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New North Branch public library reflects a unique public partnership in Sault St. Marie

By Jami van Haaften

Schools and public libraries have long been important centres of activity in Ontario communities. While in the past these public institutions have often operated separately, now it can make social and economic sense for school and public library boards to work together to provide new buildings and services for their communities. The new North Branch of the Sault St. Marie Public Library is a case in point. In November 2019, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library entered into a unique partnership with the Algoma District School Board. Six years of planning and hard work resulted in a new facility that meets the needs of families, students and teachers in this northern Ontario city.

North Branch Public Library in Sault St. Marie
The North Branch is an 8,800 square foot library with 2,800 square feet set aside to store archival records. The cost of the branch was $1.6 million, excluding furnishings and shelving. The library facility is part of a school property that incudes a French immersion public elementary school, a daycare operated by the YMCA, School Board’s offices, and the Algoma Huron-Superior Transportation Services.


In 2015, Algoma District School Board officials approached the director of public libraries to discuss a hub opportunity and potential partnership with the library. The School board officials indicated that a $711,000 Community Hub Capital Funding grant was available from the Ministry of Education, but matching funds were needed from the library board in order for the Sault St. Marie proposal to qualify for the program. 

The Community Hub program provides an opportunity to integrate service delivery to children, youth and the wider community. Its primary goals are to reduce barriers to service, support integrated and longer-term local planning, increase local capacity, ensure financial sustainability and evaluate and monitor outcomes.

The Boreal French Immersion Elementary School has almost 500 students, as well as a daycare centre and before/after childcare. If completed, the community hub would provide opportunities to offer more effective ways to deliver services and meet community needs. The benefits of the proposed partnership included greater access to books, presentations, literacy activities, family events and summer programming.

The branch has program rooms which allow for additional programming and make community meeting space available. Six adult computers provide free Internet access, and children’s computers and laptops are on site. The Science North Think Hub has been relocated to the North Branch Library, thus allowing visitors of all ages to engage with new exhibits, programs, and experiences related to Science, Technology, Mathematics, and Engineering (STEM). 

Branch planning and approval
The Community Geomatics Centre of the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre prepared a report for the municipality entitled “Alexander Henry Suitability Analysis”. The study examined proximity to bus stops, elementary schools, high schools, family literacy centres, existing community hubs and large commercial areas. Neighbourhood characteristics such as population growth, social index score, percentage of adults without a high school education and amount of residential construction were also compiled and analyzed.

The Sault Ste. Marie City Council passed a resolution in 2016 to close the city’s Churchill and Korah Branches, and to consolidate the services they provided into a new North Branch building. When the Churchill Branch closed, the collection and furniture went into storage pending the move to the North Branch facility.

The following summer, City Council members authorized the Library Board to enter into negotiations and a subsequent lease agreement with the Algoma District School Board. The rental rate includes rent, utilities, cleaning services and maintenance of the facility.

Four photos related to the opening of the new North Branch in Sault St. Marie
The official opening of the new branch (top left) took place in the Science North Think Hub (bottom left). The donor wall (top right) celebrates the support of community members and organizations. Matthew MacDonald, CEO and Helena Huopalainen, Manager of Community Engagement unveiled Roberta Bondar’s photograph Pink Granite, and hangs in the North Branch.

Archives and Canada Cultural Space Fund
The plans for the North Branch Library included the consolidation of the library archives, which were created in 1990. Over the past 30 years space in the James. L. McIntyre Centennial Library had reached capacity. Several collections within the archives have been designated as cultural property by the Government of Canada because of their national significance.

Canadian Cultural Spaces Fund Program awarded $269,381 to the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library Archives in 2019. The funding was expected to provide up to 50% of the funds necessary to complete the archives. To be eligible for the grant, the Library Board entered into a ten-year lease agreement with the School Board. 

The new branch provides a dedicated archives space where library staff will expand the archives and properly preserve the records and materials that document the community’s history. The new archives facility includes compact shelving, firewalls and humidity control in order to preserve the historical materials.

The Public Library has a partnership with Living History Algoma, and is responsible for the cataloguing and safekeeping of oral history interviews. These interviews preserve pieces of the city’s history, development and changes over time. The interviews can be accessed by searching for “oral history” in the library catalogue.

Sponsors and donors
A fundraising campaign was established to raise money for books, technology, furniture,  shelving and materials. Major donors who received special recognition at the opening ceremonies included PUC Service Inc., Kiwanis Club of Lakeshore, Sault Ste. Marie Indian Friendship Centre, RBC Foundation, Moyra O’Paille and Frances Ryan. In addition, family and friends made donations in memory of Linda Burtch, a long-time archive technician.  

The official opening
The new branch officially opened on November 25, 2019. During the ceremony, Matthew MacDonald, CEO and Helena Huopalainen, Manager of Community Engagement unveiled astronaut Dr. Roberta Bondar’s photograph Pink Granite. Dr. Bondar was born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie. The photograph, taken at Pukaskwa National Park, is on permanent loan to the public library from the Art Gallery of Algoma. Dr. Bondar is particularly fond of this image because, although she could easily recognize Lake Superior from space, she “did not see the pink granite of the Canadian Shield. After my flight on Discovery, I was anxious to return to the North Shore and the smells of wet rock and lichen cover”.

Benefits for years to come
The North Branch is located in a central location where the city is seeing its greatest growth. The project is a credit to all the people who worked so hard to bring it to fruition, and there is no doubt that the people of Sault Ste. Marie will benefit from their efforts for many years to come.

A version of this article appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of
All photos have been provided by the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library.

Jami van Haaften is a professional librarian living in Sault Ste. Marie. She retired from Health Sciences North in 2014 after 19 years of service. She was active in the formation and leadership of Friends of Canadian Libraries (1997-2016). She joined the Library Board of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library in 2019. 


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