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CARSON, WILLIAM OLIVER, librarian and civil servant; b. 8 March 1874 in London, Ont., son of William John Carson, a teacher, and Flora McDonald; m. there 31 Oct. 1900 Elma Pearl Ashwell (d. 16 Feb. 1965), and they had two daughters; d. 27 Sept. 1929 in Toronto and was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, London.

William Oliver Carson attended schools in London, where his father became a principal and, in 1891, inspector of public schools. In his youth Carson worked as a photographer and successfully ran for alderman on city council. His appointment in December 1906 as librarian of the London Public Library was attributed by some to Conservative influence at the municipal level; however, Carson quickly demonstrated the requisite administrative talent. In 1908 he established open access to book stacks, including fiction, and two years later he reorganized the reference and reading rooms. He advocated in-service training for promising assistants and promoted the library by speaking to such groups as the London and Middlesex Historical Society. The addition of a children’s room in 1913 was followed in 1915 by the appointment of a full-time children’s librarian and the introduction of a story hour. On 23 Dec. 1915 a branch was opened in the east end of the city at Dundas and Rectory streets; moved in 1926 to the corner of Dufferin and Quebec, it would be renamed the W. O. Carson Branch Library in 1961 to commemorate his tenure as chief librarian.

Carson became an important figure in the Ontario Library Association. He joined the executive in 1911 as a councillor, served as president in 1914–15, and spoke regularly at its annual meetings. In 1912 he delivered a thoughtful paper on the benefits of librarians’ education and professional training. His presidential address in 1915 outlined his basic philosophy that strong local financing, capable leadership, efficient services, and good community relations would ensure the progress of public libraries and make them an effective national force.

The impression he made at the provincial level stood Carson in good stead when he applied for the post of inspector of public libraries in the Ontario Department of Education. Successful, he assumed his duties in April 1916. His office was responsible for public library development and worked with related institutions such as the Canadian Free Library for the Blind. It also dispensed grants to more than 30 historical, literary, and scientific societies. Despite the austerity of wartime Carson displayed vigour from the outset. His first reform was publication of the Ontario Library Review and Book-Selection Guide. Established in June 1916, funded by the provincial government, and distributed to all libraries, the OLR kept readers abreast of important issues bearing on libraries and served as an aid in the selection of books. The journal, to which Carson contributed numerous editorials and articles, was immediately popular. Carson also oversaw the extension of the department’s existing training-school program to two months in 1917, with the aim of improving standards in librarianship.

The inspector undertook a reconsideration of all aspects of public library legislation, especially provincial and municipal financing (which had remained mostly unchanged since 1882). By early 1920 Carson had prepared a series of revisions to the Public Libraries Act. These provided for an enhanced municipal library rate set at a minimum of 50 cents per capita; better regulations governing qualifications for librarians; and more powers to the minister of education to improve travelling libraries, library training, and administrative standards. The new act was well received and the minimum per capita rate was an innovation emulated in other North American jurisdictions in subsequent decades.

Because he believed that the success of libraries depended upon qualified personnel, Carson had persuaded the department to extend library training to three months in 1919. The Toronto Public Library served as the home for the Training School for Librarianship (renamed the Ontario Library School in 1923) until 1927; Dorothy A. Thompson, hired by Carson to assist in the public libraries branch, was the instructor in charge from 1920 to 1927. To encourage candidates, no fees were charged, texts and supplies were provided, and a large portion of students’ travelling expenses was reimbursed.

Although this short course in training satisfied most needs during the 1920s, Carson personally considered that a professional one-year course, following the example of library-school education at various American universities, was ideal. It was not, however, until September 1928 that a one-year academic program, under the directorship of Winifred Glen Barnstead*, began at the Ontario College of Education in arrangement with the University of Toronto. The Department of Education continued to assist with financing the school’s operations; thus, the university granted diplomas to graduates and the department issued certificates.

Carson strengthened the role of the public libraries branch and expanded quarters for his staff. Much of their work consisted of assigning travelling libraries to rural areas and checking more than 500 annual library reports. The branch also issued Reference work and reference works: containing hints on reference library service. . in 1920, a pioneering Canadian library publication. At times, the inspector’s role was not free from controversy. When the minister of education, Robert Henry Grant, ordered Carson to conduct a special report on the Hamilton Public Library in the early part of 1921, he reluctantly dissected the library’s operations. His proposals for remedial action roused some disagreement but ultimately improved services.

