Notes from the Ottawa Room...

The Carnegie Library – Ottawa’s First Public Library – 100 Years Old on April 30, 2006

Before the 20th century, the city of Ottawa had a few reading rooms in hotel lobbies, and some small fee-based libraries for working men, but no truly free place for anyone to read. The city’s active Local Council of Women took up the cause of a free library open to all. They announced, just before the election of 1896, that the mansion of George Perley, a local lumber baron, was donated in his will as a home for the library. However, the city voted down the motion to build a library . . . the city just didn’t have any money to spare for “luxuries.”

Andrew Carnegie

In 1901, a request for financial support was mailed to Andrew Carnegie. The American steel magnate was already well known for his philanthropic efforts, which began in the early 1880s, funding the establishment of well over 3,000 libraries, in almost every U.S. state, as well as Canada, and overseas in Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies and Fiji. Usually, he would undertake to endow the building and equipping of a proposed library, but only on condition that the local authority provided a suitable site and agreed to pay for its operation and maintenance.

In his reply to the request from Ottawa, Carnegie wrote that he would offer $100,000 to the city to build a library if it provided the site, and pledged to pay $7,500 a year to maintain it. The city eventually agreed (in January 1903) and three years later, the library was built and opened to the public.

First Ottawa Public Library

On April 30, 1906, Ottawa’s first public library, the Carnegie Library, was officially opened. It was located at 120 Metcalfe St., at the corner of Metcalfe and Laurier Avenue West (where the present Main Branch stands). The building cost approximately $200,000, and had been made possible by the $100,000 endowment from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation. Carnegie personally attended the official opening — the only time he attended the opening of any of the 111 Ontario libraries funded by his Foundation.

“. . . As he (Andrew Carnegie) crossed the threshold, Carnegie did not notice the title ‘OTTAWA PUBLIC LIBRARY’ chiselled into the façade’s stone above his head. The carving — an indiscretion, it should have read ‘THE CARNEGIE LIBRARY’ — had been hidden behind a large, strategically placed Union Jack.”

E.L. Horwood

The Carnegie Library, built for a city with a population of 60,000, provided approximately 30,000 square feet of space. The citizens of Ottawa were generally very pleased “. . . to see the inside of architect E.L. Horwood’s creation, with its floors of crushed marble, red-oak finishing, bronze-edged staircase and stained-glass window honouring several authors, featuring Ottawa’s resident poet Archibald Lampman in company with Britain’s Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Thomas More, Walter Scott, William Shakespeare and Alfred Tennyson.”

Stained glass window

[Interesting fact about the stained-glass window: it was designed and built by the architect’s father, Harry Horwood, who had established a stained glass studio (H. Horwood and Son) in Ottawa in the 1870s, and had already fabricated the beautiful stained glass windows (recently fully restored) at Ottawa’s Notre Dame Cathedral, overlooking Sussex Drive and the National Gallery.]

(Quotes from The library book: an overdue history of the Ottawa Public Library, 1906–2001 by Phil Jenkins. 2002.)


Ottawa Room resources include: