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the first two years of its existence, the Library was well funded by the government but by 1868 all government aid was withdrawn.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.
Notice on the wall read, “Visitors are cautioned against damaging in any way the newspapers, magazines or other reading matter or removing without authority any material from the reading room. Smoking, chewing, spitting and talking strictly prohibited.”
This situation existed from 1899 until 1901 but was less than satisfactory and 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.