The Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) is the fourth largest library system in British Columbia. We serve over 430,000 people on Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and the Central Coast (Bella Coola) through 38 branch libraries, our eLibrary and a books by mail service. Administrative offices are located in Nanaimo.
Vancouver Island Regional Library opened its doors in 1936 as the Vancouver Island Union Library; it was the second regional library in North America. Read our full history.
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History of Vancouver Island Regional Library
It was April 24, 1936 when 15 people from the central Vancouver Island region met at Nanaimo’s Malaspina Hotel to discuss the formation of what was to become Vancouver Island Union Library. The meeting was called by Dr. Helen Gordon Stewart, Director of the Carnegie Foundation Library Demonstration project in BC, and attended by representatives from Port Alberni, Comox, Royston Parksville, Wellington, Qualicum, Ladysmith, Courtenay, Sandwick (near Courtenay), Cobble Hill, and Nanaimo.
Meeting topics included location and description of the headquarters and branches, board structure, and budget for the first operating year. Miss Jean E. Stewart was appointed Union librarian and became the first director.
Earlier that year, the Andrew Carnegie Corporation in New York had provided a $6,500 grant as seed money for a cooperative regional library system on Vancouver Island, fashioned after the model in the Fraser Valley region for which Carnegie had provided $100,000 to start a ‘demonstration project’.
A plebiscite was held in the central Vancouver Island region to approve a multi-jurisdictional governance structure and library tax; 1,983 voted in favour and 983 opposed. Shortly after, the provincial cabinet passed an order to create Vancouver Island Union Library – one of only three such regional library systems in North America – that brought together five municipalities and 32 rural school districts between Mill Bay and Campbell River, serving about 20,000 people. The library headquarters were located in Nanaimo in a basement on the corner of Wallace and Fraser Streets.
In its inaugural year the operating budget was $8,213. The Union Library owned a total of 12,648 books, which circulated 56,000 times in one year to the 6,100 registered library users – one third of the population of the region. Service was provided through six library branches, 28 deposit stations in stores and community centres, and through seven van routes.
In 1943, book deliveries occurred once every eight weeks because vehicle tires were in short supply during the war years.
The first library board optimistically envisioned a system that would grow steadily in size as more municipalities and school districts would join. Over time more municipalities and regional districts joined, the system changed its name to Vancouver Island Regional Library, and it grew into the fourth largest library system in British Columbia and the thirteenth largest in Canada.
The modest beginnings in 1936 were accomplished under challenging circumstances and on a shoestring budget as it was the depth of the Depression era. Dr. Helen G. Stewart has long been recognized as a driving force in the development of regional libraries, but many local citizens deserve equal recognition and our thanks for their pioneering efforts and perseverance.
1936: Vancouver Island Union Library opens with an $8,213 budget and 12,648 books circulated 56,000 times to 6,100 customers.
1942: One Board meeting a year due to scarcity of gas and tires.
1950: Library tax levy is 65 cents per capita.
1961: 25th anniversary: 105,641 items circulated 698,797 times.
1973: Cassette collection introduced.
1996: VIRL website launched.
2001: Online catalogue replaces microfiche.
2011: 38 branch locations and an eBranch: budget $17,240,827, 1.1 million+ items, circulated 5,131,500 times to 163,153 customers.
Bella Coola – 1981
Bowser – 2008
Campbell River – 1936*
Chemainus – 1949
Comox – 1937*
Cortes Island – 1998*
Courtenay – 1936
Cowichan – 1947
Cowichan Lake – 1937
Cumberland – 1947
Gabriola Island – 1999*
Gold River – 1967
Hornby Island – 1987*
Ladysmith – 1937
Masset – 1983
Nanaimo – 1936
Harbourfront – 1997
Wellington – 1979
Parksville – 1937
Port Alberni – 1936
Port Alice – 1972
Port Clements – 1983
Port Hardy – 1972
Port McNeill – 1972
Port Renfrew – 1964*
Quadra Island – 1988*
Qualicum Beach – 1937
Queen Charlotte – 1983
Sandspit – 1987*
Sayward – 1971
Sidney/North Saanich – 1966
Sointula – 1990
Sooke – 1963
South Cowichan – 1989
(formerly Shawnigan Lake, 1946)
Tahsis – 1976
Tofino – 1968
Ucluelet – 1971
Union Bay – 1949
Woss – 1984
* previously served by book mobile/deposit station