Great Library History – part 3

Manitoba Law Library – A story of change pt. 3

“It’s been here for 100 years, and it will be here 100 more. Just like the law.” – Martin Jandavs, Facility Manager, Law Courts Building Complex

During his tenure as Facility Manager, Martin Jandavs has seen the Great Library and the Old Law Courts Building through some of its biggest changes. I was initially curious about the period of renovation in the 1980s when Library staff were working from a temporary office in the new Law Courts Building at 408 York. The renovations were extensive and resulted in significant architectural changes to the building.

A view of the Great Library prior to the renovation in the 1980s. The cork floor seen in this picture was replaced with carpet during the renovation. (source: Cameron Harvey – The Law Society of Manitoba 1877-1977)

In the library, the staircase leading up to the second floor was added during the renovation in the 1980s. Prior to this, the spiral staircase on the far side of the Great Library was the only staircase and passed through to the floors below. There used to be two old clocks on either side of the mezzanine overlooking the main floor. When the new staircase was installed the second clock was removed and placed in the attic (accessible through the library archives room), where it remains. The building has been refitted for electrical, plumbing, and computer/technology infrastructure. As Martin said to me, it’s a solid building but it has changed.

By way of example, the Government of Manitoba used to operate its own workshop and renovations department. The department employed in-house plumbers, carpenters, and electricians. The workshop, referred to as the “Vine” location, was located at Vine Street and Whyte Avenue in the Weston neighborhood. When the renovations on the Great Library began in 1985, all of the furniture was labelled and brought to the workshop to be refinished. The labelling system was used to ensure that the furniture returned to its proper location, and the burgundy leather chairs in the library still have their labels.

Martin told me about two Hungarian carpenters, “real craftsmen”, who worked on the big round table in the Great Library. The table wouldn’t fit through the library entrance and so it had to be cut in half to be removed from the building. The two carpenters refurbished it, sanding it down and refinishing the wood. I hadn’t realized that the round top of the table was designed to rotate, a feature preserved by the carpenters.

We talked about the trend towards employing contract labour and the eventual shuttering of the Vine Street workshop. About how the history of a building can be lost when contract work replaces permanent staff. Those craftsmen, who knew these buildings inside and out because they had worked here for 30, 40 years, they were like a living historical record. I told Martin about how I felt similarly about the print documents from the library being replaced by digital documents. It’s easier to lose some of the historical record because of the ephemerality of the digital documents. Martin told me how he used to get out the big technical drawings of the building to use for reference because he preferred them, as opposed to the version on his computer. He is also a fan of the giant 1957 Canadian atlas just inside the front entrance of the library.

I asked him what he thought people would be surprised to know about the building, and he spoke about his staff that keep the building looking so great. Having a dedicated staff working behind the scenes who have specialized knowledge of the building and pay attention to the details are an important part of what makes the building so special. These details we might take for granted – the polish of the custom furniture, the emptying of my trash can every night. And just like the people who keep the building alive, the building animates the people that inhabit it.

In a sense, the Law Courts Building is a living thing. It literally contracts and expands with the weather, it houses all of the constituent parts and people that bring it alive, and has gone through periods of renewal and decay. Similarly, the law is a living thing – it responds to changes in our environment, it expands and evolves, and it also undergoes stages of decay and rebirth. As David R. Johnson says, “The law is an organism rather than a mechanism. It is alive.”

The life of the Great Library and the Law Courts Building is far from over, indeed it may still only be in its youth. My season at the library is coming to a close, but I take the knowledge I gained here with me. In my own small way, I take a piece of the library with me and a piece of its history.

I’m grateful to have been able to come to work here every day and to have gotten to know the building a little bit better. And I’m also now a part of its living history.

Part 1

Part 2