By Mary Ann Grant, OMAH History Committee

Did you know that Orillia’s first official Public Library was a gift from American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie?

Andrew Carnegie was responsible for funding the building of libraries worldwide. The extent of the benefits that these libraries helped the citizenry of the communities where they were built, including the town of Orillia, is immeasurable.

The Orillia Carnegie Library, once a gem in Orillia, is long gone. Those who grew up in or lived in Orillia between 1911 (the opening of the Carnegie Library) and 2012 (the Library’s closing), have fond memories of hanging out at the Carnegie library and of opening our minds with books we borrowed from there.

We may remember Grace Crooks-Leigh, who served as head librarian for fifteen years until her retirement in 1971, of looking for a book in the card index and having our library card stamped with the date due.

Grace Crooks-Leigh (OMAH Collection)
Head Librarian Orillia Carnegie Library

Promissory Form Orillia Pubic Library (OMAH Collection)

Exactly what is a Carnegie Library and how did our little town of Orillia get honoured with one of these buildings? Here is the story:

Andrew Carnegie and the Carnegie Foundation

‘’What is the best gift which can be given to a community…a free library occupies the first place…” Andrew Carnegie, 1889. (The Best Gift – A Record of the Carnegie Libraries in Ontario)

Andrew Carnegie (Photo located in the History Room at the Orillia Public Library)

In the early 1890s, Scottish-American industrialist and self-made millionaire Andrew Carnegie wrote that among institutions that could most benefit from philanthropy, the “best gift” to a community was a free or “public” library. Carnegie believed that a library could be a passport to the larger world

But the 19th century was a time when most libraries were not free, and could only be accessed through annual paid subscriptions, meaning that only wealthier people could afford to “borrow” books.

Carnegie credited his success in life partly from his childhood and teenage access to library books. From humble beginnings as a boy, he was given a boost by Colonel James Anderson, who opened his personal library of 400 books to working boys each Saturday night. Carnegie was a consistent borrower and he was very grateful to the Colonel for his generosity. He “resolved, if wealth ever came to me, (to see to it) that other poor boys might receive opportunities similar to those for which we were indebted to the nobleman.” (The library: An Illustrated History)

Upon retirement in 1901, Andrew Carnegie sold his Carnegie Steel Company to J.P. Morgan for over $450,000,000. This money was invested to a number of trusts and thus was the funding for Carnegie’s philanthropy, which became his full-time occupation.

Andrew Carnegie became known as the “The Patron Saint of Libraries.” The sum of $2,556,660 was granted for the construction of 125 libraries in Canada. In total he donated over $56 million to build free public library buildings worldwide. To demonstrate the enormity of this donation, in Canadian dollars today the amount would be approximately $1.25 billion. These libraries became known as Carnegie Libraries.

There were 111 libraries built in Ontario. In our immediate area libraries were built in Orillia, Gravenhurst, Barrie, Midland, Penetanguishene and Collingwood, to name a few.

Orillia Carnegie Public Library Circa 1922 – Aug 18, 2018 – Postcard Memories Marcel Rousseau

Orillia’s First Library

In 1864, a public meeting was held and a committee was formed to establish Orillia’s first library. The Mechanic’s Institute and Literary Association was founded and occupied various halls around the downtown area. This lasted 45 years. In 1895, the name was changed to the Orillia Public Library. The Orillia Public Library continued to rent space until 1911.

Orillia Carnegie Public Library

How did the Orillia Carnegie Library come to be?

Orillia had to apply to the Carnegie Foundation for a grant to build a library.

There were conditions imposed by the foundation to qualify for the grant.

(Toronto Star “Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie ‘gave libraries a solid footing in Toronto)

“They had to make a substantial commitment.”

Conditions included:

  1. Set aside land
  2. Buy books
  3. Hire staff
  4. Commit to paying annual upkeep costs
  5. Not charge membership or entrance fees

Opposition to the Library

Not everyone held hands at the suggestion that Orillia should apply for a grant from Andrew Carnegie to build a library. As with some other communities, there was opposition. There was a concern related to the amount of the maintenance pledge, which some citizens claimed would perpetually saddle the town with an unnecessary burden.


Antagonism towards Andrew Carnegie

There was antagonism towards Andrew Carnegie himself. In Orillia debates, the term ‘blood money’ was used referring to several deaths which occurred during the 1892 strike at the Carnegie Steel Company in Homestead, near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and it caused some concern accepting the building grants.

The American Federation of Labour (AFL) President wrote this to a Toronto labour leader suggesting that Carnegie, “might put his money to a worse act.” He felt it would be better to “accept his library, organize the workers, secure better working conditions and particularly reduction hours of labour and then workers will have some chance and leisure in which to read books. (The Best Gift – A Record of the Carnegie Libraries in Ontario)


The Orillia Times and Opinions from the Orillia Citizens

The local newspaper, The Orillia Times, opened its columns to the opinions of citizens in March 1909 about applying for a grant for a Carnegie Library. The opinions of the citizenry were at both ends of the spectrum.

