By Don Scott, as told
to Philip Moscovitch
Don Scott has had a lifelong love affair with libraries. As a child in Florence, Cape Breton, he spent hours at the local library, where his mother worked. Eventually, he decided to study library science himself —not a typical path for a young man growing up in Florence in the 1950s.
Scott went to Mount Allison University in the early 1960s, where he met his future wife, Jeanette, an English and psychology major. After graduation, she returned to her native PEI and Don went to McGill—but when he was offered a job in PEI, helping to run the new Confederation Centre library, he jumped at the opportunity, and the chance to be near her. (The two are still married, and have two sons, one living near Gatineau and one on the Island.)
Over nearly 40 years in the library system, Scott saw tremendous change—from libraries with no electricity to computerization of the whole system, and loans of a much wider range of materials than books and magazines. Today, he lives in Stratford, just outside Charlottetown, and remains a frequent library user. He also serves on the board of the Confederation Centre library’s trust and is a member of the Friends of Stratford Public Library.
I’m from the community of Florence in Cape Breton. A coal-mining town. My mother and father were both readers. They belonged to the Book of the Month Club, and there were books and magazines around all the time.
My first experience going to the library was in Sydney, when I was visiting my grandfather. He took me up to the library on Charlotte Street. I was blown away. It was one big room with shelves all around, going up seven or eight feet high. I was nine or 10 at the time, and I just couldn’t fathom it.
I did a lot of reading. I had a collection of about 30 books I’d inherited from my uncle, and some of them he’d inherited from his father, I suspect. Several of them were stories by Horatio Alger. He wrote formulaic books about a boy, perhaps an immigrant who came to America, and someone befriended him and he made good and grew up to be a millionaire. One that I remember was called Phil the Fiddler. Alger had written a couple of dozen of these probably, and someone in my family had an interest in them and collected the whole works. By the time I got around to reading them they were in pretty bad shape. You’d turn a page and it would fall out. After I’d read them all two or three times, the library was a pretty popular place for me.
My father was a coal miner, and my mother was the local librarian for 15 years or so—but I was a regular at the library even before she got the job. When she was working there I’d stop by, talk with her, and sometimes shelve a few books. The library in Florence was in the basement of the credit union, a fairly large brick building. The library’s kids’ selection was excellent. That’s the part I was familiar with.
Of the kids I hung around with in my neighbourhood, I was the only one who went to university. Many of them didn’t finish high school. I went to Mount Allison, and one summer, when I was back home, I worked for the library—filing, clerical work, a variety of stuff. I spent a couple of days travelling around New Waterford collecting overdue library books. The fines were probably only a penny a day, but if you had several books that were three months overdue, they could add up. The branch supervisor and I went around in her car, we’d knock on the door, tell people why were there, and in most instances they’d say yes, and go find the books quite quickly. They weren’t lost or anything. They were right there. I don’t know why they didn’t return them. We brought in a lot of books that way.
I worked in the mines for a summer too, and after my second year of university, I took a year off. Out of desperation, I took a job in the mines and worked there for 10 months. Those two experiences were enough to tell me I didn’t want to be a miner for the rest of my life. It was dirty and dangerous. And I had probably one of the better jobs in the mine, because I was on the maintenance crew, and didn’t spend too much time at the coal face. My father and mother never wanted me to go into the mines, so I had a negative attitude toward it before I started.
Because of my experiences with the library, I got the idea I would go to library school when I graduated from Mount Allison.
I got my BA in ’63, and then I went to McGill for a year to study library science. Sackville, Sydney—those were the kinds of places I was used to. I may have been to Halifax once. Montreal was quite different. I was just overwhelmed at first. I spent most of my time at the university and the area around it, at least initially. Pretty naïve, I guess.
I was recruited to go to PEI by Doug Boylan, who was in the same class as me at McGill. He’d been sent there to get a library degree, and come back to PEI to take over as librarian at the Confederation Centre library when it opened. And I was hired as his assistant.
Doug was a historian, and over time he began spending a bit more of his time with the archives, and I spent a bit more of my time with the library. In 1967, I went to northern Ontario for a year and a half, and when I came back I gradually moved more into running the library, and I became the chief librarian. When the old Prince Edward Island library system amalgamated with the Confederation Centre library in ’72 or ’73, I wound up becoming the provincial librarian.
Let me tell you a story that’s germane to the changes in libraries. Shortly after I came here, I was involved in a workshop for the branch librarians. Grace Murray, the librarian at Breadalbane, said she wanted to change her hours. It turned out she did this each year, because the Breadalbane library didn’t have electricity, and when daylight savings time ended, there was less daylight in the evenings. She used oil lamps, but the weren’t that effective. So she would switch around her hours every fall.
The irony to this is Mrs. Murray’s husband was an engineer who had worked all over the world, and when he came back to Breadalbane, he set up a small electric company. There was a pond and a mill in the middle of the community, and he set up a small electric company to service the houses in the area. It only operated a few days a week, and one of those days was Monday, because that was wash day. It seemed ironic, her husband being a pioneer in electricity on the Island, [but] she never got her library wired. That library didn’t get electricity until sometime between 1964 and 1970.
I also remember when one of the branch libraries, in Annandale, had to close. It was located in somebody’s house—the living room of her house. It got to the point where she didn’t want the job anymore, and there was nowhere else in the community to put the library. It was not a logical place to have a library, and we didn’t want to close it, but we had no choice.
One of my concerns when I started was to have the library service as close to people as possible. People travelled less then than they do now. That was one reason why we initiated a bookmobile service in 1973, which brought the library right to your back door. The one-room schools were being largely phased out, but there were still two-room, six-room, eight-room schools. We served all of those. And we’d pick a convenient place, in the community—a service station or some place where there were three or four houses where people were interested—and that became the bookmobile stop. One of the stops on the schedule was called Rankin’s Gate. That was over across in Rocky Point. The Rankins and a couple of their neighbours were heavy readers, so the bookmobile had a stop there. It covered the island very well. That filled in the areas that weren’t covered by branch service.
Unfortunately— or, at least in my opinion, unfortunately—we had budget cuts back in the early 1990s and the bookmobile service was discontinued.
I still use the library a lot. I go to the one here in Stratford. I check the “what’s new” list regularly, and anything I want I request. All I have to do is go in and pick them up.
I get annoyed when I hear people say nobody uses libraries anymore. Many of the libraries here are very, very busy. They constantly have programs and events and author readings. They may be changing, but they’re certainly not disappearing.
Photo Credit: Sean Landsman
Caption: Don Scott enjoying a book in his local library. “The library was a pretty popular place for me.”
Photo Credit: Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island, Acc4449/s2/4/2
Caption: View of cornerstone ceremony, Confederation Centre of the Arts, 26 August 1963.