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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Serving Suburbs With Mobile Libraries

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As I have gotten older and more interested in the dialogue of what makes a city, one component of urban life I am starting to see as a vital piece of community infrastructure is the public library. If you look at libraries, they serve more than just the physical function of housing a collection of literature, periodicals and music. Libraries contribute to the cultural landmark of the community; it is a place where new residents of our community have the opportunity to learn English with their peers, reading programs for youth and a place where citizens have access to electronic information through the Internet to connect to a broader outside world.

So what happens when your community does not have a library?  With traditional low-density residential growth patterns, municipalities struggle financially and organizationally to grow and serve numerous newly developed communities.  Libraries have to compete with a limited pool of capital dollars, typically competing with other municipal needs such as new fire halls, water lines and transit stations.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Edmonton Public Library (EPL).  The concept of serving suburban communities of Edmonton with library services proved to be a challenge in the early decades of the EPL.  For the first forty years of EPL, only two branches operated to serve the city.  The main branch was located at MacDonald Drive located where the existing Telus towers stand today and the historic Strathcona branch, which still exists on 104 Street.  In 1941, EPL converted a retired Edmonton Radial Railway Streetcar into a mobile library that would serve suburban communities that exist at the end of the streetcar network.  Communities such as Calder would get service from the Library streetcar twice a week where the streetcar would house up to 2,000 articles for borrowing.  The mobile library would prove to be quite popular and EPL would soon start to convert retired transit buses into bookmobiles in 1947 to expand towards many other suburban communities throughout Edmonton.

Unfortunately, EPL’s mobile library program did conclude.  The streetcar library found itself to be a victim of the city’s streetcar abandonment program.  The library car was retired and scrapped in 1949 when the Calder line was abandoned.  Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s EPL went through an aggressive expansion period where branches opened throughout the city in communities such as Woodcroft, Jasper Place and Highlands.  EPL’s bookmobile service concluded in 1973 at a time where EPL had grown from 2 branches when the service commenced to 8 branches.

Some things have not changed since the inception of the EPL’s mobile library program.  Municipalities are still looking at ways to serve new low density suburbs with services. An example of this can be found in Calgary where the municipality has built interim fire stations in modified single-family dwellings.  Numerous Canadian municipalities provide initial transit service with smaller community shuttles to save on operating and capital costs. To address serving growing suburban areas with library services, maybe EPL may want to revisit a mobile library program in times of limited capital expansion.

To see a short video about EPL’s mobile library streetcar, please see the following Youtube clip: (Courtesy of the Edmonton Public Library)


David Cooper is an urban planner who resides in Calgary.  David was born, raised and grew up in the Old Strathcona area of Edmonton.