Early Library Service in Scarborough

May 14, 2015 | Barbara Myrvold

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Scarborough Civic Centre Branch.
Toronto Public Library's 100th branch opens May 20

Scarborough Civic Centre, Toronto Public Library's 100th branch, opens on May 20, 2015.  This is not the first library to be located in this section of Scarborough, though. Several libraries have operated within a few kilometres of the new branch (mostly on St. Andrews Road) going all the way back to the earliest days of European settlement in Scarborough more than two centuries ago.  

David and Mary Thomson's private library, 1799-1834
McCowan cabin
McCowan Log House, Thomson Park. Scarborough Archives

The first library in this area was the small private library that Scottish immigrants David and Mary Thomson brought with them when they and their six children moved to Scarborough in 1799, settling in a log house along the south bank of Highland Creek in what is now Thomson Park (The Thomson Settlement). “These books they gladly lent to other settlers, and as the years passed and they added new volumes their home came to house an incipient library, which was Mrs. Thomson’s special care,” Robert Bonis recorded in A History of Scarborough.

Scarborough Subscription Library, 1834-1878

The Thomson collection formed the nucleus of the Scarborough Subscription Library, which was organized on April 7, 1834 at a meeting held at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, whose 1849 building stands at 115 St. Andrews Road.   

Scarboro subscription library 1846
Scarborough Subscription Library building, 1926

Forty-six people, mostly farmers, paid five shillings to join the subscription library and an additional five shillings for annual membership.  Members could recommend books for purchase, but the final decision was made by majority vote at the library’s semi-annual meetings; “no book of a seditious, deistical or licentious character was to be allowed on the shelves, on any pretense whatever.” 

The library’s first executive included some of Scarborough’s most prominent citizens. Robert Douglas Hamilton, the president, was the township’s first resident physician and an accomplished writer on both medical and political topics. James A. Thomson, the librarian and a nephew of David Thomson, built Springfield Farm House in 1840, still standing at 146 St. Andrews Road.

In 1846, the Scarborough Subscription Library moved to a small frame building on the north side of St. Andrews Road, opposite St. Andrew's Church cemetery. Catalogues of library holdings were published from time to time to list items that were available to members.

 Scarborough Mechanics' Institute, 1878-1895

The Scarborough Subscription Library was replaced by the Scarborough Mechanics’ Institute and Association Library, which was incorporated on November 20, 1878.  Such organizations had been around the province since 1830 when the York (Toronto) Mechanics' Institute was established, which became the Toronto Public Library in 1883.  

In its first full year of operation, the Scarborough Mechanics’ Institute received a provincial government grant of $400 and a municipal grant of $25 –- the first time that public funding was provided for library service in Scarborough. It soon earned high praise from the provincial Superintendent of Mechanics’ Institutes whose annual report for 1882-3 proclaimed: “I know of no library anywhere that is better kept.  It is really a credit to the municipality and its managers.”  Hours were limited, only open on the first Saturday of each month (August excepted) from 2 to 4 p.m.  Members paid $1 a year and could borrow five volumes at a time. 

Scarboro' Public Library, 1895-1955

Further changes came in 1895 with a new provincial Public Library Act, which eliminated mechanics’ institutes and replaced them with two categories of public libraries – “free” and “not free”.  The Scarborough Mechanics’ Institute became the Scarboro' Public Library (not free) -- it was not funded by the library mill rate, but could not charge membership fees.  

A new library to house the growing collections was planned as part of Scarborough Township's centennial celebrations in 1896. A site on the south side of St. Andrews Road just east of St. Andrew's Church was leased by library officials from the church for 99 years at $1 annually starting on April 30, 1896. Within a few months, a “commodious structure 26 x 36 feet” had been constructed, which was first used as a museum during the anniversary festivities held on June 17 and 18, 1896.

Shortly afterwards, the building was faced with brick and opened as the Scarboro’ Centennial Memorial Library.  The building continued to serve as the community's library for the next 65 years.

Scarborough Centennial Memorial Library 1896
Scarborough Centennial's Museum Committee pose in front of the unfinished Scarboro' Centennial Memorial Library, June 1896. Scarborough Archives
Lib 1934 cent. inside
Program for 100th anniversary of Scarborough library service, June 2, 1934. Scarborough Archives


Library interior
Interior of Scarboro' Centennial Memorial Library, about 1940. Scarborough Archives.
St. Andrew's Branch, Scarborough Public Library, 1955-1961

Directors and members of the Scarboro' Public Library became strong advocates of a tax-supported “free” public library for all of Scarborough. On August 18, 1955, Scarborough Council passed Bylaw 6509 “to provide for the establishment of a public library in the Township of Scarborough." The Scarboro’ Centennial Memorial Library became one of three branches of the new system, and officially opening as St. Andrews Branch on October 1, 1955.  (The others were at Highland Creek and Agincourt where libraries had operated since 1889 and 1918 respectively.) St. Andrews Branch was replaced with the new Bendale Branch, which opened on Danforth Road south of Lawrence Avenue East on May 11, 1961. 

After 1961

Scarborough Public Library terminated its lease on the St. Andrews Road property in December 1965, and did not exercise its right to remove the old library building or its fixtures.  

A heritage plaque for the Scarboro Centennial Memorial Library was dedicated by the Scarborough Historical Society on June 18, 1978. The building was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act by Scarborough City Council on February 11, 1985.


Scarboro Centennial Memorial Library 1996
Scarboro' Centennial Memorial Library, about 1996