Remembering Toronto Public Library and its First Central Library: March 6: Snapshots in History

March 6, 2018 | John P.

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On March 6 and beyond, take a moment to reach back into the history of the city of Toronto and learn about Toronto Public Library and its first Central Library (at the northeast corner of Church and Adelaide Streets). Central Library opened officially on March 6, 1884 (the 50th anniversary of the city of Toronto), followed by general public admittance on March 10, 1884. Prior to the opening of the Central Library, two branch libraries were established in February 1884 – the Northern Branch at St. Paul’s Hall, Yorkville, and the Western Branch at St. Andrew’s Market at Richmond and Brant Streets.

The Toronto "Globe" newspaper, in its March 6, 1884 article on page 6 entitled “THE FREE LIBRARY: Its Costs, Internal Arrangements, Reference Works etc.: Programme for the Formal Opening”, set out the context for the reader and potential free library user:

“The formal opening of the Central Branch of the Free Library will take place this afternoon at three o’clock…CLASSIFICATION OF BOOKS: The books are classified as follows: – Letter…

  • A ) Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
  • B) Political, Social, and Medical Science.
  • C) Language, Literature, and Collected Works.
  • D) Geography, Topography, and Travels.
  • E) History and its Collaterals.
  • F) Geography, Topography, and Travels.
  • G) History and its Collaterals.
  • H) Biography.
  • I) Poetry and Drama.
  • K) Periodicals.
  • L) Fiction.
  • M) Juveniles…

“In view of the great interest taken in the inauguration of a new era in the work of educating the people”, the Globe article of March 6, 1884 on page 6 also provided a snapshot into the budget of the Toronto Public Library (i.e. cost of new building for library; alterations and repairs to old building; furniture and fixtures; new books, about 20,000 volumes; alterations and repairs for the Western and Northern branches; architects’ fees; and, discount and expenses from sale of debentures) with a total of $37,400 spent, which left a balance designated for books but not expended of $12,600, for a total budget of $50,000.”

To view the referenced article from 1884 in full, please access the Globe and Mail Historical Newspaper Archive database with a valid Toronto Public Library card.

Now let us explore some of the back story that resulted in the creation of Toronto Public Library and its first Central Library and branch libraries. The Ontario provincial government under Premier Oliver Mowat had passed the "Free Libraries Act" of 1882 which laid out the means for municipalities to establish their own local public libraries:

1) Public libraries were to be supported from public funds; 2) Local municipal councils received the power to charge compulsory property taxes (not in excess of half a mill on the dollar of assessment) to finance the creation of libraries; 3) Libraries were free to include materials needed by readers with no religious or political influence on the choice of books and magazines; 4) All citizens were to have free admission to public libraries; and, 5) Public libraries were to be governed by an independent management board with representatives from the public school board, the separate school board, and the municipal council.

In Toronto, Alderman John Hallam championed the cause of free public libraries. Primarily educated at night school and through self-education, he worked hard to become a successful dealer of wools and leather. He wanted others to benefit from the access to a free public library that had been unavailable to him. Supported by Alderman John Taylor (as well as prominent academics including Sir Daniel Wilson, Dr. William Caniff, and Reverend Henry Scadding), a petition with some 1,900 signatures was presented to Toronto City Council on May 29, 1882 that resulted in a successful vote for the "Free Library By-Law" on municipal election day (January 1, 1883). Toronto became one of the first municipalities along with Guelph to adopt a local by-law establishing a free public library for its citizenry.

Among the members of the first Toronto Public Library Board were Alderman John Hallam (who became chairperson), his colleague John Taylor, and Mayor A.R. Boswell. Hallam and his colleagues on the Library Board got to work and began to hire staff and set in motion the establishment of library branches that would make Toronto Public Library more than just a paper organization. James Bain was narrowly chosen by the Library Board as the first Chief Librarian. Bain got to work with materials selection for the new library, selecting almost three-quarters of the materials from the Mechanics’ Institute, as well as purchasing materials on buying trips with John Hallam in London, England and New York City.

Please examine the following items from Toronto Public Library collections related to the library’s early history which help to tell the story:


Vote for the Free Library 1882-free-vs

Vote for the Free Library

Toronto Free Library

Ephemera, 1882, English. Rights and Licenses: Public Domain. (Credit: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection, 1882).


On the opening of the Toronto Free Public Library on the city's Semi-centennial day  March 6th  1884 1884-free-library-vs

On the opening of the Toronto Free Public Library on the city's Semi-centennial day, March 6th, 1884.

Toronto Public Library

Ephemera, 1884, English. Rights and Licenses: Public Domain. (Credit: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection, 1884).


Mechanics' Institute  Church St.  n.e. cor. Adelaide St. E. pictures-r-5976

Mechanics' Institute, Church St., n.e. corner of Adelaide St. E.


Picture, 1884, English. Rights and Licenses: Public Domain. (Credit: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection).


Page 3 of The First Annual Report of the Toronto Public Library 1883-4

Page 3 of the First Annual Report of the Toronto Public Library 1883-4.


Consider the following books for borrowing from Toronto Public Library collections:



A century of service Toronto Public Library 1883-1983

Book, 1983





A century of service Toronto Public Library 1883-1983         Toronto Public Library Board. Annual report 1883-4 tpl-a-0001

eBook, 1983                                            eBook, 1885



This is only part of an unfinished story; please consider the following blog posts.

March 6: Happy Birthday to Toronto and Toronto Public Library! 

Remembering Andrew Carnegie’s $350,000 Donation to Toronto Public Library: January 27: Snapshots in History