One correspondent, C.L. Stephens wrote:


 “Should Orillia ask Andrew Carnegie for $10,000.00 to build a free public library? Most emphatically I think not. So far Orillia is a free independent town, owing nothing to any special favour from any person or corporation outside of our own limits. We have all our churches, schools, Collegiate Institute, Y.M.C.A. building, public hospital, electric power, light and water supply and Opera House, all paid for by the townspeople of Orillia in the shape of taxes or by private subscription. Having provided all these things for ourselves why should we now sink our independence by begging an unfriendly foreigner to give us of his ill-gotten gains, and at the same time tie a millstone around the necks of ourselves and our descendants for all time. Surely if an effort be made within the next few years there will be found money and public spirit enough in the town to provide a free public library of our very own, not burdened with the Carnegie name as prefix. All the successful businesses of our town and our manufacturing establishments are in the hands of native-born Canadians, or men born under the folds of the flag to which we are proud to hold allegiance, and surely the time will come when some of these gentlemen will be pleased to perpetuate their name and successful business career by having it associated with a free Public Library.’ The Best Gift: A Record of the Carnegie Libraries in Ontario.

There was also the opposing view a few days later by J.E. Dickson


“Shall we be behind other towns of far less merit than Orillia? Bracebridge has a Carnegie Library. Collingwood has one costing $15,0000.00. Lindsay has one and so have each of a hundred other towns in Ontario.”

” Is it beneath us to accept money from such a source for such a purpose? Wiser men than we have done so. Queens University got $50,000.00 from Carnegie. Victoria got an equal sum. If we should so sin, we should at least have the consolation that we do so in good company”

‘Some would not accept because Carnegie’s wealth was wrung from the hands of the poor man. ‘It is blood money’ some say. But is it? We have no evidence that such is the case. Many assert that Carnegie was not a hard taskmaster, and even if he were, is that sufficient to reason why we should be willing to sacrifice the future of Orillia by refusing a good thing when it comes within our grasp.” (The Best Gift: A Record of the Carnegie Libraries in Ontario)

Orillia Gets a Carnegie Library!

Orillia’s First Public Library and City Hall Circa 1913 – Orillia Matters Jan 4, 2020 Marcel Rousseau Postcard Memories

In 1909, after considerable debate, Mayor Goffatt and Orillia Council voted to apply for grant from the Carnegie Foundation and were even prepared to increase maintenance to $1,250 per year to qualify for a larger grant. Council decided to apply for a $10,000 grant.

In a letter dated April 15, 1909, Mr. Carnegie’s private secretary, James Bertram, stated they would be glad to give $12,500 to build a free public library provided the Town of Orillia committed to a budget of not less than 10% ($1,250) a year toward its operation and maintenance. On April 10, 1909, Orillia received a grant of $13,500. The population of Orillia at the time was 4,907.

Planning the Orillia Carnegie Library

Local architect W. H. Croker was chosen to design the building.

The Town of Orillia took advantage of the help offered by the Department of Education and the Ontario Library Board in the planning of the library, reviewing a number of interior and exterior photographs and plans of libraries built in Ontario and the United States.

In March 1910, Mayor Goffatt commented:

“After looking them all over and thoroughly considering everything, The Committee are meeting on the 31st, to see if it is possible to embody any new feature presented, other than we have already decided on in the plans as now prepared by the Architect.”. (The Best Gift – A Record of the Carnegie Libraries in Ontario)

The first plan submitted by Crocker was rejected. Mr. Carnegie had stringent guidelines for the Carnegie Libraries.

This was the headline published in The Orillia Times on February 3, 1910:

Must Change Library Plan

“Mr. Andrew Carnegie has advised Mayor Goffatt that the library building plans as originally submitted are not acceptable, as they provide for game rooms, smoking rooms, etc. These buildings must be devoted exclusively to educational purposes. He considers the building too large, and suggests that its length be reduced from 75 feet to 60 feet.”

The drawings by Mr. Crocker were amended and resubmitted. The Orillia Times published an article on May 12, 1910, stating that Mayor Goffatt received a letter from the President of the Home Trust Co., Hoboken, New Jersey, stating that $13,500 was available for the Orillia Carnegie Library and could be drawn on as fast as the certificates of the architect were issued.


Tender Awarded for the New library

Builder Joseph Langman of Penetanguishene was awarded the tender to build the library for the price of $11,710. The 60-foot by 45-foot structure, built from Longford limestone and brick, was erected on the market corner. The library featured book stacks, reading areas and a lecture hall seating 200 people.

Official Opening of the Orillia Public Library

The Orillia Public Library located on Mississauga and Andrew Streets was officially opened on December 28, 1911.

The following was reported in the Orillia Packet January 24, 1912:

Orillia Packet – Mayor Frost Turns Mr. Carnegie’s Gift over to the Library Board


“Notwithstanding the storm of Thursday evening last, the lecture room of the new public Library was well filled…. (Former Mayor) Mr. Goffatt presented His Worship (Mayor Frost) with a silver key as a slight remembrance of the occasion. Mr. Goffatt said that it had been part of his platform while he was Mayor to get a free library. In hope to see two thousand readers on the library role.”

