Great Library History – part 1

Manitoba Law Library – A story of change pt. 1
[Editor’s note: John Bryans is a co-op student, completing his MLIS from Western University in August 2022. This is his final assignment at the Great Library.]

“[…] a lawyer, to be able to function competently, requires more than education: he requires books.” (Cameron Harvey – The Law Society of Manitoba 1877-1977)

Without question, the Old Law Courts building makes a statement. An imposing stone edifice, it evokes strength, rationality, solemnity. We have the feeling of being small within it. With its hidden alcoves and rooms that feel tucked away, the building embodies the at times abstruse nature of the law for those who are not familiar with its intricacies.

The Great Library though, is a soaring room. Designed to house all legal information, it suggests the expansive nature of jurisprudence and the vastness of legal knowledge. It was designed with practicality in mind, in that it could house all of the library’s legal textbooks and reporting series. But it was also designed to encourage study, to impress on visitors the gravity of a learned legal mind.

View of the Great Library and its blue ceiling, gilt detail, classical columns, and the iconic round table. (source: American Courthouses)

When I first met with Director of Legal Resources, Karen Sawatzky, at the Manitoba Law Library to discuss a co-op position as part of my Master of Library and Information Science program at Western, the building was the first thing that struck me. Despite being raised in Winnipeg, I had only set foot in the Old Law Courts building when I was very young, and never the Great Library. Seeing it for the first time, I was of course taken by its impressive beauty. The sky blue and gilt ceiling, the classical columns that line the room, the stately furniture. The room has personality.

Halfway into my semester at the Library, Karen shared with me some old paper documents from the library – old budget documents, minutes from meetings, and year-end reports. One of the reports, from 1987, talked about the reopening of the library after the major renovations to the Old Law Courts Building (in conjunction with the opening of the New Law Courts Building on York). Staff had been working in temporary offices and were relieved to be coming back to the Great Library. One of the final tasks in the renovation was covering the Library’s original metal shelving (still there to this day) using an electrostatic coating process that was described as “tortuously slow” in the report. Funny how time passes so slowly and so quickly.

Reading those old library documents made me think of all of the changes that have happened to the Great Library (and the Law Courts complex) over the years. Not long after staff moved back into the building, a technological revolution started with the introduction of a computer room in 1989. In 1990, the focus of special projects in the library was computerization, with the Manitoba Unreported Judgments project ensuring that each judgment rendered from 1978 onward was re-analyzed, coded, and entered into an online database. The end of the 20th century ushered in massive changes to the world, and the Great Library was swept up in the march of progress. But as Karen pointed out to me on that first visit I made to the Library, the printed word has not yet been made obsolete.

The library, too, continues to have new life breathed into it. The Old Law Courts Building has undergone many renaissances during its relatively short life, and the Great Library has played an important part in that.

In the next two installments of this three part series, I’ll take you on a tour of the history of the Manitoba Law Library and the Old Law Courts Building, and end with a conversation I had with facilities manager Martin Jandavs, about the renovations in the 1980s. I hope you’ll join me.

Continued in part 2…