In the 1920s Carson was active in the American Library Association, serving two terms on its council. He contributed a separate chapter on Canadian activities as one of seven commissioners in the ALA’s 1924–26 landmark study of adult education. Although there was a growing interest in forming a Canadian library organization in affiliation with the ALA at the association’s annual conference in Seattle in July 1925, where Carson presided over three gatherings of the Canadian members, and at the ALA’s Toronto meeting of June 1927, he was unwilling to support this cause. The inspector, following the premier and minister of education, George Howard Ferguson*, was reluctant to endorse actions that were too closely connected with American-based organizations. Moreover, Carson did not believe that a national body could be successfully launched at the time. He favoured the step-by-step building up of provincial associations or councils from coast to coast to provide the basis for a national organization, taking as his model Ontario’s example of cooperation between the OLA and the Department of Education. Carson’s colleague George Herbert Locke*, chief librarian at the Toronto Public Library and ALA president in 192627, was much more active in promoting a Canadian body and a better representative of Ontario’s library interests on the national stage.

Physically slight and rather frail, Carson was a determined, persuasive man whose sense of duty, integrity, and pragmatism could carry the day to the detriment of his own popularity. In religion he was a member of the Bloor Street Presbyterian (United) Church. His schooling, managerial concerns, tendency to move slowly, and local and provincial roles did not suit him for national undertakings, such as the formation of a Canadian library association. However, the London Public Library and the free libraries of Ontario benefited greatly from his ideas and efforts for almost a quarter century. His most lasting contributions were the OLR, which continued in print until 1982; the Public Libraries Act of 1920, which served as a framework for legislation until 1966; professional training and certification of librarians; and an expanded public libraries branch.

Lorne D. Bruce

William Oliver Carson authored numerous articles, including “Reference work in the library,” “The status and training of the public librarian,” “The Canadian public library as a social force,” and “Libraries in war-time and some factors that require consideration,” Ontario Library Assoc., Proc. (Toronto), 1909: 2235; 1912: 10614; 1915: 3642; 1917: 5962; “The Ontario public library rate,” American Library Assoc., Bull. (Chicago), 15 (1921): 12628; “Canadian considerations,” in Libraries and adult education; report of a study made by the American Library Association (Chicago, 1926), 93102; and “Public libraries of Ontario,” Library Journal (New York), 52 (1927): 45156. His “Report of special inspection of the Hamilton Public Library” (typescript, 1921) and some related material is preserved in Hamilton Public Library, Special Coll. Dept. (Hamilton, Ont.), Arch. of the Hamilton Public Library, I-A-3. Material at the London Public Library (London, Ont.) includes annual reports and library board minutes, 190530, as well as a library and art museum scrapbook index, vol.1, 191464, and a photograph of Carson (reproduced in the author’s Free books for all . . . , infra).

AO, F 1195; RG 2-43, library inspectors’ records, 1911-37; RG 2-146; RG 2-226; RG 2-227; RG 2-228; RG 2-232; RG 2-373; RG 80-5-0-281, no.10868; RG 80-8-0-1120, no.7043. L. [D.] Bruce, Free books for all: the public library movement in Ontario, 18501930 (Toronto, 1994). G. H. Locke et al., “Mr. W. O. Carson,” Ontario Library Rev. (Toronto), 14 (192930), no.2: 4041. Ont., Legislature, Sessional papers, reports of the inspector of public libraries, in reports of the minister of education, 191628. Standard dict. of Canadian biog. (Roberts and Tunnell), 1. Basil Stuart-Stubbs, “1925: CLA launched . . . in Seattle?” “1925: CLA launched . . . in Seattle? part 2,” “1927: CLA born again . . . in Toronto?” and “192730: the muddle years [CLA],” Feliciter (Ottawa), 44 (1998), no.5: 2025; no.6: 2631; 45 (1999): 98105, 122; 46 (2000): 14849.

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Lorne D. Bruce, “CARSON, WILLIAM OLIVER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/carson_william_oliver_15E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/carson_william_oliver_15E.html
Author of Article:   Lorne D. Bruce
Title of Article:   CARSON, WILLIAM OLIVER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   September 28, 2023