Places to Grow: Public Libraries and Communities in Ontario, 1930–2000

By Lorne D. Bruce. Canada: Privately printed, 2010. 490 pp. ISBN 978-0-9866666-0-5. E-mail author for a copy:

Canada’s public libraries fall under the authority of the country’s ten provinces by virtue of their constitutional jurisdiction over municipalities and education. Despite quality that varies across provinces and municipalities, Canadian public library development has been impressive, particularly in Ontario—the country’s richest and most populous province, with the oldest and largest system. Publication of this volume culminates a long-standing project by Lorne D. Bruce to memorialize and analyze how and why Ontario’s library development occurred—previous volumes being Free Books for All: The Public Library Movement in Ontario, 1850–1930 (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1994) and Public Library Boards in Postwar Ontario, 1945–1985 (Halifax, N.S.: Dalhousie University School of Library and Information Studies, 1988) with Karen Bruce. This volume, and its impressive use of primary and secondary sources reflected in footnotes ranging from 100 to 182 per chapter, finds Bruce—a librarian at the University of Guelph, Ontario—emerging as Canada’s leading public library historian.

Following a brief introduction, contents are arranged chronologically in seven chapters: Depression and Survival; War and the Home Front, Postwar Revival, 1945–55; Provincial Library Planning, 1955–66; “Many Voices, Many Solutions, Many Opinions,” 1967–75; Review and Reorganization, 1975–85; The Road Ahead, Libraries 2000. Each chapter is divided into helpful subsections. A largely successful effort is made to cover the changing theories, principles, and practices of twentieth-century librarianship as reflected in such activities as selection policies, censorship, staffing, education and training, technology, and library architecture. Equally successful efforts are made to place Ontario’s library development within the spectrum of provincial, national, and international social, economic, and political trends and events. The first two chapters dealing with the Great Depression and World War II are most effective in showing how Ontario’s public libraries identified themselves completely with the social mobilization occasioned by these momentous times.

The core of the book revolves, however, around the shifting nature of Ontario’s political landscape. In many ways this is a story of successive governments, ambitious politicians, diligent bureaucrats, and endless reports straddling the decades. Their aim appears to have been making even better a system that, despite weaknesses, was clearly the best in Canada. Indeed at no point does Bruce suggest that serious doubts were ever expressed about the value or utility of public libraries. Three distinctive trends emerged in Ontario librarianship during the 1930s: first, a growing sense of professionalism; second, an enhanced sense of belonging to a pan-Canadian library movement that in 1946 would result in the formation of the Canadian Library Association; and third, a heightened awareness of the competing demands of high culture and
popular culture. Public libraries became an important vehicle for promoting community, albeit with competing visions of “space and place,” as Canada generally and Ontario specifically experienced post-World War II immigration and the baby boom.

To meet the library needs of underserved areas such as northern Ontario, rural southern Ontario, and aboriginal communities, reliance was increasingly placed upon larger units of library service such as county and regional libraries. Provincial government legislation, funding,
information technology, and administrative structures were important for the success of these trends. Ironically, however, the true vehicle for successful introduction of larger library units was through restructuring local government into larger municipal and rural units.

Bruce’s methodology relies upon a detailed and richly textured narrative, brimming over with specific instances relating to a myriad of small-, medium-, and large communities whose names will resonate with Ontarions, but may bewilder readers from elsewhere. There is an implicit assumption by the author that only after thorough study and analysis can generalizations be undertaken. For the most part the book’s structure is sufficiently strong to carry along readers, but some may find themselves overwhelmed by detail. Some may also wish for a conclusion summarizing major themes. Helpful as well would have been a more detailed index, most of whose entries are to personal and corporate names, with relatively fewer for concepts—i.e., “children’s services” but not “adult education.” Even some corporate names found in the text lack entries such as “Hope Commission” and “Ministry of Colleges and Universities.”

A point worth noting is that the volume is privately printed. On the one hand, it is commendable that the author’s command of technology permits him to adopt this form of publication. He also maintains his own blog, Libraries Today ( On the other hand, it is unsettling to consider that such an important work of scholarship may not have found a commercial or academic publisher.

The volume contains a multitude of figures and tables, some interspersed throughout the text and others grouped together at the end. Black-and-white illustrations—maps and photos—are similarly spread throughout or grouped at the back of the book. A helpful list of abbreviations and acronyms is placed at the start of the volume. The typeface is clear and the design is clean and unobtrusive.

In conclusion, this is an important study that advances greatly the historical understanding of Canada’s public library movement. Library historians from Ontario, Canada, and elsewhere will profit from reading this exhaustively researched and clearly written study. Social and cultural historians will also benefit from this volume. May we look forward to Bruce’s next book synthesizing his studies of Ontario’s public libraries into a single overview volume, focusing upon trends, generalizations, and interpretation?

Peter F. McNally, McGill University