WINNIPEG – It was being transformed into a proper home for all the documents and photographs that make up Winnipeg’s history, when the rain came pouring through the roof in 2013.
The Carnegie Library at 380 William Avenue became a flood zone. Employees scrambled to save the history of our city. Walls, floors and ceilings were damaged. So were 450 boxes of archival records.
Now, more than three years later, the building is empty. The future of housing our past is in limbo.
What will happen to the 111-year-old historic building is unclear. For now, our history is scattered across the city. Those concerned want answers.
“We’ve been three years like this and little progress seems to have been made on getting the archives back into its home,” says Tom Nesmith, a University of Manitoba history and archival studies professor.
The Carnegie Library was Winnipeg’s first public library.
Heritage Winnipeg’s Cindy Tugwell says it was built in 1905 with a $75,000 grant from American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
“He felt that people should have a free service, so there’s an engraved sign above the door that says “Free to All,” she said.
In 1994, it was turned into the City of Winnipeg Archives, and it the late 2000s, renovations started on the building to make the archives work better for staff and the public.
“It’s terribly disappointing to see how much progress was being made… A lot of work had been done, money had been invested to shore it up… This was starting to happen and it was very exciting and there was this tragic rainstorm that put the kybosh on all of it,” Nesmith said.
After the storm, the Archives moved out. Its materials, which end to end stretch about six kilometres, were shuffled to three separate buildings.
Staff and most of the records are now located in a warehouse at 50 Myrtle Street, tucked away off of Notre Dame Avenue. Others are also being stored at a building in the Exchange District and in the Manitoba Government Records Centre.
In the 2015 Annual Winnipeg Records Committee Report, presented to EPC this month, city archivist Jody Baltessen says having three temporary facilities is challenging.
“…Staff will be hard pressed to manage demands for storage and related services from departmental partners. This places in jeopardy the significant and important advantage that a secure, cost-effective records storage program affords to departments as they transition away from paper to electronic information systems.”
Baltessen says fewer researchers are visiting the archives at 50 Myrtle than they saw at 380 William.
Tugwell says she’s not getting any answers about why the repair work hasn’t been done. The city filed a lawsuit against the construction company doing the repairs on the roof when the water came flooding in. But Tugwell hasn’t been able to find out the status of it.
“So far I’m not really getting any answers as to why the repair has been delayed. It’s been closed since June of 2013. One would think by June of 2016, three years, the work would have been completed and that they would maybe even be discussing it in their capital funding in subsequent years or grant funding.”
The 2014 annual report from the archives says the renovations were initially held up while the city looked at another home for the archives – the Public Safety Building.
But that option was ruled out.
Nesmith says he has been asking the city and councillors questions about the future of the archives, but hasn’t heard much back either.
“That’s part of the disturbing feeling I get about this. While there was great energy and considerable resources invested in the building, things seem to have really stalled,” he said.
In an email, a city spokesperson says they are still working on a long-term plan for housing the city archives. The plan may include the Carnegie building on William, or it may involve a different location.
As for the old library, the city confirms it is still unoccupied and in need of repairs. It says the cost of fixing it up will depend on “specific requirements and needs”.
Nesmith worries that a decision may be delayed because the archives aren’t as visible to most Winnipeggers are other city service.
“Archives can tend to slip beneath the radar because they are often sort of invisible. The impact that they have, the uses that they have are not often directly noticeable by lots of people, although they have that direct impact.”
Tugwell sees the archives as the perfect fit for the historic building.
“It’s continuing on that theme that Andrew Carnegie would have wanted to see for this building for future generations to have access to materials to be educated about the city, to learn about their history. That was the original intent of this building. How better to have used this building for a city archives and I think that’s where the commitment will have to lie with the councillors to weigh in on how important that should be to them,” she said.