By Walter Schoen
Just Setting the Scene
Libraries were not an important issue in the Peace River District in my growing up years. My elementary school library at Tomslake consisted of a random collection of some two hundred books of fiction, some juvenile, some adult classics. There was also a library of sorts in the Catholic church lobby. A few individuals had small collections of books in their homes. That situation was typical of the area through the 1940s. The closest thing to a book store in Dawson Creek was Paul’s News on 10th Street.
During my own high-school years libraries were low profile. Rural schools, and there were many, had no library. Town schools, “The High School” had a room designated as a library with a collection of books and one of the teachers, usually an English teacher, given the title, Librarian. The Librarian usually had a full teaching load and the “Library” was used as just another class-room. The only differences were that, instead of sitting in desks, students sat around tables, and there was a foot-high platform that elevated the librarian’s desk above the class and gave the librarian a strategic superiority. Students were not expected to “look things up” in the library or do anything resembling “research”. That attitude continued into the community at large.
On to Dawson Creek
The actual founding of the Dawson Creek Public Library was outside my awareness. My first contact with it was in the summer of 1952. I had a job in Dawson Creek to earn money for my third year at UBC. At that time the library was located in a back section of an old World War II tarpaper shack, an L-shaped building on the corner of 105th Ave. and 11th Street. At one end was the School Board office, the large central part was the School Board maintenance department (carpentry shop), and a narrow little room at the far end was The Library.
My first visit there well illustrates the prevailing attitude to libraries at that time. Most of the books were located on swaybacked shelves around the perimeter of the room. Other books were stacked on a long table down the centre. In a corner, Mrs. Coutts and a teen-aged girl were doing things with books and papers. There probably was a card catalogue, but there weren’t enough books to make its use necessary. I found two books I wanted to use as prereading for my winter session: a copy of Plato’s Republic and one of those ponderous reports of a royal commission, The Massey Report on the Arts, Letters and Sciences in Canada. As I walked out the door I heard the girl in a not too sotto voce voice say to Mrs. Coutts, “Did you see what that guy took out? Is he really gonna read them?”
When that building became too decrepit to maintain, the library moved to the Anglican Manse on 103rd Ave. When that was demolished, the Co-op, then located at 10th and 102nd Ave, provided space in an unused warehouse. Forced to move again, the Library was in the basement of the Public Library Commission premises; the building on 105th, the one still there just west of the swimming pool.
“The Public Library Commission” was a provincial government attempt designed to provide library service to rural areas around the province. Dawson Creek was the centre for north-east B.C. Although located here, it was not intended to serve the town. The commission library occupied the entire top floor and actually looked like a library. The south half of the basement was used for storage of packing crates, sundry disused furniture, and access to the garage for the bookmobile. The very understanding and co-operative librarian, Howard Overend, made arrangements to allow the Dawson Creek Public Library to move into the north half of the basement on a temporary basis. Temporary because the area would probably be needed at some time, or the bureaucracy of the Department of Public Works, who was the technical owner of the building, might rule that as not acceptable use of the space (insurance and security were additional issues that came up occasionally).
That was when my next serious contact with the library came about. In or about 1960 someone asked me to let my name stand for membership on the library Board, and I said, “Yes.”
I have a vivid recollection of my first Board meeting there: grey cement walls, low ceiling, crowded shelves, well worn stack-chairs around a sway-backed stack table; temperature on the cool side, weak light from bare bulbs; a small, slightly battered desk near the door with not much space around a large, manual typewriter; behind it, a straight-backed, wooden chair that creaked when you sat on it. The major topic on the agenda was getting more space. The chairman, an Imperial Oil executive whose name I have forgotten, was talking about a floor-plan he had designed.
“Now Howard says we can move that post three feet over that way, and that post three feet the other way, which will give us six extra feet of space, and we can use a couple of his disused shelves, so we get twelve more feet…….”
Being green, young and impatient, I interrupted with, “Why don’t we work to get a library building of our own instead of mucking about in this dungeon, which is temporary any way?”
The withering look he gave me is also indelibly imprinted in my memory. “Dreamer. Now as I was saying, if we move that post three feet over….”
It so happened that the company transferred him back to Calgary at the end of that year, and the rest of the Board (Including Howard Overend and his wife, Clara) quit. The Overend’s because they thought it inappropriate (now it would be called conflict of interest) for them to be on the Board, the others for sundry reasons. Hugh Dobbin, also an Imperial Oil executive, and I were the only remaining members, so I became Chairman and Hugh agreed to be secretary. Later I persuaded George Slowinski to join us as treasurer.
Ever hard pressed for funds, we badgered the town council (Dawson Creek wasn’t officially a city then) for more money. We asked for a referendum to be included with the next civic election to get funding for a library building. The answer was always a disdainful, “No.”
In an effort to raise public interest we planned to enter a float in the Fall Fair Parade. We intended to have a horse-drawn buggy, labelled “Dawson Creek Public Library”, with Mrs. Coutts and an aide in turn-of -the-century garb on it, with a few books and quill pens, to follow the Library Commission’s bookmobile. As it happened, we could get the buggy, but no horses, so we decided to hook our cart onto the bookmobile, which graphically illustrated the situation we were in.
That act, plus a bit of other publicity, got the Councillor who had the library as part of her portfolio, to attend one of our Board meetings. Her response to our desperate situation was, “Well, Mr. Schoen, if you need more books, why don’t you have a book collection? I have a box of books in the attic myself that you’re welcome to have.” Our hearts sank at that point. If that represented the Council’s view of what a library is, we were in deeper trouble than we had realized.
Two other events soon followed. On the dark side, the axe finally fell in 1967 that we would have to vacate the Commission basement; on the bright side, the federal government was providing funds for 1967 Centennial projects. Based on size of population, Dawson Creek’s grant would be $40,000.
Here was our solution. Hugh Dobbin and I, with Howard Overend’s help, collected data on library construction, took it to architect Norm Metz, and asked him to design a library building for us that could be built for $40,000. And he had to do it for free as we didn’t have any money. Norm Metz didn’t even scowl, he drew us a sketch plan which we took to town council.
But the battle had just begun. Much could be said about it but not at this time. Suffice to say that the councillor who should have supported us found every argument against a library building she could. We were laughed at for using an architect’s estimate for costs; we were ridiculed for taking contractor Bill Dyke’s estimate of cost seriously; we were scorned for thinking of building a library on the site of the old swimming pool — the instability of the soil and weight of books would make it slide into the creek, we were warned. So we got a swimming pool, with costs based on projections by Killick and Metz and contractor Bill Dyke!
Then the tide of public opinion changed. The golf-club’s building, also an old army left-over, had burned down. Some adroit paper-shuffling and publicity had got public support for a new community centre (read: Golf Club). That referendum carried by a scant 2%; word was out that enough had been done for sports, let’s give the library a chance. Faced with the eviction notice from the Commission basement, and the shift in the public mood, the recalcitrant Councillor became a supporter of a new library building. And so it came to pass that the Killick and Metz sketch became a blueprint, and their project estimate was accepted. The library was built here on the site of the old swimming pool and even under the weight of all the books, hasn’t slid into the creek yet.
Copyright W. Schoen, 1997