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More than eight kilometres of shelf run and one service elevator: inside the Library of Parliament’s move out of Centre Block

By Beatrice Paez       

Part of the complexity behind the move is that the books have to be packed in an order that makes sense organizationally, along with the fact that the library space itself—with the intricate carvings of flowers and mythical beasts that adorn the shelves—has to be protected.

Sonia Bebbington, director general of information and document resource service, said library staff have purposely focused on moving the basement-level collection first. But in a few weeks' time, the 'visual impact' of the move out of Centre Block will be more apparent. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Moving books out of the Library of Parliament in the Centre Block building is a lot harder than it may seem, and not only because of the sheer volume of its collection, which includes more than 600,000 books.

With 8.7 kilometres of shelf run and only one service elevator to transport those books, many of which are bound for storage in Gatineau, Que., and other considerations at play, the library staff has to methodically plan which spots to clear out first.

While it’s evident the move is well underway—there are pockets of empty shelves throughout the historic space—the staff has purposely put off moving many of the books on the main floors. 

“We’re trying to leave this [floor] towards the end, because there will be a visual impact eventually, as we start to protect the space and move things out,” said Sonia Bebbington, director general of information and document resource service, in an interview. “In a few weeks’ time, you’ll start to see the impact on these levels.”

Ms. Bebbington is responsible for overseeing the library’s collections throughout their lifecycle, from developing to preserving its assets. With the ongoing move, she’s preoccupied with ensuring that the library remains accessible.

The library itself won’t undergo a facelift, having gone through a $136-million renovation in 2006. But access will be cut off as the rest of Centre Block is closed for at least a decade for the renovations by the end of the year. Even though much of the library’s collection will be moved to Gatineau, Ms. Bebbington said it will remain accessible throughout the renovations. 

Part of the complexity behind the move is that the books have to be packed in an order that makes sense organizationally, along with the fact that the library space itself—with the intricate carvings of flowers and mythical beasts that adorn the shelves—has to be protected.

“The thing about a library is the collection is filed relative to itself, so you have to maintain shelf order as you move it, as you transport it, and as you reshelve it in the new destination,” Ms. Bebbington said. “If you misshelve things, you could lose them essentially. It’ll take much longer to move a couple of kilometres of collection from this space here, considering the complexity of all of the corners and heritage elements that needed to protected.”

Instead, the staff has been focused on moving books out of its two basement levels—also known as “The Stacks.” That process isn’t quite as complicated. At the basement levels, compact shelving lines the walls of a far less grand space.

A pocket-sized guide identifying every MP of a given parliamentary session that Parliamentarians used to carry around with them. This volume shows William Lyon Mackenzie King, the prime minister at the time. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The second-basement level, however, is where many of the library’s treasures are kept. Inside the rare-book room, a nondescript space with low ceilings that happens to house some of the oldest and most valuable items in the library’s possession, the temperature is set at 20 C and 40 per cent humidity to preserve the collection. Access here is limited; only those with a compelling reason to view an item are allowed in.

Still, the library does know how to share. On one occasion, it loaned the first budget from 1867 to the Department of Finance, according to Ms. Bebbington. (That budget, for the record, is comparatively slimmer, whereas Budget 2018, in its digital form, clocks in at 369 pages.) It’s also loaned the Confederation Ink Stand, which was used in the Quebec Conference of 1864, as well as two other historic moments.

The pre-Hansard debates scrapbook, 1872: library staff would meticulously clip articles written by the press gallery and paste them in a book like this one as a record, albeit an imperfect one, of the day’s news. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Other treasures stored in the basement include a fold-out map of Samuel de Champlain’s voyage to New France, or Nouvelle France, published in his travel journals in 1632. His cartographic skills are on display, according to Ms. Bebbington, but the map starts to lose its accuracy as it moves west “because he’s piecing it together from what he’s heard from other explorers, hat makers, less skilled map makers.”

There’s also the pocket-sized guides with pictures of every Parliamentarian which MPs used to carry around to help them identify one another. Now, most MPs just rely on the House of Commons’ website as a resource.

The parliamentary library doesn’t have an active budget to acquire rare books. That job is left to Library and Archives Canada. The library’s collection of rarities, Ms. Bebbington said, was carved out of its existing collection, which started even before Confederation. The rarities room was developed during the 2002-2006 renovations. 

“We have the luxury of being based on collections that were initiated even in the 1790s in upper and lower Canada,” Ms. Bebbington said. “Our founding parliamentary librarian did a lot of very active collection building in the first years.”

The first budget from 1867 is a far slimmer than the most recent budget, which in its digital form, is more than 300 pages long. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade 

As to which part of the library’s collection will be the last to leave the building, nothing has been settled yet, but Ms. Bebbington hopes it will be “highly symbolic.” One potential candidate could be the parliamentary debates scrapbook, which she said is a microcosm of what the library’s collection is about: “It’s a collection of information about Parliament that we’ve collected and preserved for a 150 years.”

The scrapbooks predated Hansard, verbatim records of parliamentary debates in the House of Commons. Library staff would meticulously clip articles written by the press gallery and paste them in a book as a record, albeit an imperfect one, of the day’s news.

The 1870s proposal to move to the Hansard system was met with opposition at the time, with some arguing it was too costly. But ultimately Parliamentarians decided Canada, as a young country, needed to start building a legacy.

Inside the climate-controlled room that houses the library’s collection of rare books and items. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

There are roughly 11 or 12 scrapbook volumes in its collection. The library stopped assembling these scrapbooks when Hansard was introduced in the House in 1875. (It started in the Senate in 1872.) What you won’t get in Hansard, but which the scrapbooks are full of, is editorial colour: no side observations, for example, of how Sir John A. Macdonald’s voice quivered when he broke the news in the Commons that Thomas D’Arcy McGee had been assassinated.

The scrapbooks are not high in monetary value—anyone with a lot of time and access to an extensive newspaper archive could try to replicate it, Ms. Bebbington said. But it does have institutional value. “No other Library of Parliament was collecting this set of articles,” she said, “so it’s completely unique, not just rare.”

Ms. Bebbington’s office itself isn’t located within Centre Block, but losing access to the historic library space—which, having survived the 1916 fire, is older than Centre Block itself—will be no less emotional for her than for the many others who work on the Hill.

“I look at the space and the books, and I feel truly connected to the work of the library,” she said in a follow-up email. “The space is functional and beautiful, and symbolic—it is purpose-built for books, and for me it says that we need to understand where we’ve been in order to make good decisions about where we’re going.”

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