From its humble beginnings with 12,600 books, six branches and seven van routes in the central Island region to a system with more than 1.1 million items and 38 branches, the Vancouver Island Regional Library has come a long way and celebrates 75 years this month.
Its history is inextricably linked to a grant from the Andrew Carnegie Corporation of New York to start a small system that has grown into the fourth-largest library system in B.C. – the 13th largest in Canada – serving Vancouver Island from north of Victoria to Haida Gwaii and Bella Coola on the central mainland coast.
During the early 1930s, a $100,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation started a regional library system in the Fraser Valley – the first of its kind in the world.
The library was popular with residents, and a decision was made to try similar systems in the Okanagan and Vancouver Island regions. Carnegie provided $15,000 though Vancouver Island only received $6,500 of this start-up grant.
Voters had to determine in a plebiscite to approve a library tax to provide the best books – for the most people – at the least cost.
It took two plebiscites before Vancouver Island Union Library was born, in 1936.
The first library board envisioned a system that would grow as more municipalities and school districts joined.
Sadly, this was not the case as it was the Depression, followed by the war years when van deliveries occurred only once every eight weeks due to gas and tire shortages.
Times have changed, and people frequently wonder about the future of libraries with competition from e-books and the Internet.
Rosemary Bonanno, executive director, Vancouver Island Regional Library, said the need for libraries still exists.
“Libraries embrace the digital age, libraries bring technology to everyone and traditional library materials, services and programs are alive and well,” she said.
Technology has certainly changed the library.
The quiet buildings once devoted solely to reading and research, and supervised by librarians who shushed patrons into compliant silence are now busy gathering places and community hubs that provide everyone equal access to computers, technology and other online resources.
It’s not just the so-called intellectuals who grasp and understand the powerful role of libraries.
“When you are growing up, there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully,” said Keith Richards, guitarist for the Rolling Stones, in his recent memoir Life. “The church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equalizer.”
For more information on the Vancouver Island Regional Library, please visit www.virl.bc.ca.