Waterloo’s First Library Books Purchased 146 Years Ago

The first library was located in the old Waterloo Town Hall, pictured above (ca.1906).

Let’s rewind 146 years, back to February 18, 1876. It was on this day that the organization we now know as the Waterloo Public Library purchased its first library books for $38.55. At that time, WPL was known as the Waterloo Mechanics’ Institute.

The idea for the Waterloo Mechanics’ Institute was born in November 1875 when a group of public-spirited men gathered in Simon Snyder’s drug store with the shared interest in bringing a Mechanics’ Institute to their town. This local watering hole was where many of Waterloo’s biggest ideas were born, such as the Dominion Life Assurance Company (now Manulife). Waterloo was a growing town and a Mechanics’ Institute would have been seen as a morally acceptable place for Victorian businessmen and the growing middle class to spend their time. Mechanics’ Institutes were originally designed for working men seeking self-improvement, but despite the blue-collar name, they were usually formed and led by wealthy men of the upper class. The group behind Waterloo’s Mechanics’ Institute was made up of a variety of local businessmen and prominent figures in the town. 

Part of this group was Dr. George Washington Bingham, a doctor who had recently moved from Ayr to Waterloo. With a name like “George Washington,” it’s no surprise that he had some ambitions for his new town. Dr. Bingham was a “well-known litterateur” and went on to write a biographical sketch of artist, Homer Watson.* 

Other early supporters of the Mechanics’ Institute were men who had spent years working together in different industries and were tightly woven together into the fabric of the town. The men included Thomas Hilliard, Peter Harvey Sims, Cyrus Miller Taylor, John Shuh, Jacob Conrad, and George Moore. A few of these men had teaching backgrounds and many of them were heavily involved in Waterloo’s favourite industry, insurance. Some of them were also involved in Waterloo’s second favourite industry, distilling beer and alcohol. The men were also connected through their political lives, with many of them serving on Town Council and as mayor.  

This group of men was involved in almost every aspect of Waterloo, so it’s no surprise that when they came together with plans for a Mechanics’ Institute, they made it happen. A month after their gathering in the drugstore, the men had their first official meeting at the new Town Hall building on December 10, 1875. At this meeting Dr. Bingham was named president, Peter Sims was named secretary and David Bergey was appointed as the first librarian of the Mechanics’ Institute. The bylaws and constitution were written, and John Shuh was tasked with perhaps the most important job—finding new members to join the institute. 

The new Mechanics’ Institute was located in the heart of Waterloo, on the main floor of the Town Hall building, which also housed the market on the lower level. The Mechanics’ Institute started as a single table with books displayed on it. Members had to pay a two-dollar subscription fee and in return, they had access to the lending library, a reading room with periodicals and lectures on “literary and scientific subjects, debates and such other means as the directors…deem[ed] admissible.” If any member brought “dishonour upon the institute,” he would be expelled by the directors. 

The Mechanics’ Institute ran for the next twelve years and increased in popularity. A newspaper article from 1924 indicates that the early board members had “rather severe ideas concerning life” that influenced the types of books that were available in the Mechanics’ Institute. The books were not intended for light reading but for education and moral betterment. The members complained and over time the board began to choose books that were more appealing to the general public. The Daily Record reports:  

“…gradually the board became more broadminded concerning reading matter, and the lighter fiction, poetry, and books interesting to children stole their sunny way into the foggy selection of history, descriptive articles of a highly concentrative nature, and biography.”  

This is an early example of how Waterloo’s library would adapt over the years to accommodate the needs and desires of the public it served. True to fashion, the changes kept coming for the Waterloo Mechanics’ Institute. 

In the early 1880s, Canadian Mechanics’ Institutes started transitioning away from subscription models to tax-supported Free Libraries. The first tax-supported libraries were in Saint John, NB, Guelph, ON and Toronto, ON.  In 1887, the board of the Waterloo Mechanics’ Institute followed the trend, and it became a Free Library. A year later the Town of Waterloo became responsible for the small library, and it became known as the “Waterloo Free Library.”  

Now, let’s return to 2022. Although it’s no longer in the name, free access to information and entertainment has remained one of the core values of the Waterloo Public Library. The library has grown from a small table in the Town Hall to three library locations (and soon to be four!). Today, WPL serves more people in more ways than the early men of the Mechanics’ Institute could have ever imagined.

To learn more about the history of the library or to view our local history collection, visit Our Ontario, view our online resources, or stop by the Ellis Little Local History Room at the Main Library.  

*All quotes are from the article “Useful Public Institution Has Made Great Progress” that was published in Daily Record on July 12, 1924.