Tour of West Kildonan Library teaches attendees to never judge a book by its cover

How the love of a community prevailed

A full house of bright-eyed and passionate patrons filled West Kildonan Library’s basement program room Aug. 14, eager to dive into its rich history. 

In partnership with the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation (WAF), the public library hosted Daniel Guenther, architectural researcher with WAF and co-chair of the Friends of West Kildonan Library community coalition, who delivered a presentation titled, “A History and Tour of the West Kildonan Library.” 

The talk delved into the architectural background of the West Kildonan Library and the circumstances surrounding its conception, which resulted from its community making demands and fostering change. After the presentation, there was a brief tour of the library to conclude the event.

The discussion examined several points in history, beginning with the library’s creation at a time when the former city of West Kildonan had not yet been absorbed by the city of Winnipeg and did not have its own public library. The closest in those days was the St. John’s Library. 

Because they were not actually Winnipeg residents at the time, people living in West Kildonan couldn’t use the St. John’s Library without paying. This resulted in so much public support for the creation of a library in the city that, by the late 1950s, city council minutes show that the issue had become a top priority for West Kildonan. 

Guenther described the library and West Kildonan itself as being “a bit of a black hole when it comes to city archives,” as it is difficult to find interior or even exterior photographs from before the year 2000. He said the theory is that archives from West Kildonan were not properly transferred when the area joined with the city of Winnipeg, and may have been lost. 

Guenther encouraged attendees to share information and photographs from their own collections. 

“It’s important to document these things because we don’t have that documentation in the public archives,” he said. 

Guenther said the importance of the West Kildonan Library building was brought to the public’s attention after a city committee wanted to relocate the library to Garden City Shopping Centre last May. The proposal was met with protests from members of the West Kildonan community, including school trustees and students, as well as members of the Friends of West Kildonan Library coalition. 

Members of the coalition argued that the proposed location at the Garden City mall would be too far from the old location, would not meet the city’s criteria for library spaces and would potentially give mall management too much control over the new space.

The plans were eventually scrapped, and the library gained heritage protection this past January. WAF has been trying to further educate the public about the building’s importance.

Guenther described the library as a significant modernist building of the era. He said that the protests to save the location and the recent historical designation have increased public interest in the space.

“There’s been appetite for people wanting to know the history of the building, and I think it also explains the passion in the community for this building,” Guenther said. 

When asked about his experience with the relocation protest, Guenther described it as humbling. 

“I’m passionate about this library and I love it, it’s my local library,” he said, adding that seeing the amount of students and community members who came out to oppose the proposal reaffirmed the importance of libraries, despite some believing the internet makes them irrelevant.

He hopes individuals obtain a new appreciation for the building.

“Some people have grown up with this building and they might forget what it looks like to a new set of eyes or to younger generations,” Guenther said. He said he wants people to be able to “see it again with a fresh set of eyes and to see why it’s historically important.”

The West Kildonan Library now stands with other beautiful historical buildings, such as the Fort Garry Hotel, as a fixture within the city, and Guenther believes that the library is “joining those ranks.”

“That’s what this building will also mean to the younger generation.”

WAF does tours of Winnipeg architecture throughout the year, and Guenther recommends that those interested keep an eye on its website for future tour dates. He said the tours provide a way for people to get to know the city through its architecture. 

“We have a lot of great buildings here and a lot of great spaces,” he said. “It’s time that Winnipeggers start appreciating that too.”