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Remember This? Private library club became public and free to all in 1903

Newmarket Public Library has its roots in the Mechanics Institute Hall, still standing as an apartment building on Millard brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound on Facebook or at [email protected].

One of the topics in my local history lecture series at Newmarket Public Library centres on the history of Newmarket’s own library system. For those who were unable to attend this presentation, I have written an article in which I try to boil down a two-hour presentation into a few words.

The model for our public library system, which came to us from England, originates with the Mechanics Institute.

Very few of our ancestors had a formal education and membership in the Mechanics Institute afforded the average citizen a form of adult education in the trades and crafts of the day, as well as providing people with a background to the literary classics of the day such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Doyle and many others.

The Mechanics Institute of Newmarket was first formed in December 1856. Its officers were elected and an application was sent to the Ontario Legislature to obtain a Charter of Incorporation. In 1865, the Mechanics Institute had erected a hall adjacent to the Grammar School on Lot Street, now Millard Street, on the north side. The building, which is still standing and was converted to apartments in 1946, was a landmark in our community for more than 50 years.

In 1912, the building was purchased by the Pyramid Lodge of the I.O.O.F., the International Order of Foresters. During the Second World War, it became Club 14, a dance hall that sported great live music and food and offered the men from the Newmarket Military Camp an opportunity to relax and meet the local population off base.

Each incorporated Mechanics Institute received a small grant from the Department of Agriculture until 1880. However, they primarily depended on their own resources to raise the necessary operating expenses from membership dues, concerts, lecture series and exhibitions, and rental fees from other local organizations. It was, in essence, a private library.

In 1880, all the Mechanics Institutes were transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Education, prompting much larger grants for the purchase of books and establishment of programs.

In 1885, the Province passed an act permitting each town to raise funds for the Institute through public taxation. That year, Newmarket’s Institute had 35 paid members and 826 volumes in its library.

In 1895, the Ontario Legislature passed a bill making the Mechanics Institute obsolete and ordering each town to establish public libraries, open to all citizens.

Each public library was to be under the control of an appointed board, selected by Town Council. These new public libraries were to be open to all and totally free of charge. However, to receive a grant from the province, the library had to have a membership of at least 100, 50 of those members aged over 21.

By 1901, our library had a membership of 134 and so, in November, the library board rented premises at the corner of Main and Park Avenue where the former post office is currently located. In 1903, a referendum was held and the citizens of Newmarket approved the creation of our first public library.  

In 1912, the library moved south on Main Street to the Cawthra Building at the northwest corner of Water Street. In 1922, the library moved yet again, to the Wesley Block at the northwest corner of Main and Botsford streets, which it called home until 1956, when a building was built at its present location on Park Avenue, west of Main.

Interesting fact, the library was built thanks to a bequest by the late Edgar Bogart in his will for that purpose. The new library was opened by the Minister of Education Saturday, June 9, 1956 after a considerable delay due to problems with construction and cost overruns.    

In the original library, the librarian sat behind a window, and patrons would come in and request books. The librarian would then go back to the shelves and retrieve the books. There was no self-serve service.

Mrs. David Jones was the first librarian, from 1900 to 1926, the longest serving librarian in the area at the time. She was followed by her daughter, Mrs. Streeter, who served until 1929. Then Mrs. E. Carrick served until 1934, when Miss Sadie Burrows became librarian for the next 10 years. She was replaced by Miss Nellie Holliday, until 1945, when Miss Doris Cane became librarian until 1953. Several people held the position over the next 19 years, until Mrs. Nellie Little took over.

It is worth noting that our first fully qualified librarian was Mrs. Nina May Walsh, who served just one year in 1971. She was succeeded by chief librarian Lisa Lo, until an unfortunate CUPE staff strike occurred.

Since that time, the staff at the library has increased and a CEO, Todd Kyle, was hired in 2010 to oversee the administration and growth of the institution.

In 1974, a portable building 32 by 24 feet was added to the south side of the library and it remained until 1978, when the library expanded from 5,500 square feet to just over 18,000, prompting the closure of the library to the public from Sept. 9, 1978 to Jan. 2, 1979.

The new facility was equipped with an elevator and ramps for accessibility. Multi-purpose rooms for library programs and community group activities were added. All the equipment was replaced, including audio-visual projectors and computers. The town has made an ongoing commitment to modernize the facilities and infrastructure, with the Media Hub on the second floor being added recently.

The library’s book collection is ever expanding and now with an inter-library borrowing system, if a book is not available in Newmarket, it can be ordered from another library.

While some work has been done on the library in the intervening years, the last expansion was in the 1970s.

The future of our library is in question at this point. Some say we have outgrown the need for a library, given the plethora of information and services online. The library has expanded its services online to better serve the community. Those of us who love the feel of books will never replace them with computer screens. We have the best of both worlds at the library, the latest technology and digital books and resources for those so inclined and racks of print books for those who love the feel of paper in their hands.

The library has become a centre for learning, with its presentation rooms booked solid year-round with a variety of classes, seminars, community groups and study groups. The building is bulging at the seams.  I conduct bi-monthly heritage seminars there and I really don’t know where I would turn if not for the facilities they provide.

Back in 1856, our town founders acknowledged the need for a public library to serve all the people of Newmarket, free and open to all. This mandate has been followed all these years later and it is imperative that we continue to maintain our library system, to hand it off to our children and to ensure that it remains the centre of learning and culture that our ancestors intended it to be.  

This presentation was delivered at my library this year, affording everyone in town the opportunity to learn a little local history.  Where else could these presentations take place and what better venue than the library for community education and culture?

Sources: The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; The Newmarket Era Online at the Newmarket Library; The Newmarket Archives; The Newmarket Historical Newsletters