Over its 125-and-counting year history, the London Public Library served as a community space and continues that mandate.

The 16 branches across London, ON provide access to plenty of materials like books, music, and videos. The material can also be accessed online through the website and apps like Hoopla, Libby, and Kanopy. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the library and its branches were used for events and group gatherings. Events varied from music performances to Nature in the City meetings.

The London Public Library is also a great place to learn about local history. Arthur McLelland, a London Room Librarian for the London Public Library, said that the library contains lots of opportunities for Londoners to learn about local history, including through the London Room.

Arthur McLelland and Mark Richardson in the London Public Library London Room
(Left to right) Librarians Arthur McLelland and Mark Richardson standing inside the London Room, which is full of photographs, books, articles, and meeting minutes outlining London’s history.

“We keep putting more and more things online so people will be aware that there’s some really interesting stuff here,” McLelland said

While the library doesn’t hold the City of London archives, it has lots of information about London, including photographs and articles. First-time homeowners also visit the library to learn more about the history of the home they purchased.

Below are some of the historical events that have shaped the library, especially as a space for community, and how the library continues to adapt over time.

An Innovative Public Library

McLelland said that the library’s first monumental event was the formation of the public library in 1895. Before the first public library existed, London had the Mechanics Institute from 1835 to 1895.

“It took three votes [to form the library]. The first two votes were turned down by the constituents of the city.” McLelland said. “Because it was going to be a public institution, public tax would go towards it.”

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Several past library staff shaped the London Public Library into what it is today. William O. Carson, the chief librarian between 1906 to 1916, made it possible for open access to library shelves. Patrons could go up to a shelf and pick out the materials themselves.

A selection of books from the London Public Library
After 1908, London Public Library patrons could access shelves to access materials like books.

“Before 1908, you had to ask a staff member to retrieve materials for you, sort of like now with COVID,” McLelland said.

Another former chief librarian of the London Public Library, Richard Crouch, advocated for adult education during his time as the chief librarian

“For years, we had some programming, but he really pushed it so we became known as leaders in adult programming in the library world, or at least in Canada,” McLelland said.

The Crouch Neighbourhood Resource Centre operates in the library branch named after him to this day.

Reaching Out to the Greater Community

The Central location of the London Public Library is the main branch, but the organization branched out to the greater community throughout its history.

The first library branch opened in 1915, and two more followed in 1924. There are 15 more library branches in addition to the Central location in downtown London.

The London Public Library Bookmobile service was launched in 1950, and through that, allowing the library to service areas that the branches couldn’t reach. Some bookmobile stops eventually became library branches.

The front of the Central Location of the London Public Library in London, ON
The London Public Library and its branches serves as a community space. Its role in the community is highlighted throughout its 150-year history.

The Visiting Library, then-called the Shut-In Library, opened in 1972 out of Mobile Services. The Visiting Library reached out to those who could not leave their homes and visit the library.

The London Public Library also became involved with events over the years, both inside and outside its spaces. The London Public Library held programs at the Victoria Park Bandshell where singers, speakers, and artists performed. Pre-COVID, the Wolf Performance Hall held events like Jazz for the People, and other rooms in the library were used as gathering spaces.

The London Public Library was one of the first libraries to rent artwork, beginning in 1942.

“The art gallery was part of the library at the time,” McLelland explained. “As part of their agreement, they offered art programs, exhibits, local artists who’d come in and exhibit their stuff and talk about their work and actually loan it or sell it. It was a really good program for artists.”

The library has also been a space where Londoners find helpful services such as tax clinics.

Digital Age and COVID-19: Adapting Over Time

The London Public Library incorporated new material and programming over the years. It’s also changed its programming and services with the times. The library offered its first non-book item, film, starting in 1942. VHS tapes and then DVDs later replaced film. The LABS, a multi-media centre where patrons can create audio, video, 3D printing, sewing, cricut, and other projects, opened in 2018.

A microphone
The LABS allows London Public Library patrons to create multi-media and other creative projects.

In February, the library launched the We Pick program, where library staff choose books for readers to pick up from a branch.

“A lot of people, because of their age or just because of the COVID thing they don’t want to come out,” McLelland explained. “So they can email us what they’d like to read, the kind of things they like to read and we pick them and set them aside and they could either come in themselves or send somebody in to pick it up for them. It’s been a very popular program.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions also provided challenges to the London Public Library. While browsing libraries and picking up items is still an option, group gathering is not currently possible.

“A lot of things are being done over Zoom — book clubs, other associations that would’ve met here with their groups — are meeting online through Zoom or teams or whatever platform that they decide.”

Some programming is available online as well.

The Importance of Promoting the History of the library

McLelland added that learning about the history of libraries is important because some people question their continued relevance, especially with the abundance of information found on the Internet.

A frog wearing a face mask next to a children's bookshelf
A frog in the Children’s Library wearing a face mask is a sign of adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The truth is everything isn’t on the Internet. And even if it is on the Internet, sometimes it’s very difficult to access or download or whatever,” he said. He added that the challenge of finding information on the Internet is similar to finding material in book collections.

“You can know our book collection really well, but if you have somebody who can really navigate it for you, it makes it easier for you and same with the Internet.”

Another reason to promote library services and their history is to continue funding.

“You want to make sure that you’re important enough in the community that people recognize ‘Hey, yeah. We don’t want to lose that branch or that service or those cutbacks,’” McLelland said.

To learn more about the history of the London Public Library, visit londonpubliclibrary.ca/research/local-history/london-public-library-history.

All photos by Emily Stewart 

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