A moment in history: May 4, 1909

A moment in history: May 4, 1909

· The Pulse
By Scott Lilwall
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On this day in 1909, Edmonton's city council was looking for a site for its first library. While the library was established in 1913, it would take another 14 years for it to find a permanent home.

The culprit was ambition. To fund its new library, Edmonton went to the same place as most cities of the period: Andrew Carnegie. The famed U.S. industrialist and philanthropist created a foundation that provided grants to build more than 2,500 libraries around the world. Given Edmonton's prosperity and position as Alberta's capital, the city requested $200,000 in funding. The foundation countered with $60,000. Edmonton was unwilling to change its plans and declined the offer.

Instead, the library board decided to try to raise the money itself. However, public support wasn't as strong as expected. That, combined with an economic slowdown and the start of the First World War, meant the money didn't materialize. Instead, Edmonton's downtown library spent its first decade-and-a-half bouncing between different buildings. (Meanwhile, neighbouring Strathcona did manage to raise enough to build a library — it opened in 1913, a year after the amalgamation of the two municipalities, making it Edmonton's first library building.)

In 1921, Edmonton once again entered negotiations with the foundation for a permanent downtown library. Carnegie himself had died in 1919, which was supposed to put a stop to grants for new libraries. But since Edmonton had technically started discussions 14 years earlier, the rules were bent. In 1923, the downtown library was built near the MacDonald Hotel for $160,000, coming from both the Carnegie Foundation and the City of Edmonton.

It might have been late, but the building was impressive. The library was built from steel and reinforced concrete. The front stairs led up to an entrance bordered by four Doric columns, a style shared by many Carnegie libraries. And above the entrance, carved into the stone exterior, were the words FREE TO ALL.

The central library remained an integral part of the city's downtown for the next 45 years. It was expanded in 1962 due to the city's booming population and an ever-growing collection of books and music. Eventually, the need for more space led to the construction of the larger Centennial Library (now the Stanley Milner) in 1967. A year later, the Carnegie library was demolished. The Telus Building now stands in its place.

Almost a century later, Edmonton's library remains a core part of the city. However, the idea of what a library can be has changed drastically. While it still holds a vast collection of books and other materials, the Edmonton Public Library has also branched out into different types of learning, such as the Milner's newly opened community kitchen. The EPL also is offering a series of presentations on life skills, ranging from financial literacy to sleep training for children.

This is based on a clipping found on Vintage Edmonton, a daily look at Edmonton's history from armchair archivist @revRecluse — follow @VintageEdmonton for daily ephemera via Twitter.