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Paul Sparkes: ‘Not by bread alone’


“Books were regarded by many as a luxury which they could easily do without. I remember a woman coming to our house on one occasion and, seeing the crowded bookshelves remarking that it seemed like an awful waste of money …” — From Jessie Beaumont Mifflin’s “Journey to Yesterday: In the Out-harbours of Newfoundland” (1983). Mifflin served as chief regional librarian and director of Public Library Services in Newfoundland.

Mention Newfoundland to people in other places and I doubt if the first word that comes to their minds would be “books.” For the most part, we grew from working stock and, like Jessie Mifflin’s visitor quoted above, working people had no time for the idle leisure which books seemed to suggest.

Yet when, in 1936, Harold Newell wrote a piece on the new Gosling Memorial Public Library in St. John’s, he noted that from the day when the library was officially opened by Gov. David Murray Anderson on Jan. 9th of that year to the end of the ensuing June, no fewer than 53,000 “borrowings” had been recorded. And the tally of registered borrowers went over 6,000 in that brief six months. Think about it: St. John’s was then a town of some 40,000. That must be some sort of record for book readers per capita.

Newell wrote his two-page article for inclusion in Joseph Smallwood’s 1937 “The Book of Newfoundland.” Newell had been named by the government as librarian in 1934 but I think I am right in saying that most of the time between his appointment in July of that year and the opening of “the Gosling” about a year-and-a-half later was taken up with organizing, finding board members, buying books, cataloguing. And in that time, money and books were happily received, including, in 1935, an assortment of 2,000 books from Grand Falls founder Harold Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere, “many of which are standard works of reference, Newell wrote. 

Much earlier, in 1926 to be exact, our request to the Carnegie Corporation in the United States for help with launching a public library system was answered to the tune of $5,000. In his book “The Development of Education in Newfoundland” (1964), Frederick W. Rowe notes that what the Carnegie grant made possible was “a ‘travelling’ library of about 7,000 books sent out in boxes to schools and adult groups upon request. This travelling library later was merged with the regional library service.”

The Gosling Memorial Library (if you lost your brakes atop Cathedral Street you would end up among the books) remained active in its Duckworth Street location for nigh-on 30 years I believe, until it relocated to the Arts and Culture Centre, built in 1967.

One of our intellectuals of several generations ago, Newell would not be expected merely to report on our public libraries. He would be expected to insert a little philosophy. And so he wrote that he saw books as the means (particularly for those long out of school) “whereby our people may find that knowledge, and perhaps wisdom, which will enable them to live fuller and richer lives.”

Note that Newell does not equate knowledge necessarily with wisdom.

The capital city’s first public and free library was born amidst financial trouble. Two years before, our near-broke little Dominion had meekly accepted Commission of Government from Britain. And like elsewhere, we were still suffering from global depression. We did not have a lot going for us. Yet in such straits, we opened a public library based on what sounds like a motley collection of books from the estate of William Gosling. He was a former St. John’s mayor, noted businessman and author.  In Rowe’s book (referenced above), we learn that our very first public lending library “appears to have been the one started at Grand Falls by the Northcliffe interests following the establishment of the pulp and paper mill in 1909.” 

Here’s an extract from renowned Newfoundlander Art Scammell (“Squid Jiggin’ Ground”): “In Change Islands, of course, we were pretty much book-starved … books, after all, were not absolutely necessary for physical survival and there, life was pared down to the essentials.”

So, are libraries relevant in the day and age of the Internet? Have they become the horses that leap in fear as the belching automobile scurries by? It would be difficult, I think, to make an argument for favouring investment to support a library as opposed to supporting connectivity; but can anyone argue in favour of the Internet and no books? Aren’t we seeing the transition of our reading medium? If yes, then we need both bound paper and computer screen. Should we be forcing evolution or allowing it to follow its natural pace? 

“Captain Nemo rose and I followed him. A folding door, contrived at the back of the room, opened, and I entered a room about the same size as the one I had just left. It was a library. Books of science, ethics and literature — written in every language — were there in quantities; but I did not see a single work on political economy amongst them…”

(One hopes the premier does not blame me for that; it was written by Jules Verne in the mid-19th. century).

