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Nellie McClung: Parliamentary Library twice burned by history

This column first appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on March 25, 1939.

This column first appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on March 25, 1939.

I always feel rich when I travel across Canada and I have some of the sensations of a millionaire, since I spent a day in the Parliamentary Library in Ottawa with its 750,000 books.

Just to sit in one of the alcoves and look down at the great polygon room below, with its walls lined with books, its eight entrances, its sandstone pillars rising to the blue dome, is an experience one will not soon forget.

Facing the visitor, who comes in from the front door, is a statue of Queen Victoria, in white marble, in the days of her youth and beauty.

I wonder if she ever were so slight and graceful as this. It is a beautiful piece of work done in 1871 and bought by the Canadian government for $10,000.

I looked at her long and apprehensively. How did this graceful girl ever become the solid little egg-shaped woman whose pictures we know so well.

“Let this be a lesson to you,” I said sternly to myself, and then and there resolved to eat less butter and more spinach and Brussels sprouts.

The floor of the library is wonderfully made of Canadian woods — cedar, oak, maple and walnut in quaint patterns. Since 1876, when the building was completed, this floor has borne the traffic and is still in good condition. It has been scraped and refinished until that cannot be done any more.

Around the walls are the armorial bearings of the provinces of Canada, at least of the seven provinces at that time. Some of the provinces have changed their crests, so we had difficulty in placing them.

The library dates back to 1791, when Gov. John Graves Simcoe wrote to his friend, Sir Joseph Banks, fellow of the Royal Historical Society in London, asking for a grant of money to buy books for the new country. One thousand pounds was collected, and books were purchased.

The collection was added to from time to time until 1813 when, during the troubles with Americans, the books were all burned in York (Toronto).

Following this disaster, Upper Canada made a grant of 800 pounds, and in 1827 another grant of 500 pounds. Robert Sullivan was the name of the first librarian and he had a salary of 50 pounds a year.

The record here states that there was a heavy loss each year in books caused by the members borrowing them and not returning them.

In 1841, Upper and Lower Canada were united and Kingston became the capital. In April 1849, the public buildings in Montreal were burned and again the library was reduced to ashes.

It is interesting to note that the capital had to be moved every four years to satisfy everyone and, unfortunately, it happened to be in Montreal at that time. Kingston, Toronto and Quebec were the other places where the ark of government rested.

After Confederation, the perambulating capital came to rest in Ottawa, and the books, worn with wandering, settled down to a period of stability. That was in 1867, and in 1876 this present building was begun.

The first book I put my hands on nearly ended my tour of the library. A fine big, fat book, bound attractively in green, a book on mythology by Thomas Bullfinch. Bullfinch had put on an attractive subtitle, Stories of Gods and Heroes.

I read the introduction and remember one good sentence.

“If that which makes us happier and better can be called useful, then we can claim that epithet for our subject, for mythology is the handmaid of literature and literature is one of the best allies of virtue and promoters of happiness.”

I read on and on, forgetting I had only one day to see the library. Still, I could never hope to find anything sweeter than the little poem the author quoted in his chapter on the household gods who protect the cattle in the stall, the fruit on the tree, the lovers who wander down the lane:

“Pomona loves the orchard
And Liber loves the vine,
Pales love the straw-shed
Warm with the breath of kine,
And Venus loves the whisper
Of plighted youth and maid
In April’s ivory moonlight
Beneath the chestnut shade.”

Once again, fire took it toll of the treasured volumes. On Feb. 3, 1916, one of the members noticed a waste paper basket burning in the reading room, and for some reason had not the presence of mind to smother it with his coat. He went to find one of the attendants.

Meantime, the fire went on. It did not reach the library proper, but it destroyed the two external libraries.

The whole theological section went, including many Bibles that cannot be replaced. The fire caught the clock tower, too, but the clock went on all evening, measuring out the time with its sonorous clang. Three times the clock struck the hour over the roar of the flames, the confusion of the streets, the hissing of the water jets.

At midnight, flames were wreathing its face, but its powerful voice gave out the hour, “one, two, three, four.”

The people in the streets listened, fascinated when without faltering the strokes went on, 10, 11, 12.

Then the great tower buckled and fell and the people went home, grieving for the faithful friend whose deep voice would measure out their hours no more.