OBEE, Dave

Author Tags: History

Dave Obee is the Editor-In-Chief at the Times Colonist and a geneaology expert. A native British Columbian, Obee started his career in journalism with the Kamloops Daily Sentinel in 1972, and has worked at newspapers in British Columbia and Alberta ever since. He came to the Times Colonist in 1997 and assumed his current position in 2000. His book to mark the 100th anniversary of the BC Library Association, The Library Book [see review below], placed third in the 2012 Lieutenant-Governor's Medal for Historical Writing Competition. Obee subsequently received an Honorary Doctor of Laws from UVic in 2012. In his convocation speech, he said, "[But] I realize that I am a bit of an oddity. Not many recipients can say that they did much of the work toward their degrees on this campus. I can, however, because I received a remarkable education here – not in a classroom, but in the library. So I should also thank Thomas Shanks McPherson and the Mearns family, whose names are on the library building. I have spent countless hours there over many years, digging through all sorts of materials to understand more about our history, and how to research it. I have learned a lot in that building across the lawn." Obee also mentioned with pride the British Colonist digitization project which made 50 years of newspapers available for all on the internet. He gave credit to the Times Colonist, the University of Victoria, the Public Library Services Branch (now Libraries and Literacy) and the Greater Victoria Public Library.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
The Library Book: a History of Service to British Columbia
Making the News: A Times Colonist Look at 150 Years of History


2007 -- Finding Your Canadian Ancestors: A Beginner's Guide (with Sherry Irvine)

2008 -- Making the News: A Times Colonist Guide to 150 years of History

2008 -- Royal Oak Burial Park: A History and Guide

2010 -- Destination Canada: A Genealogical Guide to Immigration Records

2011 -- The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia

2012 -- Counting Canada: A Genealogical Guide to the Canadian Census

2014 -- Fifty! With a Fabulous Future (North Vancouver District Library. With cartoons by Adrian Raeside

[BCBW 2014]

The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia

from Shane McCune

Commissioned works don’t always engage a wider audience. The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia (BC Library Association $50) is a welcome exception.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the B.C. Library Association, Dave Obee has told a fascinating tale of banned books, anti-communist witch hunts, skirmishes between libraries and dedicated souls who have served the province’s book-lovers.

This is a large format book by and for book people, with plenty of illustrations, including incidental cartoons by Adrian Raeside.

Better still, The Library Book has pictures of bookmobiles. Lots of ’em.

There are bookmobiles wheezing up dirt roads in the Fraser Valley, edging along a snowy John Hart Highway (between Prince George and Dawson Creek) and stopped in the middle of nowhere, flagged down by eager readers.

When the Okanagan Regional Library retired its mobile unit in 1992, the North Shuswap hamlet of Celista took off the tires, put a flower box on the hood and made it a permanent branch.
As a boy I loved books and I loved trucks, so the bookmobile was second only to the ice cream truck in the pantheon of wheeled heroes.
Maybe Obee and book designer Roger Handling felt the same way.

Along with 2,500 other communities in the English-speaking world, Vancouver, Victoria and New Westminster launched their first true public libraries with seed money from U.S. tycoon Andrew Carnegie, who spent the last years of his life giving away some of the fortune he had amassed by paying steelworkers $10 for an 84-hour week and housing them in slums.

In an echo of that paternalism, the earliest lending libraries in remote parts of the province were often small book collections provided by employers in company towns and work camps.
It took the baroquely named Ethelbert Olaf Stuart Scholefield, B.C. provincial librarian at the beginning of the last century, to start the march toward organized public libraries throughout the province. The B.C. Library Association was launched at a meeting in his office.

He died in 1919, the year the Public Library Commission was created. It soon heard from book-hungry library trustees in Nanaimo, Duncan, Alberni and Sidney. All borrowed books from the Victoria library, to be exchanged four times a year, for a charge of $65 for every 100 books.

When Victoria’s city council demanded more money from neighbouring municipalities for use of its library, Saanich and Esquimalt balked, and their residents were cut off. Monitors were posted to make sure interlopers from the suburbs didn’t slip into the reading room.

Such internecine sniping dogged the fitful growth of library networks for decades. The PLC’s decision in late 1929 to launch the world’s first regional library network in the Fraser Valley angered other regions, especially the Okanagan and Vancouver Island.

The 1960s saw turf wars between the Greater Victoria board, which claimed dominion over all lands south of the Malahat, and the Nanaimo-based Vancouver Island Regional Library, which planted its flag as far southwest as Colwood.

