Oshawa’s First Library

Library established 1864; Carnegie library: 1909-1956

In 1864, interested citizens of Oshawa gathered in the village hall on Athol Street and organized the Oshawa Mechanic’s Institute. This organization not only loaned out books and magazines (for a $2.00 membership), but also served as a reading room, offered courses in such subjects as geometry and arithmetic, and hosted lectures and debates.  It was located just behind of the D. Allin Bookstore, near the Four Corners. William McGill served as the  first president while William Dickie served as the librarian.

In an annual report in the Sessional Papers of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario from 1869 indicates that the institute had moved premises in the preceding year, although it does not precisely indicate where. After 15 years of the operation, membership began to decline with a lack of funds coming in for library books. With the decline of memberships and funds, the institute has no choice but to sell off its assets. The institute closed by 1878.

In 1884, the editor of the Oshawa Vindicator published a passionate piece about the need for a library that brought attention to the citizens. Suitable accommodations were a stumbling block for the organization, but by 1887, a library was once again available for the Oshawa community. After the closure of the original Mechanic’s Institute, Dr. Francis Rae had purchased books and assets from the organization. When the library was looking to re-form, they acquired the collection back from Dr. Rae and supplemented with new books. This library was located in rooms over Higginbottam’s drugstore on Simcoe Street just north of King Street. For many years, this was the location of Murray Johnson’s menswear and is now occupied by Cork and Bean.

The new library provided a smoking room where chess and checkers could be played. The library boasted 1,000 volumes in books by 1889, and in 1892, night school classes were sponsored by the institute at the Centre Street School. The number of volumes in the library increased at an average of about 200 per year until 1893. In 1898, the town of Oshawa passed a bylaw which created the first Oshawa Public Library Board.

By the early 1900s, Oshawa reached a population of just over 5,500 people, necessitating a more spacious library. Oshawa’s first purpose built library was located on the southwest corner of Simcoe and Athol streets and was opened in 1909 with a $14,000 donation from the Carnegie Fund.

Andrew Carnegie was an American businessman and philanthropist. He had a strong belief in and passion for free education, and, driven by this, he created a fund to build libraries, with 2,509 free public libraries built around the world through his fund. In total, he spent $2,556,600 on the construction of 111 libraries in Ontario and another 14 elsewhere in Canada.

Oshawa received its grant of $14,000 from the Carnegie Foundation on November 24, 1906. The library, built in a style common of many Carnegie libraries, was designed by architects Carrerre & Hastings.

As Oshawa’s population continued to grow through the early 20th century, the library became very crowded. In 1943, an internal gallery was put in place for more shelving as well as a children’s department in the basement. An off-site storage room had to be put in place, which carried over 1,200 books. By the 1950s, the library was looking to expand; in 1954, the McLaughlin Library opened and two years later, the Carnegie library at Simcoe and Athol was demolished.

With information from:




M. McIntyre Hood, Oshawa: “Canada’s Motor City,” (Oshawa: Alger Press Limited, 1968), 243-247.

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