World of Words: The rugged history of Yukon libraries

Dawson’s first public library opened in a tent on Front Street in 1897, with 1,500 volumes donated by the Forty Mile Prospectors to “the mushing parson” S. Hall Young.

By 1903, the venture evolved into the Standard Library Restaurant and Hotel, which offered “books, board, bed, bath and bar” and writing tables for miners to draft their heartsick letters home.

In 1901, free reading rooms opened at Front and Harper, and on the creeks at Conrad and Grand Forks. A $25,000 Carnegie Library opened with 5,000 titles on Queen Street, in 1904, and Dawson had the first law library by 1905.

A fire in 1920 gutted the library, which would be housed in the public school for the next 30 years. From the 50s to the 80s, the Dawson Public Library was in the liquor warehouse until given its current home in the Robert Service School.

The funkiest library in the system is the Alexandrian collection in the weather-beaten school in Keno. Originally, United Keno Hill Mine funded library services on the Silver Trail.

Elsa’s library opened in a coffee shop in 1954 with subsidiaries at Calumet and the Yukon Coal Company office in Carmacks. By 1963, Elsa’s library, now in the recreation hall, vied with Whitehorse as the most active in the territory.

Two glass-cased cupboards of books in St. Andrew’s United Church was the first library in Whitehorse, started in 1907. In 1914, the IODE proposed to use the old hospital at Second and Elliott for a new library, which operated from 1916 to 1943.

An unfortunate stove fire burned the books and the building to the ground. Bishop Geddes offered to house the salvaged books in the Indian Day School and, in 1946, the library reopened in the Legion Hall.

Finally, in 1961, the insurance paid out and the territorial government opened a modern library, on Wood Street, featuring the Martha Louise Black Reading Room.

The existing library was built as a Centennial project in 1966 and, in 1972, libraries expanded to include Archives, which later moved to College Drive. In 1999, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put all the libraries from Old Crow to Carcross on the Web.

Today, Yukon Public Libraries, which administers a central library and 14 community branches, offers a writer-in-residence program and houses French, Northern, First Nation and literacy collections. And, when it takes residence in the new Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, it’ll be the literary hub of the city.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary and Canadian Library Month, community libraries are hosting events. In Whitehorse, today, Thursday, at 7 p.m., local authors will present new work that includes a pre-release peek at From Ice to Ashes.

Did you know …

Bette Colyer was the first regional librarian, and in five years she had books circulating to readers at Takhini, Canyon Creek, Champagne, Tungsten, Swift River, Brooks Brook and Whitehorse Corrections.

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