Richmond was the biggest contributor to the Fraser Valley system until it pulled out in 1975, sparking a feud that took six months, a court action and a $100,000 payment to settle. Surrey soon withdrew as well, though with less rancour.

But infighting among libraries has often been overshadowed by conflicts with municipal politicians. The most notorious example of this was the firing of John Marshall, to which Obee devotes an entire chapter.

In 1954, with red-baiting at a fever pitch, the Victoria Public Library Board fired Marshall two months after he had been hired to launch a mobile book service.

No reason was given, but it soon emerged that some “public spirited citizens” told the board that Marshall had worked for a leftist paper in Winnipeg and attended a Toronto peace conference widely believed to be a communist front.

The story hit the front pages and kept growing. Victoria Mayor Claude Harrison said he would happily burn any “subversive literature” found on library shelves in his furnace. Author Roderick Haig-Brown called him a dimwit.

The B.C. Library Association passed a resolution condemning Marshall’s firing, and its federal counterpart followed suit — prompting a Vancouver Sun editorial headlined: “No place for Reds in our public libraries.”

Half of the library’s full-time employees resigned and for years the library had trouble attracting qualified staff.

Decisions on whether and where to build libraries and how much to spend on them have been political minefields. When it came time to relocate Vancouver’s main branch to Burrard and Robson, some civic leaders expressed fears that the Downtown Eastside denizens who took refuge in the Carnegie building would do the same in the new library.

And when it moved again in 1995, to its $100-million home in Library Square, Vancouver Mayor Gordon Campbell was happy to cut the ribbon, but a year later he cut the budget, forcing the spiffy new library to shorten its hours.
Other dustups involved controversial books. In 1961 an RCMP officer arrived at the Vancouver library seeking to confiscate any copies of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

“The only copy was a circulating copy
at my knees, under the desk, waiting to be picked up by the person who had asked for it,” librarian Lois Bewley later recalled. “I thought, I’m damned if I’ll give you a book.”

On the other hand, the Victoria library locked James Joyce’s Ulysses in its vault from 1922 to 1949.

Do libraries have a future in the virtual universe? Absolutely, says Obee.

At its first meeting in 1927 the Public Library Commission mulled the possibilities of lending sheet music and phonograph records, and librarians have enthusiastically embraced every technological leap since then.

Pretty much every library in the country has Internet access, and many lend eBook download devices such as the Kobo. But it may be that the library’s traditional charms—kindred souls in a relaxed sanctuary—will be valued
even more in an age of impersonal gadgetry.

As librarian and author Sarah Ellis puts it in her foreword: “We go because we like to browse shelves and check out the displays and people-watch. We go because it is free and fun and because the folks there seem pleased to see us. When it comes right down to it, we go there for the chairs.” 9780969261490

The Library Book is available online at: http://thelibrarybook.bclibraries.ca

Shane McCune writes from Comox.

[BCBW 2011]

Library Book & John Maitland Marshall
Excerpt (2012)

The following is an excerpt from The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia, written by Times Colonist editor-in-chief Dave Obee.


All John Maitland Marshall wanted to do was help people get books from Victoria's new bookmobile. But in 1954, he found himself at the centre of a major controversy and a victim of the Red Scare that reached into Canada - and its libraries.

Marshall was fired two months after he was hired, before the mobile service even hit the road. He lost his job because of his past.

Before he came to British Columbia, he had been connected with groups that leaned to the political left. By the time things cooled down, there were calls for book-burning parties, Marshall had left the province and qualified librarians were boycotting the Victoria Public Library.

It was the McCarthy era. Fears of the Communist threat swept through North America, sparked by United States senator Joseph McCarthy's hunt for Communists in positions of authority. Freedom of speech and association were under attack.

Marshall, the son of a banker, was born in Saskatchewan in 1919. He and his wife, Christine Smith, had two small children, John and Kathleen. He had been the children's librarian for the Fraser Valley Regional Library for 18 months before he was hired in Victoria in December 1953.

Marshall did not seek the Victoria job; he was asked twice to apply before he agreed. There had been no complaints about his work - and he was certainly well prepared for it, with a Master's in English from the University of Saskatchewan and a Bachelor of Library Science degree, with honours, from the University of Toronto.

But his qualifications or the mouths he had to feed did not matter to the Victoria library board.

