The Old Central Library

by Shaun Hunter


Through the Eyes of Writers

 The Old Central Library in the 1970s (Photo:  Calgary Public Library Williams & Harris Shared History Centre )

The Old Central Library in the 1970s (Photo: Calgary Public Library Williams & Harris Shared History Centre)

This Friday, the W. R. Castell Library closes its doors to make way for the opening of Calgary’s New Central Library next week. After 55 years of service, the building will revert to the city. (I hope the city preserves Robert Oldrich’s enamelled metal sculpture installed on the MacLeod Trail side of the building. Calgary-based Oldrich [1920-1983] said his library mural “depicts pages of books, stained glass to show age, art… and the feeling of old and new.”)

Whatever happens with the old Central Library, it will live on in the city’s literature. Here’s a reading list, in homage to the Castell.

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Doris Anderson, Rebel Daughter: An Autobiography (1996)

The long-time editor of Chatelaine magazine, Doris Anderson grew up in 1920s Calgary on the block that would one day house the Castell Library. In her memoir, she describes the streetscape of her childhood. “A livery barn stood across the road from our house, and a blacksmith shop was just down the street. Horses were far more common than cars at that time and were used to pull milk, bread, and ice wagons.”

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Douglas Kennedy, Leaving the World (2009)

A suicidal American woman on the run from her past builds a new life in Calgary. Jane Howard finds work at the Castell as a rare book buyer. Her new circle includes the chief cataloguer and music librarian. Kennedy, a bestselling American novelist, worked on Leaving the World during a stay at the Post Hotel in nearby Lake Louise.

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Nerys Parry, Man & Other Natural Disasters (2011)

Set in 1990s Calgary, this novel tells the story of a middle-aged book repairer with a dark secret who has worked for 30 years in the basement of the Castell Library. This is how he describes his place of work: “If you looked at the library from the C-train stop at Seventh Avenue, you would be forgiven for confusing it with an upmarket whorehouse, the way the neon light runs up the grey brick side like a laced hem on a stockinged thigh, the words staining your retina like a pink-red kiss.”

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Lori Hahnel, “We Had Faces Then,” Nothing Sacred (2009)

“We do help people find books,” says the long-time library staffer who narrates this short story. “But a lot of other things go on, too.” Hahnel’s story explores the real and imagined dangers of working at the old Central Library.

The Castell Library also pops up in Rona Altrows’s short story collection A Run on Hose (2006), Suzanne North’s novel Flying Time (2014) and David A. Poulsen’s mystery novel Last Song Sung (2018).