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Last Modified: September 15, 2023
Graphic with the messaging: Beyond the Stacks with Jessie Bach
Carnegie Libraries in Alberta

by Jessie Bach

There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration. — Andrew Carnegie


Black and white photograph of Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie, Andrew, 1905. Library of Congress.

Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish-American businessman, philanthropist, and book lover. As a teen and young adult, he used libraries to gain the knowledge and skills about industry and investing that would help him to become successful and, eventually, very, very wealthy. His experience led to his belief that libraries and other community services could provide a leg up to those who wished to improve themselves and pursue their goals. He also believed that the rich should use their wealth for the greater good of society. By the time of his death in 1919, Carnegie had donated the funds to build 2,500 libraries across the world, including 125 in Canada. Three Carnegie libraries were built in Alberta.

The first Carnegie Library in Alberta was built in Calgary and is still in operation today as the Memorial Park Branch of Calgary Public Library. The project was spearheaded by the Calgary Women’s Literary Club (CWLC), which was first founded in 1906 and is still in operation today. In the early twentieth century, Calgary’s population was booming, yet the city had no library. The CWLC decided to approach the Carnegie Foundation for funding for a library and began working to drum up community support for the project.

As far as building libraries was concerned, Carnegie was known for rarely saying “no”; however, communities did need to meet some requirements to qualify. Those asking for library funding had to demonstrate that the community supported the project and that ongoing funds would be available for buying books, hiring staff, maintaining the building, and all the other costs that go along with running a library. Also, Alberta’s newly passed Public Libraries Act required that at least ten per cent of voters (at the time, that meant men) had to support the library project for it to be eligible for ongoing municipal and provincial support. With these requirements in mind, the ladies of the CWLC got to work campaigning in the community and secured the support needed to proceed with the funding request. In the end, the Carnegie Foundation granted $80,000 (about $2 million in 2023 dollars) for the new library, the province granted $20,000, and the City of Calgary contributed a further $10,000 to purchase books.

Sepia photograph of Public Library, Calgary Alberta.
Public Library, Calgary, Alta. Calgary Public Library Archives, Our Story in Pictures.

By 1912, the Memorial Park Library was completed—a magnificent building at the time. The design was classically inspired, and it featured a columned entrance, an elegant interior, and a richly ornamented outer façade. The new library was a great success and well attended by the residents of Calgary. It hosted Calgary’s first art show and became the meeting place for a plethora of clubs and associations. The CWLC meets at Memorial Park Library to this day.

Edmonton was not far behind Calgary in its pursuit of a public library. However, support for the project among the male electorate was harder to come by, and in 1907, an initial petition failed. Soon, though, a champion arrived in the form of the new school inspector for the Strathcona district—Ethelbert Lincoln Hill. Hill moved north from Calgary to take this job and had previously served as a board member for the Memorial Park Library project. He was a persistent, vocal supporter of the Edmonton Public Library project, and his efforts are credited with the success of a second petition, which garnered the signatures needed to proceed. Hill became the chairman of the new Edmonton Public Library board and initiated the process of applying to the Carnegie Foundation for a grant.

In Edmonton, the process did not move forward as quickly or as simply as the Calgary library project. Hill and the library board encountered challenge after challenge. First, it was difficult to secure community funding, and then Edmonton entered an economic downturn, which was followed by the First World War. Despite increasing public need during these tough years, politically, it was no time to be building a library. It wasn’t until 1921 that Hill and the board re-opened negotiations with the Carnegie Foundation and finally received funding. Between Carnegie and the City of Edmonton, they raised $160,000 for the new library. Edmonton’s new library was the last one that the Carnegie Foundation would fund, as Carnegie himself had passed away in 1919, and the foundation moved away from the business of building libraries.

In 1923, the Edmonton Public Library opened its doors to the public. It was situated on the Saskatchewan bluffs and was an imposing two-storey building with a large, open reading room—a departure from traditional library design at the time. Just as in Calgary, the new library opened to much fanfare and served the community well until 1968, when it was demolished to make way for a facility with the capacity to serve the city’s growing population and their evolving needs.

Black and white photograph of Edmonton Public Library Side Elevation
Edmonton Public Library – side elevation. City of Edmonton Archives.

While Edmonton and Calgary pursued their new libraries, a similar effort was mounting further south in Lethbridge. Their first overture to the Carnegie Foundation was sent in 1902; however, many years of debate and negotiation followed. Accepting Carnegie money for the project became a point of contention in Lethbridge—there was concern that it may affect the labour vote, as Carnegie, despite his dedication to philanthropy, was seen by many as a capitalist magnate who had a reputation for the poor treatment of his workers.

In the early 1920s, finding no other champion to fund their library, Lethbridge accepted a Carnegie grant for $25,000 and began construction on its new library on the south end of the Galt Gardens. The library building, a squat, two-storey brick and stone structure, was smaller and less grand than those built in Calgary or Edmonton and consisted of an adult library, a children’s library and a lecture hall. It was completed in 1922 and soon became a popular location for community meetings and readers of all ages. The building served as a library until 1974 when it was repurposed to house the Southern Alberta Art Gallery—a purpose that it serves to this day.

Alberta’s public libraries have evolved considerably in the century since the three Carnegie-funded structures were built. This is true both in form —check out Calgary and Edmonton’s modern, multi-purpose central library spaces—and in the scope of services offered. At the same time, though, the stories of some of our earliest libraries show that some things never change. Libraries today, just as in the past, are established and operated through the commitment of local community volunteers and supporters, who dedicate their time to serving on local boards and advocating for the funds and support needed to continue library operations. Albertans in turn, continue to use their local public libraries as gathering places for clubs, meetings, and social events and as a source of books and other materials to enrich their education and recreation.


Benoit, Aimee. 2019. “Establishment of the Lethbridge Public Library.” Galt Museum and Archives. Accessed September 1, 2023.

Calgary Women’s Literary Club. 2014. “Our History.” Calgary Women’s Literary Club. Accessed August 31, 2023.

Hoar, Erin. 2018. “Alberta’s Early Public Libraries.” RETROactive. Accessed August 29, 2023.

Gourlay, Shona. 2019. “The Carnegie Libraries in Alberta.” Alberta History. Accessed August 29, 2023.

Marsteller, Duane & Tracey. 2022. “Lethbridge Public Library/Southern Alberta Art Gallery.” The Historical Marker Database. Accessed September 1, 2023.

Parks Canada. 2022. “Central Memorial Library and Park Historic Site.” Government of Canada. Accessed August 31, 2023.

Ryksen, Dane. 2022. “The Carnegie Library.” Forgotten Edmonton. Accessed August 31, 2023.

Wikipedia. 2023. “Andrew Carnegie.” Wikimedia Foundation. Accessed August 29, 2023.


About the Author:

Beyond the Stacks is a column about libraries in Alberta and the useful and necessary services they provide.

Photo of Jessie Bach, author of this article

Jessie Bach grew up on a family farm in Southern Alberta and is a lifelong library user and book lover. She has a degree in history from the University of Saskatchewan, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. Jessie has worked in archives, academic libraries, corporate records management, and now public libraries. Her current role is Communications & Engagement Manager at Marigold Library System. She currently lives in Calgary with her partner and, in true librarian fashion, three cats. Jessie likes to read (of course), knit, consume way too many true crime podcasts, and lift weights in the gym.