A Brief History of the Library Building
Unlike most Carnegie Libraries, the Stratford Public Library does not have the name “Carnegie” above the doors. There is a reason for this omission. When the wealthy American industrialist and steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, made a $15,000 donation to build Stratford’s public library, citizens were divided as to whether the city should accept the money. Some argued that Carnegie had made his fortune by underpaying his employees, and others even referred to his donation as “blood money, accumulated at the sacrifice of the working man” – referring to the labourers who were shot and killed during the 1892 strike against Carnegie’s steelworks in Pennsylvania. However, after much public debate, the donation was accepted and the library was built, quietly opening its doors on September 19, 1903… without mention in the local newspaper! The official grand opening of the building was held at the Centennial celebrations in 2003.
Although Stratford’s library was not the first “Carnegie library” built in this country, it is now Canada’s oldest surviving Carnegie building still functioning as a library. The library followed the pattern of many Carnegie libraries: it was built on a hill, necessitating steps, giving the building an air of loftiness. The current design reflects the talents of local architect James Russell and the firm of Kyles, Kyles & Garratt.
In 1903, the main entrance was located in the centre of the north side of the building, facing St. Andrew Street. A double set of stairs led to the main doors. When the library was enlarged by 1200 square feet in 1925-26, the entrance was moved to the current east-facing location.
Living in the basement was a condition of the library custodian’s job in order to reduce insurance premiums. The living quarters were complete with a parlour, dining room, kitchen, pantry, three bedrooms and a bathroom. This practice ended with the 1974-75 expansion of the library. The 1975 renovation and addition replaced the custodian’s apartment with a colourful children’s section. As well, a new audiovisual department and a lounge area featuring young adult books, comfortable chairs, and a music listening area were added.
The Main Floor
The original main floor featured a large reading room along the west wall, with a fireplace, a “stack room”, and a “delivery room”. These rooms were necessary because at that time, patrons were not allowed to browse among the stacks of books. Instead, they would choose books from a printed catalogue, issued at the time of registration. Library staff would enter the stacks to retrieve the requested books and bring them to the delivery room desk.
Portraits of three distinguished gentlemen grace the north wall of the main floor.
- Andrew Carnegie, American millionaire, and philanthropist
- William (“Tiger”) Dunlop, surveyor of the Huron Road in 1828-9 for the Canada Company
- R. Thomas Orr wrote the request to Andrew Carnegie for funds with which to build the Stratford Public Library. He was also the driving force behind the Stratford park system.
The Top Floor
In the original library, an assembly hall was located where the present-day auditorium now exists, complete with a stage along the west wall. There was a history room where there are now offices, and the papers from the history collection are now a part of the Stratford-Perth Archives. For a number of years beginning in 1955, the Library became classroom space for both St. Aloysius and Hamlet elementary schools.
The beautiful flower beds on the front lawn were designed by Stratford resident Joan Dickson. They were planted and are still maintained by the Stratford Horticultural Society. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, Central Public School was located on this same ground; a plaque indicating this is visible on a large rock on the lawn.
The Stratford Public Library has a long and interesting history, both in and out of this historic Carnegie library. To discover more about the Library's history, read Dean Robinson's book entitled: Overdue - Stratford Library Services from 1846 - 2003. The book is available for free at the Stratford Public Library. For information on this book or to place an order, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. For mail orders, there is a fee of $5.00 for shipping and handling.
Or, you can always borrow a copy from the Stratford Public Library!