How Calgary's 'revolutionary' first librarian shaped the city

Alexander Calhoun's entry into Calgary's civil society back in 1911 permanently shaped the city.

Alexander Calhoun's namesake library was renamed last weekend after family's donation

Alexander Calhoun was the first librarian in Calgary. Here he is pictured in the first year of his appointment. (Calgary Public Library)

It's not often that librarians get called "revolutionaries," but Alexander Calhoun is one.

He was Calgary's first librarian, and his work shaped the civil society of our city. That's one of the reasons a library was named in his honour.

Last weekend, that library — the Alexander Calhoun Library at 3223 14th St. S.W. — was renamed the Giuffre Family Library, after a local family who donated $1.5 million to refresh the aging site.

The Calgary Public Library says it wants to continue to honour Calhoun, but it's not yet sure what it will do.

And that's a good excuse to look at the life of Alexander Calhoun, who in 1911 put his mark on the city.

"All the stuff he was doing are the kinds of things we're doing right now," says Calgary Public Library CEO Bill Ptacek.

Opening up libraries

Calgary's Alexander Calhoun Library has been renamed the Giuffre Family Library, after a donation of $1.5 million from Mary and Joe Giuffre. (Audrey Neveu/CBC)

It was 1911, and Calgary didn't even have a proper library yet. The city was still a rough and tumble place in those days, a prairie town with dusty roads and horse carriages. But some had hopes for adding culture.

But first, they needed to secure a librarian. The library board posted the job.

Calhoun, who was born in 1879 in Fenelon Falls, Ont., to Irish immigrant parents, saw the posting. He had graduated from Queen's University, and was looking for work.

He applied. And then was met with silence.

And so, he wrote again — again applying for the job, and this time asking to see the plans for the yet-to-be-built library.

Still silence from the library board. And so Calhoun increased the pressure. He wrote a third time basically saying, never mind, he was moving to Vancouver instead.

This time the library board responded — offering him the job. That persistence and bluntness earned Calhoun a reputation.

When Calgary's first public library, Memorial Park, opened in 1912, he was unimpressed with the neighbourhood. He called the adjacent green space "an unsightly wilderness of sand and scrub."

So Calhoun decided to join the city's planning commission, and helped get the park formally landscaped in the late Victorian tradition.

"He was really responsible for a lot of the open spaces in Calgary," Ptacek said. "We're really proud to have Alexander Calhoun as kind of the patriarch, if you will, of the Calgary Public Library."

Alexander Calhoun, centre, pictured in 1943 in the Canmore area, where he was with a group at a sketching camp. (Glenbow Archives)

And it was within the library that Calhoun really began to help shape the community, and its people.

At that time, libraries were intended for adults, and had shelves stocked with classic works of literature. Calhoun had a different vision for what a library should be, and brought in a variety of books, including textbooks and technical manuals. He also used the library to start adult education programs in humanities and social sciences. Key to opening libraries to all, he made sure it was free.

CEO of the Calgary Public Library Bill Ptacek tells us about the city's first librarian and why the Alexander Calhoun Library is renamed the Giuffre Family Library. 5:36

Calhoun took a leave to serve in the First World War, but was soon back in town, and again wanted to make changes.

"At the time, it was revolutionary but he opened the library to kids. I mean, kids were not really welcome in libraries," Ptacek said. "He not only started children's services but he hired and trained children's librarians."

As well, this free library took on an important role during the Great Depression — when it served as a hub for the community, and allowed Calgary's early citizens a path to better their opportunities through education.

Alexander Calhoun received an honorary doctorate law degree from the University of Alberta in 1953. This photo, published in The Albertan in February 1954, shows Dr. J. Clay making the robes presentation. (Jack De Lorme/Glenbow Archives)

Calhoun pushed for these free educational opportunities in part due to his socialist views, which were suspect at the time. So much so, that the Edmonton Public Library had pulled socialist and communist tracks from its shelves.

Calhoun publicly opposed that move by writing to a newspaper.

"Soon we will have no liberties left," he wrote. 

And then, Calhoun himself became suspect — the federal government even kept a dossier on him. But the Calgary firebrand also had supporters.

In his book, Just Getting Started: Edmonton Public Library's First 100 Years, 1913-2013, author Todd Babiak notes the Edmonton library board turned to Calhoun for guidance. They wanted to mimic the feel of Calgary's libraries and their "lively intellectual meeting place" where "silence signs were forbidden."

On Calhoun's advice, the Edmonton board sought to hire "a firecracker of a man" to overhaul its services.

Calhoun worked in the Calgary library system for over 30 years. During that time he branched out into other social activities; starting current affairs and business community meeting groups. He also helped with the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a precursor to the New Democratic Party.

Alexander Calhoun is honoured at the opening of a new library in his name in March 1954. From left: Charles Harrison, Horton McKim, Alexander Calhoun and Mrs. Coulsen. (Jack De Lorme/Glenbow Archives)

Calhoun retired in 1945.

And in 1954, he was honoured by having a brand new library in the southwest of the now much larger city named after him. He also received an honorary law doctorate from the University of Alberta.

Yet today, little is known about the man, as amateur Sunalta historian Riki Winkler recently found out.

Remembering a life

Calhoun made Sunalta his home for many years. It's one of the few things we know about him. As Riki Winkler discovered, in an irony of ironies, there's not much written about Calhoun, even in the libraries he helped found.

"I don't think that's fair to his legacy. I think he played a prominent role," Winkler said.

"In modern times, we're guilty of that," she added, saying someone who was prominent in their day, and had a library named after them, can sometimes recede into history as their legacy fades.

Winkler said she hopes the library system's future commemoration of Calhoun's contribution will include biographical materials and perhaps a plaque.

But regardless, she said, "I'll remember him."


Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca.

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​With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.