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Tale of a Wandering Library

By Flora Macleod

The influence of the University of Alberta, everyone knows, goes far beyond that small but handsome group of buildings on its campus. Not least among these far-flung spheres of influence is that of the University Extension Library, for its books are circulated to every part of rural Alberta. And at the Library we are rather far-flung ourselves, being situated in the basement of Edmonton's Court House some three miles from the University. It was in 1941 that the Extension Library took up, in the Court House, this one of its several temporary abodes, and thereby, as they say, hangs a tale.

It all began in Athabasca Hall more than thirty years ago where a small room served as the offices of the newly established Extension Department. Mr. Ottewell was its Director and Miss Jessie Montgomery, just back from Library School in Wisconsin, became the first Librarian. Things went so well that soon it was necessary to move to larger quarters in the basement of the Arts Building. That must have been a rather simple move. There were a large number of Travelling Library boxes, but the Open Shelf collection was small; Miss Montgomery probably tucked it under her arm one morning and crossed the campus to the other building. The Library had grown, however, by 1921 when the next move came and the Department of Extension went temporarily to a building a few steps away. It is this building, the Power Plant, that has housed the rest of the Department ever since, but the Library did not settle down to any such stationary existence. After a little trouble with carbon-monoxide fumes that seeped into it from another branch of our institution of learning, the authorities decided that the twenty thousand books should be bundled off to the basement of what was then the Normal School. That was a very fine basement indeed, and the Library settled down to an existence of usefulness and peace which lasted for almost ten years.

This state of things could hardly have been expected to continue. War came; the Normal School was needed by Canada's Air Force and one of the Library's contributions to victory was to gather itself together as gracefully as possible and, with no very great hope of a home of its own, leave its fine basement to His Majesty's forces. The next stopping place turned out to be the University Rink, and the two months spent there were really long enough. While the roof leaked on the top layers of books, the mice gnawed the lower ones. It was damp and chilly, and besides, the space was needed for other things. In the meantime the Director and the Librarian had been searching most diligently, and at last in the Court House basement the Library found a home. It was of course a temporary one and rather discouraging to look at first sight, but we were grateful. As time went on, quantities of white paint made things look more cheerful. Tactfully but surely Miss Montgomery acquired more space and still a little more until now you can walk frontwards as well as sideways between the stacks and, except when a large number of Travelling Library boxes are in, you can pick your way quite easily and safely down the entrance passage. It is true that we sometimes hear dark rumblings about the need for the space we occupy, but come what may, we shall always he grateful to the Court House authorities and to its staff who let us share their basement with such friendliness and helpfulness.

The tale of the wanderings of the Extension Library might be considered a rather doleful one. Libraries are not the simplest things to move, and adequate space makes a great deal of difference in the ease with which they can be run. But The Extension Library (which through its vicissitudes has now developed a personality of its own) was never discouraged. In the first place it had an indomitable librarian; Miss Montgomery's spirit, and her belief in her work were such that no difficulties could daunt her. Miss Chivertun, the Assistant Librarian, and other members of the staff were of like metal. Then again, little moves and small distances are apt to seem comparatively unimportant at the Extension Library. We have our eyes focused on far places, and our sympathies and interests go out across the miles – to the far north and the mountains and the southern prairies. Why should we be concerned about a little jaunt from the Skating Rink to the Court House?

"To the stars through difficulties" our successors at the Normal School said. Our stars are so clear and so shiny that difficulties cannot hide them. Rural Alberta is not one of the privileged places of the earth so far as library service is concerned, and in the thirty-two years from 1913 to her retirement in 1945 Miss Montgomery built up a library that is an oasis in a rather large desert. The need for it is obvious to anyone who believes in books as one of the good things of life and who knows of the need there is for them in country places.

It is in the Library itself, however, working among its books and hearing from the people who use it that you really come to understand its significance. It is nice to remember the farmer who could barely speak English, coming in for books about Canada for his children so that they could learn more than he had been able to about this country to which they belong. It is pleasant to be told that on some remote farm the regular parcel of books from the Extension Library is like a weekly Christmas present, or that snow drifts and solitude are no longer to be dreaded since the discovery of the Extension Library. It is even gratifying to hear about the little Metis down North who decided to keep The Story Book of Food for himself — he had never realized, his teacher said, that food could be so interesting and thought evidently that reading about it constantly was next best to eating it. Above all, you cannot spend much time at the Extension Library without having the greatest respect for the wide and intelligent interests of many of the people who use it. Should the Library set out on its travels once again, we hope it will be to a permanent dwelling place worthy of its readers.

Published July 1946.

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