Dear Editor: A Little Love for the Old Library?

While our community contemplates the merits of replacing the aging McConnell Library, perhaps an appreciation of the existing institution is not unwarranted.  Certainly a 70-year-old structure whose principal purpose, as an educational avenue, is the availability and accessibility of books, is still up to the job?  What defects exist, no doubt a little love and care can remedy.

New Yorkers, for example, would be aghast were any to suggest that their central library, watched over by iconic lions Patience and Fortitude, was unfit for preservation and renovation.  Jacqueline Kennedy was instrumental in saving Grand Central terminal from “redundancy” when too late a remorseful city lamented the destruction of Penn Station for a modernist, unloved monstrosity.

Tree of Life stained glass window, McConnell Library, Sydney, NS

Tree of Life stained glass window, McConnell Library, Sydney, NS

No less deserving is the McConnell, a Sydney landmark for the reading public. What other touchstones remain?  Within the last 20 years, the Vogue Theatre and the Royal Cape Breton Yacht Club have been lost to posterity.  Before that, it was Moxham’s Castle and the residences of Petersfield.

Why, we no longer have even any remnant of the steel plant to remind us of the city’s industrial past and its beneficial legacy. Doubtless others can remember additional ghosts of the Island’s built heritage that have succumbed to ignorance and neglect. Must the McConnell now too be added to the list?

To enter the McConnell to-day, with its beam-arched ceiling and stained-glass windows, we delight that its builders were of one mind with Victorian architectural historian, John Ruskin.  “When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone,” he wrote; “let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for.”

Yet what would the early benefactors of the McConnell Library and the patrons who have loved it through generations think of us, were we deaf to Ruskin’s promise that beautiful buildings are equally deserving of society’s gratitude?

Let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labour and wrought substance of them, ‘See! this our fathers did for us.’


Stephen MacLean


The Editor responds:

While I am sympathetic to the call to preserve our built heritage and think the possibility of renovating the McConnell was never properly explored (just as other possible locations for a stand-alone building were never properly explored), I also think it’s been well established from the outset of this discussion that a library’s purpose in 2021 goes far beyond the “availability and accessibility of books.”