Library innovator honoured for bringing information to millions

Donor generosity memorializes Ernie Ingles, just weeks after his passing

For more than two decades, Ernie Ingles was chief librarian of the University of Alberta, but his vision to make information available to all — student or not — embraced the entire country, particularly Western Canada. Two long-time friends of Ingles have stepped forward to ensure lasting recognition of this visionary bibliophile. 

Ernie Ingles

“Today’s library user and researcher has a lot to thank Ernie for,” says Dale Askey, the U of A’s chief librarian. “In this world of instant access to information — some helpful, some harmful — through the internet, Ernie knew that physical books and manuscripts offer a deeper and more profound view into history and culture.”

Ingles passed away on Sept. 17, 2020, at the age of 71. 

Former U of A chancellor Ralph Young, ’73 MBA, ’16 LLD (Honorary), and his wife, Gay, made a gift to expand the university’s collection of Western Canadian heritage materials and requested that a special space be named in Ingles’ honour. 

The Ernest (Ernie) B. Ingles Reading Room is located in Bruce Peel Special Collections, a donor-supported research and teaching library on the University of Alberta’s North Campus. The library houses more than 100,000 rare books and other significant archival materials. Before the COVID-19 pandemic significantly scaled back travel, it drew researchers from around the world. 

Robert Desmarais, head of the special collections, says Ingles was known on campus as a “force of nature” who made the U of A a preferred destination for researchers.

“He was a visionary, a big-picture thinker,” Desmarais says. “He wanted the U of A to be a library of record, which means preserving the records of human civilization.”

Early preservation

Ingles’ drive to ensure libraries played this significant role was sparked early in his career. He was just four years removed from graduating from UBC with his master of library sciences when, in 1978, he helped lead the monumental task of assembling and preserving Canada’s early archival materials, which were scattered in libraries across the continent and even overseas.

As part of that project, Ingles helped establish the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions, which painstakingly copied millions of documents onto microfilm. The institute later merged with the Canadian Research Knowledge Network and its collection was renamed The free, digital collection consists of more than 60 million pages of documents, such as newspapers and government publications. 

One province, one library

Ingles joined the U of A as chief librarian in 1990, ultimately assuming the role of vice-provost, too. While working to build the university’s collection and reputation, he also helped found The Alberta Library (TAL), a consortium that today encompasses 49 libraries and library systems, allowing bulk buying and mass sharing of materials. 

“The Alberta Library of the day was just a whole bunch of libraries; they were not really talking much to each other and were doing nothing that was integrative,” Ingles told Folio in 2013.

TAL was a revolution for North American libraries, and its model has been replicated across Canada. Ingles strengthened ties between libraries even further by helping to launch the NEOS Library Consortium of academic and governmental libraries, the Lois Hole Campus Alberta Digital Library and the Health Knowledge Network. 

He received many accolades for his work, including a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and an appointment as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, which made him the first practising librarian to receive the honour. Ingles deeply cherished the recognition he received for establishing the First Nations Information Connection online catalogue. In 2011, southern Alberta’s Red Crow Community College conferred an honorary Blackfoot Eminent Scholar Kainai PhD upon Ingles, along with the Blackfoot title “Kaahsinnoon,” meaning “elder.” He retired from the U of A in 2015.

Champion of the West

Desmarais says Ingles was a passionate collector in his own right and gave many of his books to the U of A Library. The reading room named in Ingles’ honour is designed to host workshops where students will gain deeper appreciation for and understanding of significant historical works.

Ralph and Gay Young say that Ingles was instrumental in the repatriation and preservation of materials related to the historical, intellectual and cultural wealth of Canada. 

“Ernie Ingles was a pre-eminent Canadian librarian and champion of Western Canadian heritage,” says Ralph. “His visionary leadership has left a lasting legacy at the University of Alberta for future students and scholars.”

An in-person event will be held to formally name the reading room in Ingles’ honour once the pandemic subsides, says Askey.