Mayor Frost Orillia (OMAH Collection)

Membership, A Library for All

Before the new library opened there were membership fees and a small grant from the Town Council for maintenance. This support was given begrudgingly by the Town Council. For the new Carnegie Library, there was an increase to a half mill on the dollar from the taxes to support it.

It was announced at the official opening of the Library on December 28, 1911, that there were three hundred members before the library was made free and that the membership had already increased to twelve hundred people, not far off Mr. Goffatt’s wish for two thousand members, and a sign that the library would be well used by the citizens.

Mayor Frost expressed that there were those who would have preferred to have the building built without the money of the American Mr. Carnegie. Frost looked upon Mr. Carnegie as “practically a fellow citizen of the Empire” because of his Scottish roots and a “world citizen through his generosity.”

On December 28, 1911, the mayor, proclaimed the building open for public use. “The doors would ever swing on welcome hinges. Rich or poor, great or small, black or white, would be ever welcome, and he hoped all would make use of its’ advantages” The Orillia Packet, January 4, 1912.

There continued to be rumblings of opposition about Mr. Carnegie and the fact that the Town had accepted his money, but this disgruntlement eventually faded away.

Renovating the Orillia Carnegie Library

Over the years the Orillia Carnegie Library underwent renovation and expansion to accommodate the needs of the community. The existing building was much too small to meet the ever-increasing demands for resources and services. The shelves were overcrowded, there was a lack of study and quiet areas, there was very little space to run programs and accessibility was an issue.

Randy Richmond in his book THE ORILLIA SPIRIT described in a nutshell the attitudes at the time: In the 1960s, when heritage was far less prized than now, Orillia began ruining the look of the Carnegie Library…”

Sadly, little was done to respect the original architecture, the magnificent building design and the original façade was buried within modern glass and white glazed brick and the old building was painted white to match the colour scheme. The building was almost unrecognizable as a Carnegie Library.

Orillia Carnegie Library Renovation (view from the back of the Library) The Orillia Spirit – Randy Richmond

Chronology of the Orillia Carnegie Library Renovations

1961 Renovation

A rear extension of the building was completed, and a new entrance totaling 4,000 square feet.

1968 Renovation

There was work completed to add more space. This renovation sadly covered the old Carnegie façade.

The Last Renovation in 1980

The final additions were completed.

A periodical room was added on the second floor, and an access ramp from the parking lot, an accessible washroom, elevator and central circulation desk were added.

The east and west walls were all that remained visible of the Carnegie building.

Roof Collapses and Move to Build a New Library

It was a nightmare! The main roof of the Carnegie section of the library collapsed under the weight of the snow at 5:00 A.M. on January 1992. The library was evacuated and the collection was moved to a temporary location. Repairs were made and the library resumed operation in May 1992.

Looking at a New Facility

It was the lack of space that started efforts in 1999 to build a new facility, with a formal report on the feasibility completed the next year, Outgrowing Our Building.” More studies followed in the first part of the new millennium. An architectural and structural assessment of the building determined that expanding the present library building would demand costly and extensive renovations.

“The heritage of the building was long gone by the time the architects’ unveiled plans for the new library in 2008.” (THE ORILLIA SPIRIT – Randy Richmond)

We are Grateful

Thankfully, despite the many naysayers, Mayor Goffatt and Orillia Town Council ‘saw the light’ and made the Carnegie Library happen. They were forward thinkers, dedicated to a common purpose and had a belief in themselves and our community. In its day, our Carnegie Library held an important place in Orillia. It gave free access to ideas and knowledge for all. It enhanced our cultural life and gave a place to meet and share ideas.

Andrew Carnegie died in 1919. He made a huge impact world-wide by his everlasting gift, the value of which can not be calculated to Orillia, to our province, to our country and around the world.

With Thanks to:

  1. Carnegie: The Evolution of a Carnegie Library by J. Patrick Boyer

  1. Orillia Matters, Andrew Carnegie’s Philanthropy built Orillia’s Public Library August 18, 2018 Postcard Memories, Marcel Rousseau

  1. Orillia Matters, Check out the Civic Centre of Orillia’s downtown circa 1913, Jan 4, 2020

  1. Carnegie Library Buildings

  1. The Best Gift – A Record of the Carnegie Libraries in Ontario

Margaret Beckman, Stephen Langmead, and John Black

  1. Canada’s Historic – Carnegie’s Canadian Libraries

  1. The Orillia Spirit – An Illustrated History of Orillia – Randy Richmond

  1. Orillia Public Library (Chantel Craigie)– Transcripts of Council meetings (1909, 1910, 1911)

  1. The Library: An Illustrated History p197 by Murray, Stuart A.P.

  1. Toronto Star Jan 14, 2020 – Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie ‘gave libraries a solid footing in Toronto – Rob Ferguson

  1. City of Orillia WEBSITE

  1. County of “County of Simcoe Carnegie Libraries”

  1. Monty Lee Remembers – Jabez Montgomery (‘Monty”) Leigh