Photography exhibition shows extensive history of P.E.I.’s many libraries

Prince Edward Island has 25 libraries, and photographer Doug Dumais has explored all of them.

Circulations, his exhibition at the Charlottetown Library Learning Centre, shines a spotlight on some of the Island’s smaller libraries.

He says he set up for a few hours in each one, photographing the spaces and talking with the librarians about their histories.

The project started because Dumais wanted to find out how P.E.I. ended up with so many libraries in such a small place. 

‘A public good’

“The Carnegie Corporation of New York was doing these pilot projects of rural libraries,” Dumais said in a recent interview with Island Morning’s Laura Chapin.

Doug Dumais sits, looking into the camera, with a colourful background.
Fascination with the history of P.E.I. libraries led photographer Doug Dumais to create his Circulations exhibit. (Jared Doyle)

“So there was a plan of putting libraries all across the United States, and they wanted kind of a nice space that they could test out these regional libraries.”

That space was Prince Edward Island.

In 1933, the corporation hired a librarian named Nora Bateson from McGill University. Her job was to set up a regional library system over three years.

“She would go to these communities and talk to women’s organizations, and kind of garner support for libraries,” Dumais said.

He says a lot of these libraries she helped set up at the beginning were in people’s homes, or in available spaces in the communities.

“She would drive around to the small communities with a very early car. You can imagine in the ’30s, that she modified [the car] to hold 300 books,” said Dumais.

When Bateson started, there were three libraries on P.E.I. By the end of the three years, there were 22.

An image of computers at a library.
The photos in the collection are styled to resemble book covers. (Gregory Ellison)

When she published her report on the project, it showed that people were taking out thousands of books over a period of several months, making the program a resounding success.

Bateson was a tireless champion of rural libraries. The Circulations exhibit includes a pamphlet Bateson published in 1944, called Rural Canada Needs Libraries.

“It was sort of like a manifesto for after the war, how important these community spaces would be as we kind of rebuild what Canadian identity looks like.… This idea that you have to provide a public good for your people, and that’s what democracy looks like, and that’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted,” said Dumais.

Exhibiting P.E.I.’s past

Dumais likes photographing subjects associated with change: construction sites, shorelines and now libraries, because many of the Island’s libraries have shifted from small spaces set aside in people’s homes to their own buildings, changing hands and contents over the years.

A series of photos over a library shelf.
The exhibit runs until May 25. (Gregory Ellison)

“It’s up to communities still today to provide the spaces.… It could be an old P.E.I. Liquor location like in Stratford, or it could be an old train station like in Alberton,” said Dumais.

He loved touring the libraries, and he says it’s tough to choose a favourite, but his is probably the Alberton Public Library because of that historic location.