LOCAL HISTORY

The New Westminster Public Library (est. 1865) is B.C.’s oldest library and is home to an impressive collection of genealogical and local history resources.  Most resources do not circulate and are thus for in-library use only. A library card, driver’s license, or other ID may be required to use certain items.

Library staff are available to help in person, by phone or via e-mail.

Phone: (604) 527-4665

Email: AskUs@nwpl.ca

NEW WESTMINSTER PUBLIC LIBRARY HISTORY

  • 1865

     

    The Great Fire

    The New Westminster Public Library is a vibrant, modern library situated in the city of New Westminster (pop. 52,000), in the Greater Vancouver area of British Columbia, Canada.

    The Library holds the distinction of being the first public library in the province of British Columbia. It owes its existence to two events. In 1865, New Westminster was the capital of the mainland colony of British Columbia, recently carved from the forest on the banks of the Fraser River by the Royal Engineers. When the Regiment disbanded, it donated its collection of books brought from England to create a public library for the City. At the same time, Queen Victoria offered a copy of her late husband Prince Albert’s speeches “to the public libraries of her more important colonies”.

    The first Library and Reading Room was established in 1865 through financial support from the colonial government and membership fees charged to the public. On August 15th, 1865 the Library opened in the quarters of the former Mint where it remained until 1890. During the first two years of its existence, the Library was well funded by the government but by 1868 all government aid was withdrawn. The Library was forced to rely entirely upon subscriptions and limped along for the next 22 years. By 1890 the Mint building was in a terrible state of decay, which was particularly noticeable when compared with the many fine new buildings that were being built in New Westminster.

    Bowing to public pressure, the City Council decided to take action. The Dominion government agreed to donate the Columbia Street property where the Mint building stood, on the condition that a proper library building would be built and maintained by the City as a free public library. The old Mint building was demolished and following an architectural competition, work began on Architect G.W. Grant’s winning plan for a three-storey stone and brick building. Books were ordered from England and the new Library opened in 1892.

    Unfortunately, the beautiful new library building was doomed to a short existence. On the night of September 10, 1898 the building was destroyed in the Great Fire. The only items not burned were those books checked out and a few saved by Alderman William A. Johnson, among them the Queen’s book.

    Only one month after the Great Fire, New Westminster residents were lobbying to open a new library. A temporary Reading Room was established in half of a store building, with the other half occupied by the Fire Department, including its horses.

    This situation existed from 1899 until 1901 when it was finally decided that the Library’s former Columbia Street site should be used for a new civic building. The City Hall and Police Department were to be housed on the main floor with the Library to be on the second floor.

    Soon after it was completed however, the library’s space was required for civic administration and so the City began to investigate the possibility of obtaining money from the Carnegie Corporation. Andrew Carnegie was a wealthy philanthropist who, as a firm believer in the importance and value of a free public library, donated money to communities across the United States, parts of Canada and the United Kingdom, for the construction of libraries.

  • 1902

     

    The Carnegie Library

    The Carnegie Corporation donated $15,000 for the library building on condition that the City of New Westminster would provide the site and a minimum of $1,500 per year to support it. This was readily agreed to and the cornerstone of the Library was laid on October 1st, 1902 in a ceremony attended by many New Westminster citizens.

    The building was completed in October 1903, but due to a shortage of books and political wrangling, between City Council and the Library Commissioners, the new Library did not open until 1905.

    The years in the Carnegie Library saw the development of the first consistent modern community services, accompanied by increased expectations of New Westminster residents. For the first time, professionally trained librarians were hired, the book stacks were opened to the public (prior to this, library patrons requested titles which were kept in a closed area), and both Children’s and Reference Rooms were created.

    The Depression years were very difficult financially while library services were in even greater demand. In the mid 1930’s, 5,500 people were registered as borrowers, and the Library was circulating 150,000 books a year, all on an annual budget of only $10,000!

  • 1958

     

    Moved to 6th Avenue and Ash Street

    Library use continued to increase and by the late 1940’s it was clear that a larger space was needed to house the ever-growing and popular library. Consideration was given to remodeling the Carnegie building but this proved to be unfeasible. After years of extensive lobbying, a new site was decided upon, funding was obtained and construction began on a new building uptown at 6th Avenue and Ash Street.

    The completion of the new building coincided with the 100th Birthday of the Province of British Columbia, and the library was officially opened on November 19, 1958 by His Excellency, the Honourable Vincent Massey, Governor-General of Canada.

    The new Library also saw a dramatic increase in use, due to shifts in city demographics and the change from single family dwellings to apartments. By 1976 it again became apparent that the Library was not large enough to accommodate the number of members. Renovation and expansion of the existing Library began in 1977 and included the addition of 17,800 square feet. After only a brief closure from August 6th to September 5th, 1978, the library officially re-opened October 21st, 1978.

