London

On its 125th birthday, London's public library reflects on an old skeleton and new cards

The London Public Library is celebrating the 125th anniversary of its founding by commissioning a new library card and telling some of its most legendary stories, including that of a skeleton once discovered in the basement of the original library building. 

Library was the 1st in Canada to lend out records in 1942

Built in 1895, this turreted Victorian-era building housed London's first public library. Formerly located on Wellington Street near Queens Ave, it was torn down in 1954. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The London Public Library is celebrating the 125th anniversary by commissioning a new library card and telling some of its most legendary stories, including the time a skeleton was once discovered in the basement of the original library building.

The story of a library with a literal skeleton in its closet is one of the many overlooked tales of this city that librarian Arthur McClelland knows.

He works in the London Room, a treasure trove of old city maps, photographs, historical documents and books filled with local lore. 

The skeleton was found in 1909, hidden among the newspapers and books in the basement of the original London Public Library building, a turreted Victorian-era structure that today no longer exists on Wellington Street near Queens Avenue.

Skeleton made front page news in 1909

The skeleton was found somewhere, here, in the basement of the original 1895 London Public Library building. Note the paper in the foreground stored in close vicinity to the coal chute in the background. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"It made the front page of the newspaper," he said. "The chief librarian at the time was Willy Moe Carson and he didn't know how it got there, but it was there." 

Carson took a local newspaper reporter to the basement, where the skeleton was being kept so the journalist could get a better look. 

"It was a small skeleton, so they thought it might be a child," McClelland said.

The newspaper apparently brought in a phrenologist, a pseudo science that involves measuring the shape of a person's skull to determine an individual's psychological traits. Practitioners purported to read these traits by feeling along the surface of the skull and interpreting its bumps, indentations or enlargements. 

"This person," the phrenologist was quoted in the newspaper at the time, "was of no criminal tendencies, but of a strong domestic temperament, fond of home, children and animals. He was secretive and if in the world like other people would be a money-saver. He had constructive ability, but poor perception, was reflective and extremely cautious." 

Librarian uncovers where skeleton came from

Librarian Arthur McClellan found the origins of the skeleton, what a local newspaper in 1909 called a 'mystery,' by consulting the records of the old Mechanic's Institute. The key passage is number 116, dated December 8, 1851. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

At the time, the newspaper called the skeleton and its origins a "mystery." Unlike the newspaper, McClelland followed up on the story and did some digging of his own. 

McClelland went back to the records of the London Public Library's first iteration as the Mechanic's Institute and found that sure enough, the "mystery" as the newspaper called it wasn't much of a mystery at all.

"I was able to find that in 1851 that a Dr. Charles Greenwood gave a lecture at the library and donated the skeleton and I looked at the original minutes and sure enough it says 'thank you for your donation of the skeleton of the institute.'" 

The Mechanics Institute dates back to 1835 and was the first iteration of the city library. It wasn't public. Patrons paid a fee, which gave them the right to borrow books, magazines, take in performances and, in some cases, learn to read and write. 

"They were very much like the public library except ours had a skeleton in it," McClelland said, noting the library no longer has the skeleton in its collection. 

"Rumour has it that the medical students used to borrow it and never returned it."

McClelland said the London Public Library was founded in 1895 when the Mechanic's Institute collection was moved into the original public library building on Wellington Street near Queens Avenue.

"The 1895 library it was, if I may say, it was a regular run of the mill library so to speak. When they built the 1940 library, when it opened it got accolades all across the nation and in the U.S. as well."

The 1940 library, which still stands today, was acquired by a private developer nearly 20 years ago who had aspirations to turn it into a highrise, but gave up and the building has sat vacant ever since. The building, with its Queenston limestone facade, is one of the few examples of Art Deco architecture in the city.

1940 library considered an innovation at the time

At the time, McClelland said, the building was considered an innovation.

"Inside they called it the 'four libraries' within one library. They had a section for arts and history, science and technology, they had a children's section and it was a new concept," he said. 

The London Public Library is no stranger to new concepts. To celebrate its 125th anniversary, it commissioned a new, limited edition library card, which for the first time in the library's history will feature art instead of its logo. 

The image was created by local Indigenous artist Tsista Kennedy and will be carried in the wallets of the city's 25,000 library patrons starting this year. 

Throughout its 125-year history the London Public Library, hasn't been afraid of trying new things. It was the first library in Canada to lend out records in 1942, it was also the first to lend out art and create a neighbourhood resource centre.

Its employees were the first library staff in Canada to unionize in 1940. They were also the first to strike in 1970, a labour dispute that lasted 10 days. 

London was also among the first in the country to automate and computerize its lending system in the in 1980s.

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