A note to readers

Anyone interested in supplementary reading may reference Atlantic Guardian magazine, June 1948. That issue contained a two-page spotlight with photos.

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email psparkes@thetelegram.com

 

Mention Newfoundland to people in other places and I doubt if the first word that comes to their minds would be “books.” For the most part, we grew from working stock and, like Jessie Mifflin’s visitor quoted above, working people had no time for the idle leisure which books seemed to suggest.

Yet when, in 1936, Harold Newell wrote a piece on the new Gosling Memorial Public Library in St. John’s, he noted that from the day when the library was officially opened by Gov. David Murray Anderson on Jan. 9th of that year to the end of the ensuing June, no fewer than 53,000 “borrowings” had been recorded. And the tally of registered borrowers went over 6,000 in that brief six months. Think about it: St. John’s was then a town of some 40,000. That must be some sort of record for book readers per capita.

Newell wrote his two-page article for inclusion in Joseph Smallwood’s 1937 “The Book of Newfoundland.” Newell had been named by the government as librarian in 1934 but I think I am right in saying that most of the time between his appointment in July of that year and the opening of “the Gosling” about a year-and-a-half later was taken up with organizing, finding board members, buying books, cataloguing. And in that time, money and books were happily received, including, in 1935, an assortment of 2,000 books from Grand Falls founder Harold Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere, “many of which are standard works of reference, Newell wrote. 

Much earlier, in 1926 to be exact, our request to the Carnegie Corporation in the United States for help with launching a public library system was answered to the tune of $5,000. In his book “The Development of Education in Newfoundland” (1964), Frederick W. Rowe notes that what the Carnegie grant made possible was “a ‘travelling’ library of about 7,000 books sent out in boxes to schools and adult groups upon request. This travelling library later was merged with the regional library service.”

The Gosling Memorial Library (if you lost your brakes atop Cathedral Street you would end up among the books) remained active in its Duckworth Street location for nigh-on 30 years I believe, until it relocated to the Arts and Culture Centre, built in 1967.

One of our intellectuals of several generations ago, Newell would not be expected merely to report on our public libraries. He would be expected to insert a little philosophy. And so he wrote that he saw books as the means (particularly for those long out of school) “whereby our people may find that knowledge, and perhaps wisdom, which will enable them to live fuller and richer lives.”

Note that Newell does not equate knowledge necessarily with wisdom.

The capital city’s first public and free library was born amidst financial trouble. Two years before, our near-broke little Dominion had meekly accepted Commission of Government from Britain. And like elsewhere, we were still suffering from global depression. We did not have a lot going for us. Yet in such straits, we opened a public library based on what sounds like a motley collection of books from the estate of William Gosling. He was a former St. John’s mayor, noted businessman and author.  In Rowe’s book (referenced above), we learn that our very first public lending library “appears to have been the one started at Grand Falls by the Northcliffe interests following the establishment of the pulp and paper mill in 1909.” 

Here’s an extract from renowned Newfoundlander Art Scammell (“Squid Jiggin’ Ground”): “In Change Islands, of course, we were pretty much book-starved … books, after all, were not absolutely necessary for physical survival and there, life was pared down to the essentials.”

So, are libraries relevant in the day and age of the Internet? Have they become the horses that leap in fear as the belching automobile scurries by? It would be difficult, I think, to make an argument for favouring investment to support a library as opposed to supporting connectivity; but can anyone argue in favour of the Internet and no books? Aren’t we seeing the transition of our reading medium? If yes, then we need both bound paper and computer screen. Should we be forcing evolution or allowing it to follow its natural pace? 

“Captain Nemo rose and I followed him. A folding door, contrived at the back of the room, opened, and I entered a room about the same size as the one I had just left. It was a library. Books of science, ethics and literature — written in every language — were there in quantities; but I did not see a single work on political economy amongst them…”

(One hopes the premier does not blame me for that; it was written by Jules Verne in the mid-19th. century).

A note to readers

Anyone interested in supplementary reading may reference Atlantic Guardian magazine, June 1948. That issue contained a two-page spotlight with photos.

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email psparkes@thetelegram.com

 

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