Gordon Ray Bourgon
Heavy rains pelting the city forced me to seek refuge behind its glass doors. I felt as though I had entered the home of a friend expecting me.
The Sarnia Public Library was a warm, friendly place. A place to sit among books and a relaxing stillness, while the elements raged outside.
When American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated $15,000 to build the library back in 1902 (ready for operation the next year), the intention was to build a place of learning. Libraries were destinations. People went to them for information, for an affordable higher learning.
From 1903 to 1922, “Carnegie Libraries” sprouted up all over Canada – 111 in Ontario alone. By 1906, and with further funding from Carnegie, ours sported a general reading room, boardroom, rotunda, a large room of books behind the delivery counter, and a children’s reading room.
It was constructed in the Beaux-Arts style, and had a large portico supported on Ionic cement pillars, a dome over the portico, and rows of deep windows with inscriptions of English authors in their pediments.
The children’s reading room, under the guidance of Patricia Spereman, was home to Ontario’s first children’s department in a library, and it was the site of the first Children’s Story Hour in 1906.
This beautiful building, however, was demolished in 1960. Soon after was constructed the building we see now at the corner of Christina and Wellington Streets.
I can remember a time when the Dewey Decimal system ruled, and, as soon as you entered the library you saw the large banks of cabinets containing the little cards with their secret codes that directed you to your book of choice.
Now, there are cubicles of computers, an information desk, the service desk, periodicals as well as the auditorium upstairs, and the children’s section located in the building’s north end.
There are still books from eras past lining the shelves – their bindings cracked, their pages littered with highlighted passages and cryptic notes of some student trying to make sense of the information inside.
Though peace and quiet is still enforced, there is a certain hum of whispers and coughing and breathing, punctuated by the laughter or shouts of little children passing through.
As I sit now I look out a window at Wellington Street. Sun pours through the wall of windows here. If I close my eyes I can feel the library’s embrace, its history and importance in our city.
Gordon Ray Bourgon is a freelance writer, cook, husband and father to two boys.