In 1835 Woodstock was just in its infancy. This year saw the formation of a “Reading Society” in Woodstock. This society was the beginning of what we now know as the Woodstock Public Library. The Reading Society was started by the prominent men of Woodstock – Bettridge, Nellis, Perry. These men were highly educated and wanted to bestow their knowledge on the good people of this town.
The Reading Society then, was a group of men who shared a series of books and who were willing to share those books with others, for a small fee. They drew up a constitution for their group and restricted certain books from the collection – novels were forbidden. What was allowed? Biography, travel & adventure, politics, science, religious & contemplative works, classics in translation & poetry.(Sifton, 13)
Novels were a new emerging art form and considered somewhat frivolous at the time. However, in 1836 the group won several volumes of the work of Sir Walter Scott in a local lottery. Now, Scott’s work was forbidden in their collection as per their constitutional agreement. What was the group to do? They considered running another lottery and earning money from the proceeds, but unexpectedly, word got out about these volumes and people started asking for these books. The Society had to remit and begin sharing the Scott books.(Sifton, 14)
So, for $2.00 a year, residents could take out one book at a time from the Reading Society. (Symons, 34) Fines were not considered in the beginning until one resident kept a book for up to 6 months. Other culprits of Embro followed the same shameful behaviour and actually had their names published in the Woodstock Herald because they did not return their books on time. After, the society began a fining system of sixpence per day. (Sifton, 18)
In 1836 the Reading Society boasted 69 volumes in its collection for its 23 members. In the same year, it changed its name to the “Woodstock Subscription Library”. (Sifton, 14)
What was happening at this time? A year later, the Rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada began as a result of the American Revolution. Norwich saw much of the action, with some rebels held in a makeshift jail at Old St. Paul’s Church in Woodstock. In the arts, the Romantic poets were popular. “Excuse me, Rev. Bettridge. I am looking for Ode to a Grecian Urn.”
Within 4 years, the membership of the library exploded to 60 people. According to library minutes, the most popular book in the collection was identified as Cabinet of Curiosities. (Sifton, 15) Remember, Canada was not even a country at this point – we were still several years away from Confederation. Woodstock was not recognized as a city and had no form of government – no mayor or “reeve” as they called them.
In 1852, the library merged with Woodstock’s Mechanic Institute and was found in the personal home of James Simpson on Riddell Street. Was James at home when patrons stopped by? Did he offer beverages? A minute by a warm fire?
Perhaps tired of the constant intrusions, the library moved in 1858 from James’ home to Mechanics Hall at the corner of Adelaide and Wellington Streets and was known as the “Reading Room”. Where are we in time? The American Civil War had not started yet, but it was near, with John Brown speaking in Ingersoll and fundraising, if you will, for his abolitionist efforts. Woodstock now had a government and James Kintrea was the mayor.
In 1868 the library moved to Dundas Street where it remains for the next 41 years. I assume this was a good location.
In 1909, a library was built on Hunter Street thanks to a donation of $24,000.00 from Andrew Carnegie. At this time, Woodstock had been officially a city for 8 years. The streets were still dirt roads, with an electric train running down the centre.
In literature of the time, Thomas Hardy was popular at this time, along with the scandalous D.H. Lawrence. No evidence has been found if Lawrence novels were a part of the library’s collection.
1929 saw the development of a children’s department and during 1932, it was moved downstairs. The depression years saw the library’s patronage soar to 3, 341.
The war years were quiet, but in 1954 the Woodstock collection increased to 31,000 volumes, with almost 5,000 registered borrowers.
In 1967, a Reference Room and an Art Gallery were added to the library. In 1969, a local history section was added. In world events, 1967 was Canada’s Centennial; yes, essentially the Woodstock library is older than our country. As well, the United States was at war with Vietnam and a musical group called “The Beatles” released their last album, “Abbey Road”.
In 1972, the children’s department moved, and an audio-visual department was created.
In 1976, the Woodstock Public Library building was finally designated as a historic building.
In 1982 the library’s database was stored in London Public library in GEAC system. In 1988, the Woodstock Public Library database was returned to Woodstock library and stored in WPL’s mainframe using Bibliofile system.
In 1983, the Art Gallery moved to the former Knox Presbyterian Church on Hunter Street. In 1984 membership at the library was 8, 100.
In 1996, the interior of the library went under major renovation. The front entrance was remodelled.
In the 21st century, 2004 boasts circulation of 400,000 items and in 2008, 62% of Woodstock residents own a Woodstock Public Library card.
What does the future hold for the library? The library now offers a mobile app for your cell phone. Goodness, what would Rev. Bettridge think?
The library is also on Facebook and Twitter.
Sifton, Patricia. The Making of a Public Library. 1971.
Symons, Doug. The Village that Straddled a Swamp. 1997.
Woodstock Public Library Website.