A moment in history: Oct. 11, 1941

A moment in history: Oct. 11, 1941

· The Pulse

On this day in 1941, Canada's first library streetcar hit the rails in Edmonton.

The tram library was an innovative attempt to deal with the demands of a growing city. Edmonton's population stagnated in the early 1930s but was on the rise again. New homes were being built further away from the city's core. At the time, Edmonton only had two library branches — one downtown and the other in Old Strathcona — which meant the system was out of reach for many. But what Edmonton did have was an extensive streetcar system that reached most parts of the expanding city.

So the library board and the radial railroad partnered to refit a retired streetcar as a mobile library. The 32-year-old car was retrofitted with shelving for thousands of books, a desk, and a heating system. When the streetcar was opened, then-mayor John Fry hoped it would help people find solace in the written word "through the troubled times through which we are passing." The idea was met with fascination from Edmontonians, with almost 1,500 people coming to inspect the vehicle in a single night before it actually went into service.

Once it got moving, the library streetcar would make stops as far north as Calder twice a week. It was loaded up with around 2,000 books at a time and a real live librarian. In addition to what was on the shelves, the streetcar also carried a list of what was housed in the library's collection so people could request specific books for the next trip.

The people behind the library streetcar weren't quite ready for how popular the idea would be. Initially, the plan was for the streetcar to stop at its destination for about six hours before heading back downtown. But they soon had to extend those hours to handle the book-hungry patrons. They also had to split kids up by grade and schedule specific times for them, or else the streetcar would be mobbed by children. In the first couple of months of streetcar services, officials said, library memberships jumped by 1,500 people.

The streetcar drew international attention, appearing in newspapers and magazines. It even caught the eye of Paramount Pictures, which sent a film crew to the city to shoot a newsreel about the program that would play in movie theatres around the world.

The library expanded its fleet of vehicles in 1947 when it purchased two bookmobiles that could reach people in other areas of the city. The library streetcar was retired (along with the two original bookmobiles) in 1956. The city continued running other bookmobiles until 1974 when it switched to larger book trailers. Those lasted until the early 1980s when they were replaced with smaller vehicles. EPL now runs Literacy Vans, which offer a number of services to schools, community centres, and other locations.

The library streetcar was a first in Canada (and perhaps even the world), but it was only one of the many innovations EPL has pioneered. It was the first library system to computerize its circulation system and was one of the first to provide online access to its catalogue. EPL continues to expand on what a library should offer a modern city, offering everything from cooking classes to makerspaces. Earlier this summer, the institution shut down its free seed-sharing program because of overwhelming demand. And in August, the library announced Mallory Chipman as its first-ever musician-in-residence.

This clipping was found on Vintage Edmonton, a daily look at Edmonton's history from armchair archivist @revRecluse of @VintageEdmonton.