What mattered was that "a group of public-spirited citizens," as the board put it, had uncovered some dirt in his past.

Marshall had been educational director of the People's Educational Co-op in Winnipeg in 1947 and spent six months as assistant editor of the Westerner, a leftist paper. He had attended the Canadian Peace Congress in Toronto in 1949, 1950 and 1951 - and the congress, many believed, was a Communist front.

Because of that, Marshall was fired. He learned of his dismissal when it was reported in the Victoria Daily Times.

Marshall appealed the firing, saying that he was not, and never had been, a card-carrying member of the Labour Progressive Party, which had been linked to the Communists. He said that he had ceased any public connection with political matters when he decided to become a professional librarian.

He also took aim at the "publicspirited citizens" who had accused him. "Groups or individuals which carry on secret investigations into a man's beliefs and past associations, and put pressure on his employers to fire a fully qualified employee without giving him the opportunity to defend himself, are undermining our democratic freedoms," he said.

One library board member told the Daily Colonist it was good the Marshall matter had been made public. "If they are labelled, they are useless to the party," the unidentified member said. "We should always be on the watch for them."

The board ordered a review to find and remove "subversive proCommunist" books from the library, and Victoria Mayor Claude Harrison declared that he would support the burning of any subversive literature in the library.

"It's very easy to see which is Communist literature," he said.

"And I know what I would do with them - throw them in my furnace."

Ald. Brent Murdoch said any seditious or subversive books should be removed - "and any member of the library staff who belongs to a Communist organization will go out behind the books." It was time, he said, to clean up libraries.

The comments of Harrison and Murdoch sparked a huge outcry, with supporters lining up on both sides.

Premier W.A.C. Bennett said that book-burning would be "a bunch of foolishness," and threw his support behind Marshall. "I am 100 per cent opposed to what people call McCarthyism and witch-hunting."

Marshall had several other defenders. Roderick Haig-Brown of Campbell River, a magistrate and one of Canada's best-known authors, said Harrison was "dimwitted" and "not very thoughtful, nor intelligent."

Saanich Reeve Joseph Casey said Marshall should get a hearing, adding that if subversive books were to be taken from the library shelves, Mutiny on the Bounty would have to go.

But the anti-Communist fervour was widespread. Victoria MLA Lydia Arsens, for example, said that removing all books about Communism and by Communists would not "be denying any citizens freedom."

The Daily Colonist weighed in. "Unless McCarthyism is to raise its ugly head in Canada, something better than hearsay will be required to support assertions of subversive literature on the shelves of the Victoria Public Library," it said.

"There have been no bonfires of books in this land, no edicts such as Hitler's or Stalin's that one book or another must be consigned to the flames. Good taste on the part of the public in selecting its reading, and maturity of thought in perusing it have proved far more effective than any form of censorship."

The Victoria Daily Times called for common sense and quiet analysis. "No honest Canadian wants the library to become a propaganda agency for Communism," it said. "On the other hand, no thinking people want excitement over such a possibility to restrict desirable library service or to eliminate from circulation books, magazines or journals which throw informative light on the activities of those interests that swear allegiance to Moscow."

It noted the library board's position was that its role was to provide as much material as it could on as many subjects as possible - within the law - and to trust readers to form intelligent conclusions. "We believe that is the right attitude."

The Vancouver Sun said it hoped the "stupidity of those responsible" for the talk of burning books would give way to enlightenment.

The library's staff association defended Marshall, saying the board should explain why he had been fired. "Never before in this library has an individual, whether temporary or permanent employee, been dismissed without reason," the association said. It argued that Marshall was competent and enthusiastic, and said that private individuals had the right to freedom of thought, "one of the principles upon which a library is founded."

Marshall was fired with only a few days left in the library board's annual term. He was given a chance to argue his case before the new board the following week.

One of the new members was Robert Wallace, a Victoria College mathematics professor, who said he was amazed by the idea of removing books. "Libraries are the greatest single contributing factor to education in its broadest sense."

Marshall pulled no punches. "I challenge the board to produce any proof that I have, since becoming a librarian, abused my position in any way, or allowed my opinions - whatever they might be - on matters outside the profession to influence me in any direction in the performance of my professional duties," he said.

"It might be held that because of what I am or what I believe, I may in some way abuse my position in the future. This assumption comes dangerously close to justifying, on the part of employers, an attempt to enquire into the political, social or economic beliefs and in the religious principles of an employee.

"No employer has any such right in a democratic country."

