54 years ago today, a new Central Library opened

Today, the new Central Library describes a cornerstone project under construction in Calgary’s East Village. But more than 50 years ago, the new Central Library referred to the Central Library at 616 Macleod Trail SE, which opened June 15, 1963.

The new New Central Library, slated to open in fall 2018, will provide 240,000 square feet of usable library space and about 600,000 items. In 1963, the six-storey Central Library comprised 88,000 square feet and had close to 100,000 books.

The first Central Library came about in an unexpected way. At the time, the Library faced a decentralized arrangement that saw materials spread between an administration building and the Memorial Park Library, making it difficult for staff to access all the resources. But a new building that could house everything under one roof seemed out of the question, after Calgarians voted against borrowing funds for a new library in plebiscites in 1955 and 1956.

Then, in 1961, Mayor Harry Hays spoke to W.R. Castell, the Chief Librarian, about how an east-end downtown area slated for urban renewal could include a new library. No plebiscite would be needed this time; the money would come from a surplus in land sales for new subdivisions.

Construction of the Central Library began in February 1962. The building, designed by Calgary architectural firm J.H. Cook and Associates, had a brutalist style typical of the time. Alberta’s Lieutenant-Governor J. Percy Page officially opened the new library the following year in June.

The Central Library opened alongside other new facilities, including a civic administration building, a police station, and a renovated city hall. The buildings were located between 2nd Street (now Macleod Trail) and 3rd Street on 7th Avenue SE, in an eastern part of downtown where revitalization was underway. The Library was built on a site formerly occupied by a service station.

In 1963, the Central Library had a full-time staff of 41. Calgarians could borrow books free of charge. They used a transaction card system, filling in cards with their names and address to check out books.

Highlights of the new building included a children’s section and a newspaper reading room in the basement, a carpeted browsing section with easy chairs on the main floor, and a reference department on the second floor with the Library’s first coin-operated Xerox photocopying machine for Library members.

The third floor housed a listening room for records and a screening room for films, the fifth floor had a workshop area for receiving, cataloguing, and processing books, and the sixth floor held a 210-seat circular auditorium.

In 1974, a six-storey addition was constructed to the north of the Central Library. A second floor theatre was added, and the library was renamed the W.R. Castell Central Library, in honour of W.R. Castell, director of libraries from 1945 to 1972.

Want to learn more? Read The Calgary Public Library: Inspiring Life Stories Since 1912 by Brian Brennan, and the Calgary Public Library Official Opening pamphlet in our Local History Collection.

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