Reading Between the Lines

By Bob Turner


This time around, my reason for you to visit Red River North may have some of you puzzled, because it’s likely not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of tourism, or visiting a  city or area of our province. The attraction I am referring to? The Gaynor Family Regional Library in Selkirk. That’s right – a library!!

Bibliotourism is a term used to describe one of the latest trends in tourism around the world. Some examples? The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is that area’s most visited attraction; the main library in Oakland is that city’s second most visited destination; here in Canada, Calgary promotes its library system as a visitor attraction; in Winnipeg, in spite of the fuss about security and back-pack searches at the main library, the system of libraries is part of the reason the city is often referred to as “the cultural cradle of Canada”.

There are a number of reasons why public libraries are a great place for tourist to visit. These range from libraries being a source of information about a region and its other attractions, to the availability of free wi-fi at most libraries, to a social spot to read, relax, visit, and in many, have a coffee or snack.

When it comes to bibliotourism, The Gaynor Family Regional Library offers up “every trick in the book”. This is not only a library that meets the needs of people today, but is poised to meet future needs too. Whether it’s traditional books, e-books, meeting space for community groups, or a place for socializing over a coffee, Gaynor has it all. And the facility is built to the highest environmental standards one could ask for.

But the road to get to this point has been a long, and sometimes rough one…

CHAPTER ONE The Donald Gunn House Era

Long before there was a Red River North, a Selkirk, or for that matter, a province called Manitoba, this part of the country had several libraries, thanks to the fur trading posts and settlements in the region. In addition to providing a source of recreation for the early inhabitants, these libraries improved the level of literacy in Red River, and provided a source of information for our ancestors and future generations.

The Hudson’s Bay Company had established a library in York Factory, which was the oldest permanent settlement in what would later become Manitoba. In the early 1800’s, what is often referred to as “The Red River Library” was created from books sent to the settlement by Lord Selkirk. Half these books were made available in Donald Gunn’s House in what would later become Lockport.

This collection grew over the years from various contributions: in 1822 HBC surveyor Peter Fidler bequeathed his 500-book collection, and large numbers of books were donated by British military officers, (sent to the area to protect Fort Garry in case of a possible British-U.S. war), who had been sent these books by relatives back in Britain.

CHAPTER TWO The Selkirk Town Hall

The early citizens of Selkirk appear to have been as culturally forward-thinking as their fur-trader ancestors. A group called The Selkirk Literacy Association opened a reading room in the Selkirk Town Hall in 1901. This facility was open to the general public, and was supported by tax dollars.

By all accounts, the library was a success. It provided a place to gather to read and play games such as chess and checkers. Although there were only a few chairs and tables, there was a long reading desk where people stood to read. Selkirk’s first public librarian was Florence McDonald.

CHAPTER THREE The Carnegie Library

In 1908, Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie agreed to contribute $10, 000 – half the cost – to build The Carnegie Library on Eaton Avenue near Eveline St, if the town of Selkirk contributed $1,000 annually to its upkeep. When it opened the next year, it was only the second public library built in Manitoba at this time, and featured two reading rooms (one male and one female), a board room, and a library room.

Sadly, this was the high point of our story for the next half century. By the 1950’s the library space had been taken over by everything from Boy Scouts to a kindergarten. By 1959, the building was declared structurally unsound and torn down.

CHAPTER FOUR And Then There Was None.

For the next 20 years or so, Selkirk, which had been home to Manitoba’s second public library, had none, despite the efforts of citizens in the area to create one.

Following the demolition of The Carnegie Library, the Town of Selkirk made space available for library services in the new civic centre, which was built in the exact same spot where the Carnegie Library had been.

And then, in 1973, in a giant step backwards, Selkirk Town Council eliminated library services altogether to make space in the civic centre for other municipal offices.

From 1974 to 1982, Selkirk’s public library collection could be found in two schools – Robert Smith School and Lord Selkirk Regional High School, with the Selkirk school board providing most of the funding of the library services. To say that public library access was inconvenient would be an understatement: for example, adult fiction was in one school, non-fiction in another.

In 1979 Selkirk Town Council rejected a proposal submitted by its own appointed committee to build a new library to commemorate Selkirk’s Centennial, citing concern about costs of upkeep and servicing such a facility.

Selkirk’s public library system remained in the two schools and large numbers of books sat deteriorating in boxes because they had no home.

CHAPTER FIVE Selkirk Community Library 

In 1981, a steering committee was formed to plan a new library, and town Council increased library funding and donated land for a building.

In 1982, The Selkirk Community Library opened at 373 Main Street. It was successful from the get-go, with circulation approaching 2,000 books within the first month. The library staff attracted more people by offering new services and programs.  The library was here to stay.

The Municipalities of St. Clements and St. Andrews still hesitated to join, fearing the cost would outweigh the benefits.

In late 1987, the Selkirk Community Library opened its own building at 303 Main Street, . Within a year, nearly 50% of Selkirk’s population had a library membership.

CHAPTER SIX A Regional Library at Last! And a New Page is Turned!

On January 1, 1998, the library became The Selkirk and St. Andrews Regional Library, as The Rural Municipality of St. Andrews began to contribute funds to the library, and joined the library board.

And by 2000, the library had outgrown its building, and Public Library Services recommended a new facility be built, conducting a survey in 2003 that confirmed the fact that public support for a new library was overwhelming.

A library foundation was created to raise funds for a new building.

In 2005 Ken Kuryliw was hired from public library services, as library director, providing a whole new perspective of leadership and direction for the proposed facility.

That same year the Province of Manitoba granted land to the Selkirk Library Foundation to be used for the construction of a library.

The dream of a regional library had come true, and membership and circulation figures exploded.

And then after a petition was circulated that collected 1300 signatures, the RM of St. Clements joined.

The stage was set for a unique library supported through tri-partite funding: a multi-municipal facility located in one of the municipalities. Many people in the foundation, such as St. Andrews Reeve Don Forfar, worked tirelessly to bring about this level of cooperation by the three bodies. The RMs of St. Andrews and St. Clements, along with the City of Selkirk, each contributed $350,000, and the city of Selkirk also contributed the proceeds of the sale of the old library building (some $600,000), bringing the total funds to around $1.7 million raised through the three bodies working toward a common goal.

At this point, The Province of Manitoba agreed to contribute $1.6 million.

And there was more to come…

The library board had also been fund-raising, and together with The Selkirk Rotary Club, brought local philanthropists Jim and Betty Anne Gaynor on board. The Gaynors, former owners of Gaynor’s Foods in Selkirk agreed to donate $1.5 million, provided the funding was in place by 2012 and the building be completed by the end of 2013.

The Gaynor Family Regional Library was about to become a reality.

A closer look at a whole new kind of library, that was the product of these efforts, is next.