Perth Library – Heart of the Town

Although there was a reading room established on the main street of Perth in the 1800s, which featured current newspapers, books and periodicals, it wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century that a formal library building was constructed.

With the help of a large donation from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation, along with municipal and private funds, a library was built and opened to the public on Dec. 30th,1907.

Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie 1835-1919

(Carnegie was a self-made steel tycoon, philanthropist, and one of the wealthiest people of his time. A great believer in the value of libraries, he donated money to build a total of 2,509 Carnegie libraries between 1883 and 1929)

Perth library opening

“The Perth Courier”, Dec. 27, 1907, p.4

Perth library old days

The Perth Library, in its early days – Ontario Archives


Perth received $10,000 from Andrew Carnegie, which was spent solely on the building.  Money for furnishings and books had to be raised locally by donations.


Perth library money from Carnegie

“The Ottawa Citizen”, Oct. 28, 1907, pg. 12


The Perth Library was one of five libraries in Ontario that was built using grants from American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Constructed from local rock and brick, the library was an impressive three story building gracing Gore Street near the Tay River canal.

No Smoking Rule – Jan. 1908

Perth library no smoking

“The Perth Courier”, Jan. 3, 1908, p.4


Perth library post card

The Perth Public Library, shortly after it was built, 1907

Catalogues Listing all books at the Perth Library – 15 cents each

Perth library catalogues 1908

“The Perth Courier”, Jan. 17, 1908 p.4


New Books Purchased in Feb. 1908

Songs of a Sourdough

“Songs of a Sourdough”, by Robert Service

Sir Walter Scott Fair Maid of Perth

“The Fair Maid of Perth”, by Sir Walter Scott


Perth library new books

“The Perth Courier”, Feb. 14, 1908, p. 1

Waverly Sir Walter Scott

One of the books purchased for the Perth Library in 1908


Perth library 1970s

The Perth Library, 1970s


The Fire

At at 7:15 p.m on Thursday, January 3rd, 1980, flames tore through the building. It was said at the time that the fire likely began in the basement.

“Shaking their heads in disbelief, Perth’s residents, both young and old, gazed yesterday at the gutted remains of their historical public library.”

For over four hours a team of about 50 fire-fighters fought in freezing temperatures, and poured thousands of gallons of water into the building, through smashed windows and doorways.

Perth police constable, Bob Carnrite, said, “The cause of the fire is a mystery.” 

Water soaked books smoldered in the gutted building and nothing could be saved. Over 62,000 books along with paintings, antiques, maps and historical documents were lost.

Perth library fire fighting

“The Perth Courier”, Jan. 9, 1980

Diana Cleland, head Librarian, said, “It’s almost impossible to place a value on the loss.  It never ceased to amaze me the types and numbers of people who used the library.  Some came in every day to read, or play records.  To them, it was a meeting place.”


perth library firefighters

The Perth Courier”, Jan. 9, 1980

I recall the eerie sight of the building, familiar to so many of us, appeared like an ice castle because of the frigid temperatures, and the tremendous amount of water used to fight the fire.

“Every child is talking about it today.”, said Eve Dodge, Supervisor of the Perth Daycare Center.  “Because of all the programs held there and their frequent contact, the library was a very important part of their lives.”


It was a devastating loss to the town of Perth having been one of the loveliest buildings on the main street for so many decades.

“For this town, the library was the heart of the community.”

It also meant job loss for Assistant Librarians, Susan Mackey, and Fay Cunningham.

Perth library after fire 1980

“Ottawa Journal”, Jan 5, 1980


Artist, Dorothy Renals, said she felt sick about the fire.  “I had a very personal feeling for that library.  As an artist, I helped choose art books over the years and was in there at least twice a week to do research for my own paintings.”

Harold Jordan, Inspector withe the Ontario Fire Marshall’s Office visited the site once the blaze was extinguished, and sifted through the ruins.

