This Week in History: Alma Russell, Provincial Librarian and Archivist

This Week in History: Alma Russell, Provincial Librarian and Archivist

In 2019, the Legislative Library of British Columbia will celebrate its 125th anniversary.

And there is one woman, Alma Russell, who was an integral part of its creation.

Russell was hired in 1897 as the first trained librarian in all of Western Canada.

Genevieve Weber is an archivist at the Royal B.C. Museum, and explains that Alma Russell “was a librarian and an archivist for a long time when the archives was still part of the Legislative Library. She did a lot of the ground work that helps us do what we do today.”

Russell was born in Nova Scotia, but moved with her family to Victoria as a very young child.

After high school, Russell moved to Brooklyn, New York, to study library science at the Pratt Institute.

“She was actually offered a job in New York after she finished her degree” says Weber, “but her family was concerned about her health and begged her to come back.

“So she came back to Victoria, and immediately was hired by R.E. Gosnell, who was the first provincial librarian.”

Weber says that Russell immediately began sorting and cataloging.

“Although the Legislative Library was brand new when she started her role, it had been in existence in an unofficial capacity for many years.”

“She was the first person to catalog the books and put them in any kind of order.”

The most frequent users of the Legislative Library were the MLA’s.

“They were regularly needing to access newspapers from all over place,” says Weber, “so she started a card index that was actually used until really recently.”

Russell also implemented the Travelling Libraries Program, which she learned about in New York.

“It was a way to reach out to remote communities and provide library access,” says Weber, “before there was a public library system in the province.”

Russell created other ‘firsts’ too.

“She was the first person to really work with what later became the Pacific Northwest History Collection,” says Weber, “which is the basis for our archival library collection here at the BC Archives.”

But, Weber also points out that because Alma Russell was a woman, she was never given the title of Provincial Librarian and Archivist.

“However, she really, for all intents and purposes, held that role, being the only trained person in that institution for such a long time.”

“She was doing the work of the Provincial Librarian and Archivist, even though she was reporting to somebody else.”

“When she passed away, I think it’s really nice that her niece honoured her long career by listing her job title as Provincial Librarian and Archivist on her death registration” Weber adds.

Alma Russell was also an avid traveler, and two islands off Ucluelet on Vancouver Island’s west coast were named in her honour in 1935.

“So now you can go visit the Alma Russell Islands” says Weber proudly.

Veronica CooperVeronica Cooper

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