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Banner: National Library of Canada 1953 - 2003

The National Library of Canada:
Celebrating 50 Years of Heritage and Service to the People of Canada

Peter F. McNally

The National Library of Canada houses the world’s largest and most important collection of Canadian publications: books, newspapers, magazines, and recordings in paper, microfilm, audio, video and electronic formats. The Library also provides library and information services for the entire Canadian nation directly and in partnership with other libraries. The heritage and service accomplishments of the National Library during its first 50 years can be attributed to the support of the Parliament and people of Canada and the dedication and leadership of its staff.

National libraries first appeared in medieval Europe. By 1800, there were 20 in various countries, including Britain, France and the United States. Following Confederation, in 1867, Canada’s national library functions were assigned to the Library of Parliament, but its primary focus continued to be Members and staff of the House of Commons and Senate. Although Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald said, in 1883, "Canada really ought to have a national library," it wasn’t until after World War II (1939-1945) that Prime Minister Mackenzie King committed the federal government to clarifying the national library issue.

In 1948, Dr. W. Kaye Lamb, an historian and Chief Librarian of the University of British Columbia, agreed to become head of the Public Archives of Canada on condition that he be permitted to establish a national library. As a first step, in 1950 he began the Canadian Bibliographic Centre as a quasi-national library, but without status and authority. In 1951, the Massey/Lévesque Royal Commission on Arts, Letters and Sciences, acting on the strong recommendation of librarians, scholars, and members of the public, advised the Government of Canada to establish a national library. In June 1952, the necessary legislation was passed by Parliament.

On January 1, 1953, the National Library of Canada came into being under the administration of Dr. Lamb, who assumed the title of national librarian while continuing as dominion archivist. Dr. Lamb concentrated upon services that would address the country’s information needs, with a project to create a union catalogue consisting of millions of records from hundreds of libraries across the country. Once merged into a single file, these combined records  -  and millions more subsequently acquired  -  assist libraries and individuals in locating and borrowing books from institutions across the country. Another project was to produce a definitive annual listing of all the books published in Canada. Canadiana, as it is called, has served as Canada’s official national bibliography since 1950. Services and publications have been offered in English and French since the Library was founded.

The Library also began implementing the legal depository provisions of the National Library Act, whereby publishers are required to provide  -  at their own expense  -  copies of every title published or printed in Canada. In addition, 300 000 volumes were transferred from the Library of Parliament, and many other volumes were acquired from a wide range of individuals and institutions.

The administration of the Library and Archives was highly integrated, with the two institutions being housed together in temporary locations across Ottawa. Coinciding with the centenary of Confederation in 1967, however, they began sharing a new building, designed for the National Library, on Wellington Street close by Parliament Hill.

In 1968, Dr. Guy Sylvestre, a literary scholar and senior official in the Library of Parliament, became the second national librarian. The 1969 revision of the National Library Act committed the Library to strengthening and extending its service and heritage roles. In addition to expansion of the legal depository privileges, the Rare Book and Music divisions were formed, and the Children’s Literature and Multilingual services were established. Services were enhanced for visually impaired and blind audiences. Important manuscript collections in the fields of Canadian literature and music were acquired, thereby underlining the Library’s role as a research centre for the humanities and social sciences.

In 1973, Dr. Sylvestre convened the first meeting of the Conference of Directors of National Libraries. The Library has subsequently maintained a high international profile, representing Canadian library and information interests worldwide. In addition to coordinating federal government libraries, the Library assumed a collaborative role in the adaptation of all Canadian libraries to the electronic environment. Over several decades, the Library’s role has been central to the Canadian conversion of library catalogues to electronic formats, which have enhanced access for librarians and individuals in this country and abroad. Since 1978, the Library has been making its retrospective collection available to public and scholarly audiences via microfilm  -  and now the Internet  -  in cooperation with the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions.

In 1984, Dr. Marianne Scott, formerly director of libraries at McGill University, Montreal, became the third national librarian. The continuing expansion of legal deposit resulted in a growing range of formats  -  particularly electronic  -  coming into the collection. In addition, the Library began a program for the preservation and conservation of titles printed on paper, with second copies becoming part of a non-circulating Preservation Collection. Closer administrative relations developed with the National Archives, which transferred its rare books to the National Library, thereby making it the world’s single most important depository of published Canadiana. Although this period was characterized by severe cutbacks in funding for all government departments and curtailment of various National Library initiatives of the previous 20 years, core services were retained, particularly those providing Canadians with enhanced access, via the Internet, to records of library holdings.

In 1999, Dr. Roch Carrier, cultural administrator and award-winning author, became the fourth national librarian. His publicly stated goal is to extend the Library’s service and heritage activities. A particular objective is to ensure the integrity of the almost 20 million items in the collection and their continued accessibility to the citizens of Canada through construction of a new building. Special priorities include encouraging literacy and reading through improved school libraries, and bringing the Library to Canadians and the world through travelling exhibitions and the Digital Library of Canada.

On September 30, 2002, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, Governor General of Canada, announced in the Speech from the Throne that, as the Library enters its 50th year, a new institution is being created to bring together again the National Archives of Canada and the National Library of Canada.

Today, Canada is one of over 100 countries maintaining a national library. Although far from being the country’s oldest or largest library, the National Library of Canada plays a central role in our nation’s life, collecting the country’s published documentary heritage and providing library and information services for all Canadians.

Peter F. McNally is professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, McGill University, in Montreal, Quebec. In addition, he is convenor of the Library History Interest Group of the Canadian Library Association, and past president of the Bibliographical Society of Canada. He has published extensively on Canadian library history, including three collections of essays for the Canadian Library Association.