The July 6 derailment of a train carrying crude oil caused fires that killed an estimated 47 people and destroyed dozens of buildings in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. One of the casualties was the Lac-Mégantic library and its collection, which included more than 60,000 books, CDs, and DVDs, and a local history archive.
“It’s devastating,” said Kelly Moore, former executive director of the Canadian Library Association. “The building, the collection, the archives, the irreplaceable documentary history—it’s gone.”
Lac-Mégantic has just under 6,000 residents and is located about 155 miles east of Montreal. The town library, which opened in 1991, employs five staffers, including one librarian. There are also several dozen part-time volunteers. The library was preparing to move to a larger building, which was to open later this year.
The “little library for a big region,” as library president Diane Roy described it, was open about 35 hours a week; has more than 2,700 members, and in 2011 boasted over 36,100 visits and 84,200 loans. However, it was perhaps best known for its unique archival collection. The library started gathering historical documents and personal effects from residents in 1996, and the collection had since grown to include everything from local social club records to the earliest known photos of the town to information about Donald Morrison, a Lac-Mégantic resident and notorious 19th century outlaw.
“The library is completely destroyed, including of course the collection. There is nothing left,” said Quebec Public Library Association Executive Director Eve Lagacé, who added that in other library fires she can recall, “All the titles in the library were second copies…. I think this is the first time that a library with this kind of archival collection has been destroyed.” The extent of the loss may be literally incalculable: “The library had only recently received many historical and personal archives; not everything had been cataloged.”
Rebuilding and Recovery
Roy estimated that the fire cost the library about $2,467,000. On July 22 the federal government allocated $60 million to Lac-Mégantic for recovery efforts, and, Lagacé said, “Lac-Mégantic will receive money from the government of Quebec; we hope that some of this will go to the library,” Furthermore, “The Ministry of Culture and Communications here in Quebec will be able to help in some way,” said Lagacé, who added that money from the ministry will likely be earmarked for facilities, including refurbishment and maintenance. Roy also noted that the municipal government will supply funds. (The archive, which was a private effort and not affiliated with either the municipal or provincial governments, was supported by donations and the Friends of the Lac-Mégantic Library Foundation.) According to Lagacé, the majority of financial aid for the library will come from insurers, but as yet, the extent of the insurance payout is unknown.
Meanwhile, librarians and publishers are eager to provide other kinds of help: “A lot of publishers have begun to collect new books to give to the library, and members of a local library network of are preparing to give second copies of titles they have to Lac-Mégantic,” Lagacé said. The English Language Publishers Association of Quebec (AELAQ) has also asked its members to donate books to the library.
The Canadian Library Association will likewise “provide whatever support we can as a national association. We’ll work in partnership with organizations in Quebec that may be better qualified to give immediate support and then coordinate things from here as we can,” said Moore.
Though the archival material cannot be replaced, Lac-Mégantic residents have expressed an interest in creating a new local history collection: “Many people called to say, ‘We didn’t give you the archives when you contacted us before, but we still have them and we will give them to you now!’” Roy reported. “And archives in other cities are offering to send us what they have about our region.”
There is one piece of good news: the new library building was not affected by the explosions, and it should be ready to open in November as originally planned. “It will be a Christmas gift for Lac-Mégantic, a great gift for the new year,” Roy said.