Prairie books NOW Review - Turning Back the Pages

Reviewed by: Shirley Byers

Pages in Time

A look at 100 years of the Saskatoon Public Library

Ruth Millar has laid it on the line, and doesn't pull any punches when talking about what authors want.

"All authors hope that their books will capture the public imagination and that sales will justify their existence! That is hard to do with a library history," she says.

Nevertheless, the historian, author, and former journalist may just have done it. Turning Back the Pages: 100 Years at the Saskatoon Public Library is not a dry tome, not a long, ponderous recitation of dates and boring library facts. It is a story of the people - real, living, breathing people - who made the Saskatoon Public Library into the award-winning institution that it is.

Angus Mowat was one of those people. As chief librarian from 1932 to 1937, Mowatt [sic] got rid of the wire fencing used to partition the reference desk, established better children's facilities, and helped paint the new quarters. His story includes some wonderful anecdotes involving Mutt, the Mowat family dog, of The Dog Who Wouldn't Be (by Angus's son, Farley Mowat) fame. 

J. S. Wood, chief librarian from 1938 to 1961, was respected and renowned as a literary scholar. A branch library in the Nutana area of Saskatoon was named after him, but he died before it was completed. Millar writes about his reverence for the physical book: "J. S. Wood was outraged when he was shown a slice of uncooked bacon used as a bookmark - grease had seeped through several pages." Also found in books were matches, cigarette stubs, bobby pins, nail files, small scissors, and love letters. 

Following Wood's reign, a series of caring, technologically savvy, and far-seeing women - Frances Morrison, Alice Turner, and Sandra Anderson - took charge and led the library through the rest of the 20th century, until the current director of libraries, Zenon Zuzak, took over in 1995. 

There were unique characters on the other side of the librarian's desk as well. The library's Local History Department fielded a query from a man who wanted a copy of an old newspaper account of his own death in a blizzard. Another asked for a copy of tomorrow's newspaper. One patron requested a directory of unlisted phone numbers, and a polite gentleman from another culture approached the reference desk to ask for a list of virgins.

"A public lbirary has many amazing stories, and they aren't all contained within the covers of its books," says Millar, author of Saskatchewan Heroes and Rogues and co-author of Saskatoon: a History in Photographs. 

"I wanted this book to be primarily social history, spiced with dollops of humour and enriched by capsule biographies, all placed in the context of the wider community's history."

Because SPL has had such extraordinary chief librarians, Millar decided to play up their life stories. This led to the decision to organize the book chronologically acccording to the different administrations, to show how each chief librarian's values shaped the direction of the library. 

"I also wanted to pay tribute," Millar says, "to many dynamic, progressive people with tremendous social conscience who laboured imaginatively to introduce programs and services to help disadvantaged groups. 

"SPL is an award-winning library, and I hoped to explain why."

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of Prairie books NOW

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