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Banner: National Library of Canada 1953 - 2003

W. Kaye Lamb

(May 11, 1904 - August 24, 1999)

Dr. Lambís accomplishments during his 15-year tenure as national librarian were more than impressive. He quite literally built the institution from the ground up. He put in place the legislation establishing the National Library in 1953. He initiated the national bibliography and the national union catalogue. He enlisted the support of the academic research councils in compiling and publishing the first comprehensive bibliography of Canadian graduate theses in the humanities and social sciences. He laid the foundation for the Libraryís strong collections of printed and recorded music. In Canadaís centennial year, he marked the fruition of years of effort with the official opening of the building that was to be the permanent home of the National Library. And just one month before his retirement in 1968, he saw the index to the national bibliography produced for the first time using computer technology.

In the early history of the National Library, Kaye Lamb figures as architect, engineer, contractor and tradesman, all rolled into one. The dimensions of the role he played in shaping the Library can be seen perhaps most vividly in the five years or so immediately preceding the proclamation of the National Library Act in 1953.

In June 1947, Kaye Lamb gave his inaugural address as incoming president of the newly founded Canadian Library Association, outlining what he characterized as a "mandate for the future." In concluding his address, he challenged the Associationís members to join him in fulfilling that mandate. As a preface to that challenge, he quoted from a speech that he had heard George Bernard Shaw deliver a few years earlier at the Fabian Society in London. Shaw had said, "You get all steamed up about a problem and all excited about a grievance and you go and hear someone expound that topic and discuss the matter thoroughly, and you agree heartily. And you go home under the totally false impression that you have done something about it." Dr. Lamb then closed his address saying, "Now that is just a left-handed way, ladies and gentlemen, of saying to you that this mandate I have spoken about is not my mandate, it is our mandate for the future."

One of the first things that Kaye Lamb and others attending that conference were determined to "do something about" was to put in place the beginnings of a national library for Canada. Immediately following the conference, under Lambís leadership, the CLA launched a vigorous public relations campaign to impress upon the government the need for a national library. One year later, the Association held its conference in Ottawa. Dr. Lamb and the CLAís executive director, Elizabeth Homer Morton, in a masterly piece of lobbying, arranged to present Prime Minister MacKenzie King with a microfilm that the Association had produced of the Colonial Advocate, the newspaper that Kingís grandfather had edited more than a century earlier. The presentation was a double success. It served, as had been hoped, to draw the Prime Ministerís attention to the importance of the work that could be done by a national library. The Prime Minister was also impressed with the man who had made the presentation. Lamb had no sooner exited from the Prime Ministerís office, than King told his personal assistant, Jack Pickersgill, that he felt Dr. Lamb was the man to fill the post of Dominion archivist.

When the position was formally offered to him in September 1948, Dr. Lamb saw the offer as an opportunity, in part, to advance the Canadian Library Associationís agenda for a national library. Before accepting, he obtained the governmentís agreement that his assignment would include responsibility for "preparing the way for the organization of a National Library."

Kaye Lamb had a very clear sense of priorities for this new National Library. He recognized that the library materials owned by the federal government were substantial. There were collections in departments throughout Ottawa that, in their totality, represented an important resource. But the resource was fragmented and not readily accessible across government. He saw no immediate advantage to duplicating those collections, nor could he see any immediate likelihood of obtaining approval and funding for a building to house a National Library collection. Instead, he focussed on the value that would be gained from making the library collections of federal departments more accessible by compiling a union catalogue of the various departmental holdings. Extending that same idea to encompass collections held by public and university libraries across the country, he also saw the potential for exploiting those collections more effectively  -  and for offsetting the limitations of individual collections  -  by including records for the holdings of Canadaís major libraries in this new union catalogue.

By taking a pragmatic approach, Dr. Lamb succeeded in laying the foundations for a National Library in a remarkably short span of time. By May 1950, he had established the Canadian Bibliographic Centre to begin the task of compiling the union catalogue and of publishing a national bibliography as well. There was no building, and virtually no collection. But working out of a somewhat cramped corner of the Public Archives building, the small staff of the Centre set about their task with missionary zeal.

Kaye Lamb appears to have had a knack for recruiting staff with talent and dedication. In that first year of operation of the Canadian Bibliographic Centre, he brought to Ottawa Martha Shepard, from the Toronto Public Library; Jean Lunn, from the Fraser Institute in Montreal; and Adèle Languedoc, who had been working in France with an American relief agency following the war. All three were bright, well-educated women, dedicated to their profession. Equipped with the appropriate tools for the job, they were capable of working minor miracles.

"Working" is the operative word here. In those early days, it was all hands on deck. Martha Shepard could be found setting up her 16 mm camera equipment in libraries across the country, filming their catalogue cards for inclusion in the union catalogue. Jean Lunn could be found perched on a ladder in the stacks of the Library of Parliament, flashlight in hand, cataloguing in situ books received on copyright deposit. Dr. Lamb himself would take along a portable camera on business trips and vacations to film rare volumes of early Canadiana to add to the Libraryís microfilm collection.

From those early days setting up the Canadian Bibliographic Centre, through the enactment in 1953 of the legislation that established the National Library and the requirement for legal deposit, and through the first 15 years of the Libraryís development, Kaye Lamb provided the vision, direction and leadership that were needed to nurture what was then the youngest of Canadaís national institutions, to obtain government support for its growth and expansion, and to ensure that the National Library fulfilled its "mandate for the future."

By way of closing, I want to go back to the inaugural address that Dr. Lamb gave at the CLA conference in 1947. In that address, he urged this new national association not to forget the little library. He compared the library to a telegraph office, noting that even the smallest library served as a "point of contact with a whole library world." He reminded the Association that making the network of libraries in Canada function that way was one of the things they were there to do. He urged his colleagues to "see that the big things we try to do on a national scale reach right down to the people at the cross-roads."

That sense of the interconnecting links between and among libraries, and the potential for serving all Canadians more effectively by actually making those links work, were clearly at the centre of Kaye Lambís vision for the National Library. That vision, I believe, not only served to set the direction for the Library in its early stages of development, but has given the National Library of Canada a sense of purpose and a sense of place within the wider Canadian library community that has shaped its development over a period of what is now close to 50 years. And that vision is part of the continuing legacy that Kaye Lamb has given to this country for the future.


From a "Tribute to Dr. Kaye Lamb" delivered at the memorial service for W. Kaye Lamb held in Vancouver on August 31, 1999, by Dr. Tom Delsey, Director General, Corporate Policy and Communication, National Library of Canada

Source: Reprinted from National Library News 31, no. 11 (November 1999)