level improve library and information services in local and rural communities. And succeeding national librarians (Guy Sylvestre, who served from 1968 to 1983, Marianne Scott, who served from 1984 to 1999, and Roch Carrier, the current national librarian) have worked to ensure that the National Library of Canada is a pre-eminent national resource enabling Canadians to know their country and themselves through their published heritage.

Services such as AMICUS (the national Web-based catalogue of over 25 million bibliographic records and 43 million holdings from over 1,300 Canadian libraries, including Canadiana records) and the Digital Library of Canada are offered at no charge. In the past year, the National Library Web site received 80 million access requests, and the Library’s staff answer thousands of questions every year from Canadian researchers.

Our biggest challenge and major priority, however, remains the protection of the collection, which is growing by more than 500,000 items a year. Sadly, the headquarters site of the National Library and the National Archives, opened in 1967, can no longer house the Library’s collection, and to ensure that these irreplaceable stories are available for generations of Canadians to come, the National Library is working to secure adequate facilities with suitable temperature and humidity controls. Illiteracy and the sorry state of school libraries are also a special concern. How can Canada expect to have informed adults in the future if our children have no books to read today? Finally, as sources of information, especially government information, move online, the National Library of Canada is continuing to play a vital role via the Digital Library of Canada, which develops new Web content in Canadian music, history and literature from the collections of the National Library of Canada and our partners.

The values of the National Library  -  service, dedication, and commitment to access and preservation  -  are a projection of Canada and Canadian values abroad, and the desire to serve Canadians will continue in the Library and Archives of Canada.


1 Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, Debates (April 16, 1883), 631.

2 F. Dolores Donnelly, The National Library of Canada; a Historical Analysis of the Forces which Contributed to its Establishment and to the Identification of its Role and Responsibilities (Ottawa: Canadian Library Association, 1973), 24.

3 Lawrence J. Burpee, "A plea for a national library", University Magazine, 10 (February 1911): 152. Speech given at the annual conference of the Ontario Library Association in the spring of 1910.

4 Canada. Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, Report (Ottawa: Edmond Cloutier, 1951), 101.

5 W. Kaye Lamb, [Transcript of oral history interview with Basil Stuart-Stubbs] (1988), 19.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid. 20.

8 W. Kaye Lamb, Keeping the Past up to Date: 35 Years with Manuscripts and Books (1985), 134.