“I haven’t formed any conclusions yet”, Jordan said, “I’m considering every possibility.  There are some indications the fire may have started in the basement, but I have no information at the moment which points the cause at anything other than accidental.  Our minds are still open.”

The inspection showed that no fuses in the library had blown, and that the fire had started in the basement.

Secretary Treasurer, Ivey Mather, said, the investigation continues….

The Perth Public Library Board immediately began to find a temporary location for a public library.

The Board was offered space above the River Guild, and at St. James’ Hall, and even at the old Bell Telephone building.

“We could be back into circulation by next week.”, said Board Chairman, Bernard Elliot.

Perth library loss - Editor

“The Perth Courier”, Jan. 9, 1980, p.2

Other local libraries donated books and these were housed temporarily in the basement of McMartin House, and plans were quickly put into place to establish a new library.

Perth library PDCI



The present library, on the corner of Herriott and Drummond Streets, was opened on December 16th, 1981.

Perth library official opening

Photo:  Lanark MPP Doug Wiseman cuts the ribbon.  Library Board Members: Wes Barber, Bernard Elliot, and Ivy Mather.

The new building was constructed, at a total cost of $800,000.

(the original library in 1907 was built for $13,000)

Perth library official opening part 2

“The Perth Courier”, Dec. 16, 1981, p. 1,


The ‘new’ Perth Library:

Perth library new

The ‘new’ Perth library is located at 30 Herriott St, Perth, Ontario – a beautiful setting, along the Tay River.


Perth library new from the Tay side


note:  The original Perth Library building was purchased by G.W. McMillan, a local contractor, for $26,000. It has been beautifully restored, and is now known as the McMillan Building.  On Jan. 27, 1981, the building was designated a ‘Heritage’ structure, by the province of Ontario.

McMillan building

The McMillan Building, Perth, Ontario, 2004



Perth Library Book Signing

Perth library on the Tay 20130001Perth library entrance Dec 7 20130001Perth library Arlene 2 Dec 7 20130001Perth library Arlene & Heather Dec 7 20130001Perth library Arlene & Marina 2 Dec 7 20130001

Along the shores of the picturesque Tay River, in the historic town of Perth, Ontario, the Perth and District Union Public Library was a lovely setting for an early December book signing.

As you can see from the photos, it has been a mild winter so far in the Perth area, and there is very little snow compared to years gone by, in this particular region of Eastern Ontario.

We would like to thank Marina Ramsden of the Perth Library for her warm welcome and hospitality and for hosting the event. Marina had set up a large table complete with a festive table cloth and cheery seasonal plant for the book signing and throughout the afternoon a steady stream of folks young and old stopped by to say hello and chat about the books.

We were delighted to have a special visitor Heather Kitching. Heather, who hails from British Columbia, is currently working on an historical documentary project with Carleton University in Ottawa. Her research team is producing a film involving Ottawa Valley history from the perspective of the old timber camp songs. One of the stories in the documentary will feature the tale of James Phelan, son of an early pioneer settler, who drowned in a raft accident, while breaking a log jam on the Mississippi River in 1878.

The Phelan family was among the earliest settlers to Drummond Township and their ancestral farm was located directly across the Mississippi River from the Stafford family homestead. Being one of the Irish Catholic immigrant families they attended St. Patrick’s near Ferguson Falls and the graves of some of the early Phelan family members still stand today as a tribute to this early family.

The tragic story of James Phelan who drowned at the age of 40 was documented in a song written by Timothy Doyle, and is a story that was passed down through the generations. We wish Heather the best of luck in her research and if anyone has researched the Phelan family as part of their family history, we invite you to contact us. No detail is too small as often these are the gems that lead to some of the most interesting genealogical finds.

In conclusion, our day at the Perth Library was really enjoyable. Marina was a gracious host and we met some new folks and chatted with some people who had read previous books like ‘Lanark County Kid’ and ‘Lanark County Chronicle’. It’s always nice to be back in Perth, and even better still to be there on such a mild, sunny December day.