When Bette Colyer arrived in Whitehorse in 1961, her challenge was “to build a library system from a desk and a pencil.”
Born in Cape Breton in 1920, the home-schooled Bette was 16 when she saw her first library, at Acadia University. Hooked, she studied and became librarian of the National Research Council Aeronautical Division while her husband served on U.S. atomic trials.
When they were transferred to Whitehorse, with the Northwest Highway Command, Commissioner Fred Collins hired Colyer for the regional librarian position created in 1959.
As she told archivist Linda Johnson, “The commissioner told me to get out there and give paperbacks to the old guys on the trapline.”
But first she had to join the International Order of Daughters of the Empire (I.O.D.E.), which ran the volunteer library on Wood Street, and convince them to join the regional service. “They did and, as soon as we could, we boxed books for the communities.”
Colyer recognized that Yukoners had “extremely good reading interest, especially history” and ensured loans accommodated freeze-up and breakup. And friends of the library built secure, hinged bookcases that she personally delivered to every school and to 58 communities.
Her eldest daughter, Jacqui Fowler, recounts that, “One winter, Mum drove a big rig into Cantung by herself when the driver got drunk in Watson.”
Most remarkable was the library opening in Keno. A boiler had blown and a man in sooty jeans and T-shirt demanded, “You got books? [he paused] on spectroscopy?”
“From the NRC.” Curious, she asked, “For what?”
“Macro and micro photography,” he says.
Well, that way up in Keno! Colyer remarked.
Library books circulated to wilderness children. Jimmy Brook, on Tagish Lake, enhanced his education with discards and a 25-year subscription to National Geographic donated by the Colyers.
In her youth, Colyer had radio experience, which she used to broadcast children’s stories five times a week and weekend travel adventures on CBC Northern Service.
“Everyone would listen: truckers, trappers, everyone,” recalls Fowler. She also remembers her mother giving elocution lessons to Terry Delaney, CBC Whitehorse’s first sportscaster.
Yukoner Garth Graham was another inspired by Colyer’s enthusiasm. He pursued a library career, implemented her archives plan and a co-operative for Arctic and Antarctic research that is now the Polar Libraries Colloquy.
Artists were always welcome in Colyer’s library. Her first impromptu show, in 1962, featured AY Jackson whose masonite originals, sketches and finished works were propped “on shelves, tables and window ledges” at Wood Street. At once, she had a goal: a proper art gallery in a new library.
She insisted on a double-fronted fireplace in the building, even though two library collections had been lost in fires. Whenever project managers expressed doubt, she waged a war of silence until a young architect included the fireplace. She noted, “It impressed the 50 Canadian librarians who attended the opening.”
On Jan. 28, 1966, Yukoners and visitors alike were awed by the new library, archives and the gallery where Ted Harrison’s career was launched in 1969.
Although the Colyers left the territory in 1966, their son worked at Yukon Archives and their daughter, Jacqui Fowler, runs the Marsh Lake Library.