  • 2013

     

    Queensborough Community Centre

    In May 2013 the New Westminster Public Library opened its first-ever branch in 148 years, in the revitalized Queensborough Community Centre. This branch will serve the needs of the community in Queensborough and provide them with convenient access to Library services alongside other great New Westminstser Parks, Culture, and Recreation facilities.

    The Library continues to be well used, with over 570,000 people visiting the Main Branch and borrowing more than 830,000 items in 2011.

  • 2017-2019

     

    Main Branch Renovations

    In April, 2019 the Main Branch reopened after undergoing a 5.5 million dollar renovation that occurred in three phases over seventeen months. A number of the library’s structural systems were upgraded and many additional design features were added including the new 12-seat iConnect LAB used for technology instruction, three new Creation Stations that allow for digitizing older formats as well as providing a suite of creative editing Adobe products, a new Reading Lounge on the main floor of the library, and an expanded Teen and Children’s area. We also added RFID self-checkout technology at this time.

  • 1865-2020

     

    Chief Librarians

    William Edward Wynne Williams 1865

    George Ramsay 1866

    John B. Harris 1866-1867

    W.E. Cormack 1867-1868

    J. Dawson 1874

    Henry W. Hughes 1882 – 1884

    Donald McGregor 1887 – 1890

    Julian Peacock 1891 – 1898

    Edward Z. Whyman 1899 – 1905

    Susan Gilley 1905 – 1912

    Annie T. O’Meara 1912 – 1913

    Mabel D. Macmillan 1914 – 1921

    Pearl D. Hale 1921 – 1923

    Samuel Tilden Dare 1923 – 1936

    Ruth E. Cameron 1936 – 1954

    Amy M. Hutcheson 1954 -1973

    Alan Woodland 1973 – 1991

    Ron Clancy 1991 – 2003

    Julie Spurrell 2003-

RESEARCH GUIDE: HISTORICAL PEOPLE

The Library has many resources to help you find information on historical figures and residents of New Westminster. The tips below provide starting points for your research. Library staff are also available to help you access our resources.

The Bowell & Sons Records can be searched online using the NWMA online archives. Tip: use NWPL heritage collection – Bowell Funeral Home in the Fonds / Collection Name field to retrieve all the records available. See our guide on searching the entire database for discovering even more historical content!

The Library keeps copies of the New Westminster City Directories dating back to 1860. These directories list New Westminster resident’s names and sometimes addresses and occupations. The City Directories are a great resource to track the movement of people around the city. Listings will often include names or initials of all members of a household.

The Library also carries telephone directories for New Westminster (some of which include the most of Metro Vancouver) from 1952 to the present.

The Library subscribes to the Ancestry for Libraries online genealogical service. Ancestry contains over 4 billion names in various historical records from around the world. This service is free of charge with a valid library card and for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic it is available from home.

In addition to the local resources available at the New Westminster Public Library, there’s more local content to be discovered from other institutions:

RESEARCH GUIDE: HISTORICAL PHOTOGRAPHS

The historical photograph collection is a dynamic resource of black and white photographs. Aspects of life in the Royal City are chronicled back to 1858 under a wide variety of topics including: buildings, houses, streets, portraits, social life and customs, views from the Fraser River, and the waterfront.

The NWPL collection of historical photographs can be searched online using the NWMA online archives. Tip: use NWPL heritage collection – Photos in the Fonds / Collection Name field to retrieve all the records available. See our guide on searching the entire database for discovering even more historical content!

Photo reproductions must be requested through the New Westminster Museum and Archives. Please refer to the Archive’s Reproduction Request Form for proper photo attribution or to request photos. Click HERE to see the table of fees for reproduction services.

RESEARCH GUIDE: HERITAGE BUILDINGS

Illustrations and descriptions of homes featured annually in the local homes tours from 1980-2017 can be searched online using the NWMA online archives. Tip: use NWPL heritage collection – Heritage Home Tours in the Fonds / Collection Name field to retrieve all the records available. See our guide on searching the entire database for discovering even more historical content!

NEW WESTMINSTER MUSEUM & ARCHIVES: ONLINE ARCHIVES

The following, and even more historical resources, can be accessed online via the NWMA online archives:

  • NWPL heritage collection – Bowell Funeral Home
  • NWPL heritage collection – Heritage Home Tours
  • NWPL  heritage collection – Photos

See our guide for searching these collections.

1
2
1

MAIN BRANCH
716 6th Avenue,
New Westminster, BC,
V3M 2B3

View Map

2

QUEENSBOROUGH
920 Ewen Avenue,
New Westminster, BC,
V3M 5C8

View Map

Contact The Library