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Buildings that weren’t: Notre Dame University library, 1972

Nelson historian/author Peter Bartl shared this amazing rendering with me, showing a planned new library for the Notre Dame University campus in Nelson that was never built.

Notre Dame University/DTUC fonds (Courtesy Touchstones Nelson)

Ron Welwood, head librarian at Notre Dame and its successor, David Thompson University Centre from 1969 to 1984, says the image “brings back distant memories because it hung in my office for many years until the old dilapidated facility was abandoned by us and I deposited it with other NDU/DTUC documents. The rendering certainly depicted an unattainable pipe dream for NDU (and myself)”

According to the university’s annual report of 1972-73:

After many years of insistence that space in the present library was too limited … the Board of Governors agreed in principle that a new library building should be given top priority. The board authorized the Library Development Committee to prepare a sketch of a library to provide 18,000 square feet for the first phase of a Library-Bookstore complex …
Finally, at its February meeting the Board of Governors recommended “that the next stage in development of the new library building, that of obtaining architect’s sketches, be authorized to proceed, and that the spending of up to $3,000 on architect’s sketches be authorized.” The Nelson architectural firm of Fairbank and Sawyer were then retained to draft a preliminary set of detailed sketches and to date four plans have been prepared.

However, the report noted the board had not actually made a commitment to build and the “project has been greatly overshadowed by internal and external political strife within the university community.”

The old library was the site of a sit-in in 1984 after the provincial government announced plans to close the university. Those who occupied the building felt the impending removal of the books would kill any possibility of the campus being used for post-secondary education.

Government relented and volunteers kept the library open at its existing location through the early 2000s — hoping that the library collection’s survival would be key to re-establishing a university in Nelson — when the city finally issued an eviction notice.

As Welwood wrote in a 2016 column, the collection by then had already been picked over many times, and volumes distributed to Selkirk College, the Nelson Municipal Library, Kootenay School of the Arts, Touchstones Nelson, other post-secondary libraries, local schools, and finally, antiquarian book dealers. Revenue from sales was used to defray unpaid utility bills.

Still 3,000 boxes of books remained, and these have been stored for a decade in the basement of the Nelson Trading Co. When the Nelson University Centre Education Society dissolved, city council voted in 2017 to dispense with the remaining collection. However, the books remain in storage.

— With thanks to Peter Bartl and Ron Welwood

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