Background and History
A committee made up of local groups, politicians and businessmen was created in 1945 to decide on an appropriate memorial to honour those lost to the wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. It was “agreed that the war memorial for Halifax should be in the form of a library.” (Submission Halifax Memorial Library Committee, April 1, 1946). Approval by Halifax City Council for the construction of the Library was obtained in December 1947 (Herald, December 12, 1947). The desire to acquire a new library more fitting to the growing city of Halifax was nothing new; in fact, there had been some unsuccessful talks about a new library as early as 1901 (Crowdis, D.K. Brief History of Agitation for the Halifax Memorial Library). By 1945, with WWII just ending, the occasion was ripe for it to serve as a memorial as well. The first sod was turned on April 21, 1949, in time to celebrate the city’s 200th anniversary. On November 11, 1949 (Remembrance Day) the cornerstone was laid under the auspices of the Legion. The library opened its doors to the public on November 12, 1951.
Over the years, the library has amassed a great number of items and symbols that strengthen its role as a memorial. Some of these include flags, standards, plaques, a Silver Cross replica, Book of Remembrance (2), and murals (since donated to Maritime Command Museum).
Flags and Standards
There are two glass cases on either side of the Spring Garden entrance; one contains a Union Jack and a flag of the British Empire Service League, the other has two standards of the Silver Cross Women of Canada.
The Silver Cross hanging in the Library is a replica of the silver cross presented by the government of Canada to all mothers and widows of those who died in the service of their country during WWI, WWII and the Korean War. It was donated to the Library in 1950 by the Silver Cross Women of Canada.
Books of Remembrance
There are two books of remembrance; the first one contains the names of Haligonians who perished during WWI. It also lists the cause of death.
The second book lists the names of the 677 men and women from Halifax who perished during WWII and the Korean War, and was donated to the Library in 1955 by the Silver Cross Women of Canada. Both are on public display. The books have been digitized and are available on the Halifax Public Libraries’ website in electronic format.
The cornerstone bears the mention, “This stone was laid under the auspices of the Halifax Branches of the Canadian Legion on November 11, 1949 by His Worship Lt. Col. GS Kinley, VD, Mayor of Halifax. The sod was turned for this building by Mayor JE Ahern on April 21, 1949.”
A plaque on the building explains that “This building was erected in memory of those who gave their lives in defence of their country 1914-1918 1939-1945. For their faith – for their courage – for their sacrifice, we will remember them.”
Three murals were commissioned and painted by local artist Commander Donald C. MacKay in 1951. They were exhibited in the library and donated to the Maritime Command Museum (CFB Halifax) in 1974.
The Library as a Living Memorial
The library was chosen as a memorial because there was a need for a new public facility, but also because of a consensus that an inanimate object such as a statue or monument would not do justice to the memory of all those who were lost (see quoted sources below). The library, as an institution that fosters growth and learning, was vested with the role of a living memorial, one that would continue to consecrate the memories of those who died by promoting and defending the very things that were suppressed during the war: freedom of speech and freedom of study:
“The lack of such a library in Halifax is felt by many to be a disgrace. Nothing could be more symbolic of the sacrifices of those we wish to honour than a library housing books which Adolf Hitler burnt. A well-designed library would be a lasting Memorial, and with the passage of the years would evermore fittingly hallow the memories of those who died that others might enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of study.” – Petition to Mayor and Council, November 1947
“The committee, believing that those who served in the Second German War deserved a living, rather than an inanimate memorial, urged that a library should be established to honor them.” –Mail Star, Jan. 15, 1948
“An even greater memorial to those heroes of our wars is the ideal on which the whole building is erected – the faith of the citizens of Halifax in the democratic ideal of making freely available knowledge to each and every resident of the city.” – Library document, 1951
The Canadian Legion, the Silver Cross Women of Canada and the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE) were actively involved in the planning and outfitting of the library.