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The Carnegie Connection

posted by: The Royal Hotel Chilliwack on: October 28, 2021 04:44:49 PM
Andrew Carnegie - New York Public Library's Public Domain Search


Were you aware of the connection between Chilliwack and New York’s Carnegie Corporation? Yes, that Carnegie-as in wealthy Scottish born American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie; who made his fortune in steel then later established the Carnegie Corporation - and would end up donating the bulk of his wealth.


The Carnegie Corporation is a fund established in 1911 to support educational programs including the building of public libraries. They can take credit with establishing around 2500 libraries around the world. The corporation also provided funding to the University of Toronto’s science lab where Banting and Best discovered insulin in that very laboratory - and were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923. 


Even more interesting, in my opinion, is the person responsible for making this Chilliwack connection was a local librarian, Dr. Helen Gordon Stewart.

Helen Gordon Stewart was born in Ontario in December, 1879 and took her teachers training in Manitoba before embarking on a lifelong career as librarian. In 1908 Helen enrolled in library studies in New York, became a children’s librarian in NYC and later took on the same role in Victoria B.C.  Helen served as president of the BC Library Association from 1917-1919. She continued her education at Columbia University in New York and in 1928 she earned her PHD.


Chilliwack Progress, April 16, 1931


In 1930 Helen Stewart was chosen by the BC Public Library Commission and the Carnegie Corporation to lead the Fraser Valley Public Demonstration Library. This four- year trial came with a grant of $100,000 from the Carnegie Corporation.


She was responsible for hiring staff, ordering and cataloguing hundreds of books and she introduced a mobile van book service. Stewart wanted to bring books to the community – both urban and rural - and travelled hundreds of miles between Ladner and Hope with the bookmobile stopping in every rural community along the way to lend books to eager readers.


1930's Bookmobile (image credit Chilliwack Museum & Archives)


In December of 1933 and in the middle of the depression, voters approved to accept a new tax supported library system and the Valley Library Service (later to become the Fraser Valley Regional Library) was formed.


Helen Gordon Stewart died in Vancouver in 1971. She was 91. 

Kudos to Helen – to her dedication and contributions to the public library system we enjoy today.


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