Ninety years of the Cranbrook Public Library

Mike Selby recounts the humble beginnings of the Cranbrook Public Library.

There was no snow that day, but it was cold; the temperature was barely above zero. The group waited until nightfall, agreeing to meet shortly after 8 pm. There was only twelve of them, but that was all that was needed. Surprisingly, there was no doubt. Each one had a steely-eyed confidence. As much as they loved the place they lived in, they were about to change it forever.

This was February 23, 1925.

The met in the YMCA building. It no longer exists, but when it did it was at the end of Baker Street, across Van Horne and next to the railway tracks.

The group met for one purpose only — “to consider the advisability of taking steps to obtain a public library for the city.”

And that is how it began.  A winter meeting of like-minded individuals who, as much as they adored their hometown, desired to make its citizens “more intelligent, more tolerant, and more open-minded.” A public library in Cranbrook would help its users make the world a far better place. For this is what libraries do.

Minutes kept of the meeting are telling: “While it was deplored that the meeting was not more representative, it was felt the cause was a good one, had been successful in other places, and mainly required only the formation of a nucleus to grow to considerable dimensions through propaganda and publicity.”

There was no shilly-shallying amongst this group. No wishful thinking. Each member suffered from an absolute self-belief in what they were doing. They didn’t merely hope to make Cranbrook have a special future. They were forcing it into place. This was no easy thing. Dozens of public libraries had opened and closed across the province, including ones in Corbin, Fernie, and Port Alberni. Even Kamloops had closed its library.

This bold group split into two smaller groups. One would canvas Cranbrook residents for membership applications and support. The other would look for a suitable place to house the library.  A chairman was appointed, and he was tasked with asking the Provincial Library Commission in Victoria for materials and financial assistance.

‘The Library Twelve’ met again one week later. The door-to-door canvasing resulted in 116 new library memberships. A handful of suitable buildings had been investigated and narrowed down. The YMCA had a large room available. Not only was it rent free, but—more importantly—was heated. Something called the Clays Building was also suitable, but was not heated.  The best place appeared to be a large vacant space at the Cranbrook Post Office (which was then located where the CIBC currently resides). It was central, had heating, lights, and a janitor service. The Dominion (the name used at the time for our government) would charge the library $5 per month for rent.

Although only seven days had gone by since their last meeting, the chairman had not only written to the Provincial Library Commission, but had received a reply. Aid could be given only to associations, so that evening (March 9, 1925) the Cranbrook Public Library Association was born.

They were not alone. The Cranbrook City Council set aside $25 for the library. Cranbrook’s Rotary, Elks, and Gyro service clubs also provided assistance.  A resident donated use of his truck to collect books should anyone wish to donate them. The Cranbrook High School volunteered to do a second membership drive, and the local press (The Cranbrook Courier & The Cranbrook Herald) published notices about the library free of charge.

Meetings took place sporadicly for the next two months. Tables, chairs, and bookshelves were either purchased or built. Other items needed were “inkwells and pens,” “paper clasps,”  and “table blotter pads.”

Books, magazines, and newspapers began to pour in; some purchased, some donated, some loaned from other libraries. As today, the shelves were soon overflowing, so a few tables were exchanged for more bookshelves.

Almost as an afterthought, one of those irritating troublemakers wondered if a librarian should be hired at some point. An ad was quickly placed in both Cranbrook papers, offering a salary of $10 per month. Numerous applications were received, most asking if the salary could be raised between $20 and $30 monthly.

On July 4, 1925, the Cranbrook Public Library opened its doors to the public. That was 90 years ago.

It has had an exciting history, which will be covered in this column all month. In the mean time, please celebrate the past 90 years with us. The history of the library reflects the history of Cranbrook itself—a place most of us find as irresistible as the Library Twelve once did.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library