Marshall's plea failed; with only Wallace speaking in his defence, his firing was confirmed in a three-one vote. Chief librarian Thressa Pollock resigned in protest.

The B.C. Library Association held a special meeting in Vancouver to discuss the Marshall case.

More than 100 members attended. The group wrote a letter of recommendation for Marshall and urged its members to refuse positions in Victoria until a new library board was in place.

"Can - or should - a member of the BCLA apply for any position in the Victoria Public Library as long as the policy of the board remains what it is?" the association's publication, the Bulletin noted. "It is in the answer to this question that the association's real attitude toward witch-hunting may be made known. Let us hope we have the conscience and courage to say 'no.'"

By May 1954, six of the 11 fulltime professional librarians at the library had resigned and the library had not been able to replace any of them. Georgina Wilson, the acting head of the circulation department who resigned so she could marry, used her letter of resignation to plea "that the present board support the principles of tolerance, intellectual freedom and high standards of service that were characteristic of early and excellent boards."

Nora Dryburgh, who had been appointed to replace Marshall, was among those who resigned.

Her departure meant the bookmobile service had three librarians before it delivered a single book to Victoria's suburbs.

After his firing, Marshall took his family - wife Christine, oneyear-old Kathleen and five-yearold John - to Yorkton, Sask., where he got a job with the rural school library service. After four years there, he spent two years as the first professional librarian in Kitimat, and then moved to Toronto to become the head librarian at a new branch in North York.

He capped his career by spending 17 years teaching in the faculty of library science at the University of Toronto. He loved books, and loved reading books about books. He also edited Citizen Participation in Library Decision-Making: The Toronto Experience, which was published in 1984.

The Victoria library paid a heavy price for the Marshall affair. It had trouble attracting qualified librarians until the board members involved in the firing were gone. John C. Lort, hired to replace Pollock as the head librarian, spent several years restoring the library's stature in Victoria and in the library community.

In 1998, the board of the Greater Victoria Public Library apologized to Marshall, flying him and his wife to Victoria so he could receive the apology in person. "What goes around, comes around," Marshall said at the ceremony. "So be it."

Neil Williams, the library board chairman, told Marshall that the events that had happened would have been unjust at any time.

"The fact that they took place within a library, in my mind, pushes them over the border into obscenity."

Robert Wallace, the former board member who had argued on Marshall's behalf, expressed regret that he had not been able to convince the others.

And with that, as Marshall's son, Dr. John Marshall, said later, "the dark cloud over his career was finally lifted."

The B.C. Library Association gave a plaque to Marshall. It also renamed the association's intellectual freedom award in his honour.

Marshall died in Toronto on Oct. 26, 2005. His obituary, written by his family, described him as "a passionate bibliophile and ardent supporter of social justice."

50 Years of Municipal Library Service
Press Release (2014)

North Vancouver – In celebration of 50 years of library service on the North Shore, North Vancouver District Public Library has published Fifty! With a Fabulous Future, written by Dave Obee.

The book chronicles the library’s transformation from a series of volunteer-run libraries set in private homes and community halls across the District of North Vancouver to the busy three-branch library system that exists today. The full-colour book boasts historical photos and original cartoons contributed by editorial cartoonist Adrian Raeside.

“This beautiful history book commemorates not only the history of the Library, but the history of the community,” says North Vancouver District Public Library Director of Library Services Jacqueline van Dyk. “We know that without the community’s support, there would be no library!”

“The library was created by dedicated people from the community, has served the people of the community, and continues to have a strong community focus,” says author Dave Obee.

In celebration of the book’s arrival and to celebrate the last 50 years, the Library will be hosting a Book Launch Soirée Fundraiser Event at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 6, at Lynn Valley Library, 1277 Lynn Valley Rd. We invite you to join us to celebrate how far the Library has come and raise a toast to the future!

Tickets for this gala evening cost $50 and include a copy of the book ($30 value), a drink and appetizers. Or, a couple can buy two tickets with only one book for $75. Tickets can be purchased online at booklaunchsoiree.eventbrite.ca or in person at any North Vancouver District Public Library branch.

Both Dave Obee and Adrian Raeside will be at the event, sharing stories from the Library’s history and the writing of the book.

Fifty! With a Fabulous Future will be available for sale for $30 at all North Vancouver District Public Library branches starting Monday, December 8, 2015.

For more information about the Book Launch Soirée, or about the Library’s 50 anniversary, visit www.nvdpl.ca.