The library that unites the nations

Booknotes looks at the Haskell Free Library that straddles the Canada/US border

Mike Selby

“As always, our work as nations remains rooted in the friendship between our peoples.”

So President Obama stated in March of last year, during his speech when he welcomed Prime Minister Trudeau to the White House.

“And we see that every day in communities along our shared border. Up in Hyder, Alaska, folks head across the border to celebrate Canada Day, and folks in Stewart, British Columbia, come over for the Fourth of July. At the baseball diamond in Coutts, Alberta, if you hit a home run, there’s a good chance the ball will land in Sweetgrass, Montana. And up where Derby Line, Vermont meets Stanstead, Quebec, Americans and Canadians come together at the local library where the border line literally runs right across the floor.”

Obama was talking about the Haskell Free Library, also known as the Haskell Free Library & Opera House. It does, indeed, straddle the border between Canada and the United States — the only library on earth to do so.

Why this is so goes back to 1771, when surveyors — who were suppose to mark the border at the 45th parallel — either became confused, or drunk, or both. For whatever reason they zigzagged too far north of the 45th parallel, thus locating a small part of Vermont, and the city of Derby Line, into what should have been Quebec. Settlements grew from then on, until the towns of Derby Line and Standstead began to resemble just one larger town.

And residents on both sides of the border treated it as such. One report states that residents of both countries “drank the same water, worked in the same tool factory, played the same sports (primarily curling), fought in the same world wars, and were born in the same hospital.”

The library which would belong to both towns was the brainchild of Martha Stewart Haskell (a Canadian), who wanted it as a memorial to her late husband Carlos F. Haskell (an American). The two-story brick building would deliberately straddle the international boundary, provided access to both the citizens of Standstead and Derby Line.

While the first floor of the building would function as a public library, the upstairs would hold an opera house. This was almost a genius move, as the plan was to have all profits from the opera house fund the library. “Almost” a genius move… as no one could have anticipated the appearance of motion picture theatres, which virtually killed the opera business. In a complete reversal of intentions, the library has supported the opera house since both opened in 1904.

The logistics of the library are clearly unique. The books are all shelved on the Canadian side, but the entrance is in the U.S. This goes for the opera house as well — the seats are in American but the stage is in Canada. The staff is international, and service is always available in French.

A small fire broke out one year, not causing much damage but causing a huge fight between the Canadian and American insurance companies. Like angry roommates, they had surveyors mark the exact border with black tape, so now each would know just what part of the building they are responsible for (this may be how wars begin).

Americans can easily come and go, as the entrance is in their country. Canadians have a slightly more difficult entrance, as they must enter the U.S. to use the library. A longstanding tacit agreement with the American border officials has all parties pretending that the Canadian patrons never really left Canada.

This look the other way practice is for library patrons only, as those trying to bypass border security inevitably find out. Homeland Security is quick to pounce anyone straying from the library itself into the town of Derby Line. Like any international border, it is under heavy surveillance, and the RCMP and Homeland Security have stopped individuals trying to run drugs and guns through the library. Even a Derby Line resident, who developed a taste for Quebec pizza, spent time in jail by trying to use the library to smuggle in various slices.

Both countries recognize the Haskell Free Library and Opera House as a national heritage site.

The Library remains one of the best examples of — as President Obama said so eloquently — “even as we remember what makes us unique, Americans and Canadians, we see ourselves in each other.”

Mike Selby is

Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook

Public Library