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College Quarterly
Spring 1995 - Volume 2 Number 3
Free Books for All: The Public Library Movement in Ontario, 1850-1930
Lorne Bruce
Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1994
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Twice in this issue, I've had to confess a bias. Earlier, I acknowledged that I was marginally involved in the U.S. “anti-war” phenomenon. Now, I must admit to cherishing books and to being quite chuffed to have recently been appointed to the Library Board in my local community. That said, I further own that I'm rather fond of Clifford Stoll's recent book, Silicon Snake Oil. He has lots to say about the absurdity of modern communications media. He is particularly clever at showing the limits of the computer as a virtual library. He, like me, adores the smell of musty old volumes, card files held in narrow wooden drawers, and ancient treasures that have never been referenced on the Internet but must be passed on by word of mouth.

With this background, it may not seem unduly odd that I would recommend a book about the history of libraries in Ontario, but that others would react to such a volume with more than a groan of “boring!” is surely passing strange. Nonetheless, Lorne Bruce's meticulously researched and engagingly written Free Books for All is a splendid example of Canadian social history. It is of interest to anyone keen to understand Ontario's past, but it is a “must read” for any student enroled in a library technician program in this province.

As colleges train library workers to speed in the passing lane of the information highway, curmudgeons like me worry that a sense of history and context may be missed. Library science is no mere technical discipline nor does it depend exclusively on familiarity with the latest biblio-technology. Libraries were and are repositories of wisdom as well as mere information. They were and are also places for telling social controversies to be focused. From debates about censorship and public morals to questions of social class relations, the public library was and is a highly political place.

Often built by the efforts of what we are now pleased to call “ordinary” Canadians, libraries were centres of literacy in an era when the ability to read and write was celebrated. Winning public financing for libraries through tax revenues was a major social reform and, in some cases, stubbornly refusing the cash offered by U.S. steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to erect library buildings was an act of old-fashioned patriotism that bordered on the gallant. Above all, the ethic of self-help radiates through the struggles of professional librarians, philanthropists and common people who believed, with uncommon passion, in the value of free inquiry (free in the sense of unbridled curiosity and free in the sense of a public asset to be enjoyed by all) with no user fees.

Howard A. Doughty is Editor of The College Quarterly.