Author Dave Obee comments on the life of Helen Gordon Stewart

Author Dave Obee comments on the life of Helen Gordon Stewart

Stewart at heart of library’s beginnings

So what if all reports indicate she was one of the worst drivers on the planet?

As long as she was able to get books to the public, Helen Gordon Stewart would drive to as many communities as possible.

That’s one of the stories about the woman who devoted her life to books and libraries as recounted by Dave Obee in front of a crowd of 40 recently at the Peace Lutheran Church.

Obee, current editorial page editor for the Victoria Times-Colonist, is a former Vernon Daily News reporter (1973-76), geneaologist and author of the book The Library Book – A History of Service to British Columbia. Invited to present by the Vernon branch of the ORL and the Vernon and District Family History Society, Obee said that while the ORL was founded 75 years ago, its roots go well beyond that to Stewart.

“Originally from Manitoba, Stewart was a very influential woman, very interesting,” said Obee, who did a great job battling through a bout of laryngitis during his one-hour talk on Stewart and libraries.

“Without her efforts, I believe we wouldn’t have the library system we have today in the Okanagan.”

While still living in Manitoba and working as a teacher, Obee said Stewart found a back issue of Ladies Home Journal magazine and found an article about “What it means to be a librarian.” It was that story that got Stewart interested in libraries.

She applied to library school in New York City in 1908.

“At the time she went to New York City, she had never been in a public library because Manitoba didn’t have them,” said Obee. “She went off to school with no idea what libraries were like.”

After a year of training, Stewart began working in the children’s department of the New York library, then moved to Victoria in 1910 to become assistant librarian. Stewart became head librarian after a year. During the First World War, Stewart went overseas to help as a nurse’s assistant.

In 1924, she returned to the U.S. to further her education and worked on her PhD.

The B.C. library commission, at that time, was run by a man named Norman Fergus Black who put together a survey library service across the province. Obee said Victoria would send boxes of books out to communities for three months and at the end, those books would be returned and a new box would be sent out. People would order books directly from the government, and people like Stewart would deliver books.

Black’s survey discovered that people in rural areas wanted as good as city-type library service and decided to set up a regional system in either the Okanagan, Vancouver Island or Fraser Valley, which was chosen with Stewart selected to implement the new system. And Stewart was determined to build the best-equipped library service she could.

Obee displayed a slide containing a quote from Charles J. Hurt, president of the Vernon library association, who was not too pleased that the Okanagan lost out.

“From the heights on intellectual anticipation, we are plunged in the depths of dismal disappointment,” said Hurt.

“People in Vernon thought the Okanagan should have the service and not the Fraser Valley because the Fraser Valley already had access to libraries in Vancouver and New Westminster, along with daily newspapers, where it took two days for daily papers to arrive in Vernon,” said Obee. “People were really, really upset.”

Stewart implement ed a regional system in the Fraser Valley, and later did the same thing in the Okanagan. The vote to establish a regional headquarter went to Kelowna, narrowly edging out Vernon, even though Stewart was living in Vernon at the time.

Stewart, who passed away in 1971 at 91, started the library systems in the Fraser Valley, Okanagan and Vancouver Island, and also established a system in Trinidad and Tobago in 1944.

Maureen Curry, head librarian at the Vernon branch of ORL, was impressed by Obee’s presentation.

“He’s done an incredible amount of in-depth research about Helen Gordon Stewart and her role in developing public library service in B.C.,” said Curry. “We certainly owe a great deal of gratitude to this incredible woman and her vision.”

Obee has written eight books for Canadian family historians and has presented more than 400 lectures about genealogical and historical research.

 

He is a columnist for Canada’s History Magazine (formerly The Beaver) and a member of the advisory panel for Ancestry.ca.