The Cranbrook Library: 1925

Booknotes looks at the early days of an Cranbrook institution

There were a lot of firsts in 1925. The very first motel (short for “motorists’ hotel”) opened it doors in San Luis Obispo, California. The first female governor was elected in the United States. The first issue of a new magazine called “The New Yorker” appeared, as did the very first Sears Roebuck department store (it had been a catalog only business until then). The first story featuring Winnie the Pooh was published in a London newspaper, while a German firm published the first volume of something called “Mein Kampf.”

Also in this year, the very first public library in Cranbrook, B.C., opens it doors.

Located in the Cranbrook Post Office (the CIBC currently resides in this location), the Cranbrook Public Library was initially open only on specific afternoons and evenings of the week. Mrs. A. S. Rumsay was Cranbrook’s first Public Librarian, hired after answering an add offering a salary of $10 a week (she had it bumped up to a healthy $15.)  The small but growing collection offered the citizens of Cranbrook a good selection of fiction, non-fiction, biographies, and local newspapers. While magazine subscriptions did not really take off properly until the 1940s, the library did manage to subscribe to “National Geographic” and “Popular Mechanics” (an amazingly perceptive choice; the library still subscribes to these).

As the 1930s rolled around so did the Great Depression, causing everyone to tighten their purse strings. In April of 1932 the Cranbrook City Council regretfully informed the library that they could only afford to give $180 of their $300 annual grant. Mrs. Rumsay, who had recently been giving a long overdue raise, suggested her salary be cut to make up for the shortage. This way there would be no interruption in library services. The city agreed, and Rumsay was back to $15.

To help out during this time, the Cranbrook YMCA, run by the Canadian Pacific Railway, donated all their books from their reading room to the library.

1935 was greeted by letter from the Provincial Secretary, urging all public libraries to dispense with paid librarians altogether, and replace them with volunteers.  Back in reality, the board members discussed finances, the need for more shelving,  and urged each other engage in “more serious reading” (a definition as elusive then as it is today).

The board met again in October, this time to discuss a book. A patron had asked the library board to review the novel “And Quiet Flows the Don” by Mikhail Sholokhov. An dense epic about Cossacks living along the Don river, the concerned patron thought it to be “unfit” for Cranbrook readers. A board member had read it cover to cover, and also found it “unfit.” It was then voted not to acquire this title. It is with deep regret that no one recorded just what exactly was so “unfit” about it. Not only is “And Quiet Flows the Don” one of the most significant works of Russian literature to come out of the 20th century, but Sholokhov was awarded the Nobel Prize for it.

At least this was handled appropriately. Not so with a decade later, when a patron — incensed at seeing the library had a copy of John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ —took it upon themselves to immediately destroy it.  While not alone in his opinion — Steinbeck’s masterpiece is one of the most challenged books of all time — this poor soul had to face a very unhappy librarian and her board members.

More shelved were built under windows and over radiators, but as the 1950s approached, the Cranbrook Public Library clearly needed more space.