Library fun facts: the history of the Vancouver Public Library

The Vancouver Public Library is already an eye-catching building, a coliseum that stands out amongst the 20th-century Edwardian and 21st-century modernist style architecture. While the building is still young, the history behind the organization is rich and long. The timeline starts with a lumber mill that is older than Vancouver City and reaches to present day, in a building constructed by the same architects that designed the Salt Lake City Main Public Library. We will start at the beginning, with the lumber mill on the south shore of the Burrard Inlet.

Hastings Literary Institute – 1869

Photo of the old Hastings Mill circa 1880s
Photo from the Hastings Mill Museum’s official website.

Hastings Mill, originally named Stamp Mill after its founder, Edward Stamp, opened in 1865. The mill was the first commercial operation founded in the area now known as Vancouver. Four years after the Mill was opened, the manager of the mill, J.A. Raymur, established the New London Mechanics Institute as a meeting space and library for the mill workers. Later that same year, the library was renamed The Hastings Literary Institute in honour of Rear Admiral the Honourable George Fowler Hastings. The Hastings Literary Institute existed until 1886 when the Granville area officially became a part of Vancouver and 400 of the institute’s books were donated to the new Vancouver Reading Room after the Great Fire of Vancouver.

Vancouver Reading Room – 1887

The Vancouver Reading Room, also known as, the Free Reading Room, first opened its doors in 1887, at 144 West Cordova Street above the Thomas Dunn & Co. Hardware Store, one year after the Great Fire of Vancouver. 400 of the books from the Hastings Literary Institute were donated to the Vancouver reading room after the fire. Seven years later in 1894, the reading room moved into the YMCA building on 151 West Hastings Street, where it remained until 1901. The City of Vancouver made an agreement with Andrew Carnegie, an American industrialist, to fund a new library to replace the Vancouver Reading Room.

Carnegie Centre – 1903

Photo of the Carnegie Library in Vancouver, which is still an active branch of the Vancouver Public Library
Photo from vancouver.skyrisecities.com

Carnegie donated $50,000 towards the construction of this new building, and the city supplied the land, a plot on the corner of Hastings and Westminster, now called Main Street. The city also agreed to provide support to the library annually. Construction of the new library began on March 29th, 1902, and the Vancouver Public Library’s doors opened just over a year later in October 1903. The electors of Vancouver held a vote in 1945, to establish a new central library and three branch locations. The city later purchased the land at 750 Burrard Street and the library opened at that address on November 1st, 1957. The Vancouver Public Library remained on Burrard Street until April 22nd, 1995, when it closed in preparation for its move to 350 West Georgia Street, Library Square.

The Vancouver Public Library – 1995

A trio of photos taken by Robyn Petrik of the main Vancouver Public Library
Photos taken by Robyn Petrik
Photo of the Vancouver Public Library Main Branch on Georgia Street
Photo from the Cultural Landscape Foundation.

To decide on the architectural design of the new central library, a contest was held by the city. The winners, Moshe Safdie, Richard Archambault and Barry Downs, won over the public with their unconventional design, a Coliseum-inspired building. The Library Square project cost the city an estimated $107 million and at the time, it was the largest project taken on by the city. The ground-breaking ceremony took place on February 1st, 1993, and the Vancouver Public Library opened the doors to its new home on May 26th, 1995.

At the opening ceremony, a time capsule was embedded between the 2nd and 3rd floors. The intent is for the capsule to be opened on the library’s 45th anniversary in 2040. For the first 20 years after the opening of the central library branch, the 8th and 9th floors were leased by the provincial government as office spaces. This lease has now ended, and the Vancouver Public Library has now made the upper floors accessible to the public. The new space includes a rooftop garden that was a part of the original design. The library brought in Safdie Architects, an architectural firm founded and run by Moshe Safdie, the original designer of the library. The renovations were completed in September 2018 and the upper two floors are open to the public.


– Glenn Tkach, The Hastins Mill, Forbbiden Vancouver

– Story of the Central Library, Vancouver Public Library

– Adam Nanji, 5 Things you didn’t know about the Vancouver Public Library, Vancouver is Awesome, Oct. 3rd, 2017

– Thomas Dunn, Changing Vancouver, Dec. 29th, 2016

– YMCA – 149 West Hastings Street, Changing Vancouver, Apr. 27th, 2012

– Carnegie Center, Historic Places Canada, Mar. 29th, 2005

– Vancouver History, A Brief History of Greater Vancouver, The History of Metropolitan Vancouver, Jan. 6th, 2021

– Lani Russwurm, A Boozy History of Prohibition, Forbbiden Vancouver

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