The Sunnyside branch of the Ottawa Public Library is one of the gems of our Old Ottawa South neighbourhood. Much loved and very well used by young and old, it has been in existence almost as long as the entire Ottawa library system itself, but of course it looked very different in the beginning.
As early as 1906, the year when the Carnegie Library of Ottawa first opened its original Laurier street location, the Chief Librarian Lawrence Burpee in his annual report was calling for a branch library in Ottawa South. He repeated this call in suceeding years and by 1910 he went further to say “it is most important... the branches in Ottawa East and Ottawa South [be] established as early as possible after the new year.”
This came to pass in the following year with the earliest form of a branch opening in November 1911 in the Hopewell Avenue Public School. Known at the time as a book depot, it consisted of about 500 books on shelves in the hallway of the school, open to the public for borrowing one hour at a time three evenings a week. In the first full year of operations 1912 there were about 2700 books borrowed. By 1914 there were 354 registered borrowers in the South book depot. These numbers compared favourably with the other early book depots (in Hintonberg and New Edinburg) and the West End full service branch which was established in 1913. The first South branch librarian was Miss E. J. Fairbairn, quite possibly a member of the early Fairbairn family that settled in Old Ottawa South.
The Ottawa South book depot was upgraded in 1916 to a small bonafide branch operation, still within the Hopewell Avenue school. The Library Board made available an unused classroom which was fitted out as a branch and reading room.
In 1922 then Chief Librarian W. J. Syke wrote in a letter that the Carnegie Library board was generally in favour of an Ottawa South branch in “one of Spratt’s stores as compared with Mr. O’Neill’s double parlor” and that the Ottawa South Municipal Association chaired by Mr. Easson concurred, in part because “they thought it would look more like a library than the double parlor of a house would.” Spratt was a local merchant and owned storefronts at 1200 and 1208 Bank St, both of which housed the South branch over the years.
With the South branch still housed in the store front in 1931, a 10 year retrospective report of the Library Board recommended a proper home of its own for the branch, at a cost of between $25,000 and $30,000. It was noted that the rental charges for the existing store front location were $100 per anum. In 1934 the secretary of the Ottawa South Municipal Association, Mr Fred Cowan, wrote to the Carnegie Library board to request they “consider the erection of a South End Library Hall.” The Chief Librarian replied that interest and debt payments for the recently erected Rideau Branch “makes it impossible to undertake further building at present,” in part because throughout the 1930s the City of Ottawa Board of Control regularly refused funding requests and cut the budget of the Carnegie Library.
In 1935 Ottawa South Resident W. J. Williamson wrote to the Ottawa Citizen on two successive days first to deplore that “Ottawa South is deeply resentful of its treatment by the library board.” In his opinion the South branch was “a disgrace” owing to it being “badly-located, miserably housed, stocked chiefly with obsolete and worn-out books, ill ventilated, noisy, [full of] turbulent, idle youths, it is in a truly deplorable state.” But the next day he clarified that “the attendants are the saving grace of the institution.” Harsh words but reflecting the poor comparison of the store front South branch against the then modern and beautiful branches built in the West End (Hintonburg) and on Rideau St. On a more positive note, in 1937 the library advertized in the Chronicale newspaper to publicize the 10,000 volumes at the South branch, available to the public for “Not a cent” in charges. The South branch appeared in the Chronicale again in early 1939, this time to tout 10 of its newest acquisitions; but who today has read Vera Brittain, Paul de Kruif, and Henry Vollam Morton?
1938 marked the retirement of the South branch’s first ever librarian, Miss E. J. Fairbairn. The notion of an employer sponsored pension plan for library staff had only just come in to practice, so Miss Fairbairn did not qualify; her benefit was limited to 3 months paid leave at the start of her retirement on September 30th that year. Succeeding her as branch librarian was Miss Gwen Manchester, formerly the assistant librarian in the branch.
Jumping ahead quite a few years, the South branch finally found a worthy home and opened its new building in January 1951 at its present location at 1049 Bank St, but not quite the building we know today. The early entrance was directly off Bank St and the building was somewhat smaller without as much public space. In the first year of operations in the new building, branch librarian Claire Johnston reported that the number of registered borrowers doubled from 1051 to 2076, and circulation was nearly 57,000 books.
By the 1980s, the South branch was in need of a major overhaul and City Council approved a significant renovation project, ultimately costing $622,000. This project took place during 1985 and built a new entrance area at the north west corner of the building, expanded the rear of the building, reconfigured the garage for the bookmobile service, moved the children’s department into the basement, and added an elevator and more washrooms. During construction, the branch remained open in the bookmobile tractor trailer parked in the parking lot and kept regular branch hours. The bookmobile garage was used to warehouse returned books. The building itself was off limits. A few years before, in 1980, the entire Ottawa Public Library adopted a computerized catalog system. Branch staff person Rosemary Wilkins remembers it as “a massive job, a big job,” that the branch was closed for the better part of a week. Afterwards for a while it was “nerve racking to use the new computer catalog system” as no one was an expert yet and library patrons would be lined up waiting for services, whether the computer was acting up or not. With the municipal amalgamations in Ottawa in 2000, the original South branch was no longer anywhere near the south end of the city, so the branch was rechristened the Sunnyside branch.
The facts and figures for this story were drawn from annual reports of the Carnegie Library of Ottawa, archival documents and press clippings in the Ottawa Room, Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library, first person interviews of current and former staff of the Ottawa Public Library, and the book 'The Library Book' by Phil Jenkins. Special thanks to the librarians of the Ottawa Room for their assistance in researching this material.
Originally published in the February 2008 OSCAR.
See a full-page feature from the Ottawa Citizen from February 1, 1951 (page 22) celebrating the opening of the Ottawa South branch library.