The earliest library: Merrickville Mechanics Institute

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Some things don’t seem to change very much over time. With the recent controversy over the cutbacks to Inter Library Loans, and the stagnation over years in government funding for libraries in Ontario, it is interesting to look back at the earliest form libraries took in the province, and to realise that governments have always held the financial power.

The first libraries of any kind were the Mechanics Institutes, an idea imported from England in the middle of the 1800’s. The Mechanics Institutes were planned as centres where “ordinary” people could read books and newspapers, and attend classes and lectures on a variety of educational topics. They were established in Ontario in 1856 by an Act of the Province of Canada, and the first one in Leeds and Grenville was set up in Merrickville the following year, aiming for “the diffusion of Knowledge by means of a Library, News Room and Public Lectures”.

People could join the Institute, and have access to the library, etc. by paying a small annual fee. This money was used to buy books of an uplifting nature. In practice, the most commonly read items were newspapers and novels rather than text books. Many Institutes were highly organised and ran lecture series and courses of a very practical nature, as well as ones on literary and historical topics. Famous speakers, such as Charles Dickens and Thomas D’Arcy McGee made a living touring these Institutes throughout the British Empire and speaking on popular topics, such as the Plays of Shakespeare, or the Poetry of Thomas Moore.

We have some correspondence, dating from 1885, which illustrates the bureaucracy and frustrations which were part of the daily life of the Mechanics Institute in Merrickville. The Institutes were operated under the control of the provincial Ministry of Education, which supplied annual grants for the purchase of books, etc. The Ministry also ran courses through which teachers of classes at the Institute could become certified in various subjects, which would then be provided to members, and for which the Ministry would give a grant of $20 per subject.

The Secretary of the MI in Merrickville in 1885, Alexander McDonald, wrote to the Minister for Education in June, 1885, asking about taking an Art Course, so as to give Drawing Classes to his members. The course ran through the summer vacation period, and, as a school teacher, Alexander was loathe to give up his holidays. He was unsure about his ability to pass the examination, as: “I have paid no attention to drawing since I was at Normal School about twelve years ago, and unless there was some chance of my passing in Freehand Drawing, I would not like to attend School and deprive myself of my usual holiday recreation”.

The Education Department official naturally refused to give any such guarantees, as: “it depends entirely on your own abilities and it is impossible for me to say what your chances are”. He did note, however, that “in the recent examinations about 50% passed”.

By October, Alexander was writing to the Ministry again, asking for a qualified Art teacher to be sent to Merrickville. It seems he had attended the course that Summer, but had “only passed in Freehand which has not rendered me eligible to draw grant”. But he had a “fine class of advanced pupils in my School”, to whom he taught drawing. No teacher was forthcoming, but the Ministry authorised Alexander to teach Freehand drawing at the MI, regardless of his abilities in other areas of Art.

The President of the Merrickville MI in 1885 was the local M.P.P., Henry Merrick. He and Alexander McDonald shared the running of the MI between them, although Henry was away much of the time at Queen’s Park. It does indicate the importance of the Mechanics Institute in the life of Merrickville that the local M.P.P. and the School Teacher were so closely involved in its operations. They were, as the correspondence makes clear, frustrated by the paperwork that was required by the Ministry before any grants could be received. In 1885, the only income the MI received to continue operating was $100 in membership fees, and an annual grant of $200 from the Ministry. Of this, 25% was to be spent on rent, the balance, in 1885, went on buying books. Librarians today may not be expected to qualify as Art teachers, but there is something familiar about the paperwork required to receive government funding, and the dedication to bringing books, learning and a wider world to the people of Merrickville.

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