Manitoba History: J. P. Robertson: Manitoba’s First Librarian, Curator, and Archivist

by Christopher Kotecki
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 79, Fall 2015

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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John Palmerston Robertson was born in Perthshire, Scotland on 23 May 1841. His family emigrated to Canada in 1845 and settled in Bytown, later renamed Ottawa by Queen Victoria. Educated in Ottawa and Toronto, he attended the Toronto Normal School then taught in Ottawa and served as Principal of the Central School. After fifteen years in teaching, he was elected to the city’s school board as a trustee and served for ten years. He then sought a seat as alderman for the Ottawa City Council. Robertson also studied law and, in 1867, he matriculated from Osgood Hall but, after three years as a student, he left law for journalism.

John Palmerston Robertson (1841–1919), Manitoba’s first librarian, curator, and archivist, circa 1913.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Personalities - Robertson, J. P. 4, N10082

Robertson worked for the Ottawa Times first as a journalist and then general editor from 1873 until 1878. He left Ottawa for Winnipeg in 1879 when he was asked by Mr. Rowe, the publisher, to join the staff to be sent to Winnipeg to establish the Winnipeg Times. He was likely attracted to the development in Manitoba. However, Winnipeg in 1879 was still a large prairie town built almost exclusively of wood frame construction. Robertson must have seen its future potential and opportunities. Winnipeg the provincial capital, in particular, was experiencing a surge in immigration, which was increasing property values. This led to the first real estate bubble in Winnipeg, in 1880. Robertson worked for the Times as night editor for two years and then found a similar position at the Manitoba Free Press. He was also the Western Canadian representative for the Associated Press and he contributed to several newspapers across Canada as well as to a variety of magazines and reviews.

The origins of the Provincial Library can be credited to the first Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba, Adams G. Archibald who initially purchased books and publications with the advice of the Parliamentary Librarian, Alpheus Todd, to support the work of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba. On his arrival in Manitoba, Archibald had discovered the Red River Library established by Lord Selkirk for the settlement. Robertson was appointed Legislative Librarian on 1 July 1884 by Premier John Norquay, a position he held through successive administrations. He commenced his duties on 22 July 1884.There had been three previous librarians before Robertson whose responsibilities included the library, among the other duties. The library had been the lowest priority and other duties had precluded his predecessors from devoting much time to building the Provincial Library. The government of Premier John Norquay had decided to improve the resources available for its members, civil servants, and the public. They hired a librarian whose job was solely the maintenance and development of the library. By October 1884, a shipment of additional volumes had arrived to expand the library holdings. Robertson soon found that many of the library’s books, those acquired by Archibald and the much older Red River Library, were scattered throughout the Province as many had been lent out and never returned. He set about recovering the missing volumes. He had much work to do. But first, a number of renovations were needed to provide better accommodations for the holdings.

Robertson was in a pioneering position. Not only was he responsible for organizing the library but he soon found that he had responsibilities for acquiring historical records of Manitoba’s past. He was in a position similar to that of his former colleague David Brymner, who in 1872 had been appointed the first Dominion Archivist in Ottawa. The creation of Archives was a new concept. In the USA, the State of Alabama established the first legislative archive, in 1901, so there were few precedents except in England and continental Europe.

By 1913, the Legislative Library in the old Legislative Building on Kennedy Street was filled to overflowing with library, museum, and archival holdings. It would be six more years before it would move to more spacious facilities in the present Legislative Building.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Legislative Building / Kennedy Street - Interior 1

In 1885, Robertson submitted his first Annual Report on the condition of the library to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, the Honourable Alexander Murray, in which he reviewed the discrete collections comprising the library. There was the Red River Library, a collection of some 1,000 volumes started in 1847, primarily by the officers of the Sixth of Foot Regiment, with Roderick Sutherland as librarian, using a grant from the Council of the District of Assiniboia. It was integrated with about 200 volumes in the earlier Settlement Library collected by officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, along with about 500 volumes received from the Estate of Peter Fidler. The Library was run on a circulating principle and had a large component of general literature and works of reference. Before taking up his responsibilities as Lieutenant-Governor, Adams Archibald had purchased at least 2,000 books from England and the United States. He consulted with Alpheus Todd, Librarian of the National Library in Ottawa, for advice on titles that would facilitate the work of creating legislation for the new province. The collection was installed in government offices and responsibility for overseeing it was first given to Bernard Ross, then to Felix Trudel, and then George Roy. Over time, books were lost as loans were made without a proper recording system and a non-existent return policy. Robertson reported that he started by taking stock of the old libraries and assessing the condition of the remaining books. He found that many required rebinding and he pledged to attempt the recovery of lost books.

In regards to archival collections, Robertson reported to Murray that the public records of the Province had not been adequately maintained. Robertson admitted that he had had little time to spend on organizing existing government records but he concluded cheerfully that “Officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, members of the late Council of Assiniboia, civil and militia authorities, have all signified their willingness to co-operate in the work of making as perfect a collection as possible of the archives of the country.” [1] Robertson thought it would be necessary to obtain some documents from England and France, as well as Ottawa, and probably from Washington. Where it proved impossible to acquire the originals, copies could be made. Robertson initiated an interchange program with other jurisdictions and institutions to expand the library’s holdings. He corresponded with Ottawa and the other provincial capitals to promote an exchange program for government publications. He wrote to London and the colonies of the British Empire to seek similar exchange arrangements with them.

In 1885, James Taylor offered to sell the Government of Manitoba a set of documents relating to the government and administration of the District of Assiniboia, which had preceded the establishment of Manitoba in 1870. The records related to the administration of justice through the District’s court system, and included court documents, account books, legal judgements, receipts, and a minute book. Taylor submitted a detailed list of the items being offered for sale. With this list in hand, Robertson sought legal counsel from the Attorney General’s office and was advised that Taylor’s possession of the documents could be illegal and that, if this possibility were pointed out to him, Taylor might turn over the documents to the government at no cost. In his second Annual Report, Robertson reported that he had received three volumes of court records and was making progress in negotiating for the remaining documents. Ultimately, it took five years, and an investment of $300, to complete the transfer of the papers in Taylor’s possession to the Library.

In 1887, Robertson published his A Political Manual of Manitoba and the North-West Territories to fulfill a demand for political information about western Canada. The book included a review of the political history of the North West and the Red River Settlement up to the creation of the Province in 1870, with chapters on the Dominion government and interprovincial relations as they apply to Manitoba and the North West Territories. It gave a history of the subsequent Executive Government with a list of the members of each administration and a review of previous provincial elections. He reviewed the Civil Service and the Superannuation Acts and provided biographical sketches of the officials for the various government departments and members of the Sixth Legislature. He also included obituary notices of the men who had made significant contributions to Manitoba’s and the North West Territories’ development, ranging from Lord Selkirk—who had established the Red River Settlement in the District of Assiniboia—to Rev. George Bryce, the first President of the Manitoba Historical Society. Robertson had intended the guide to be updated after each subsequent election but this volume was the only one produced.

Manitoba’s second Legislative Building, seen here in an 1899 view, stood next to Government House on Kennedy Street, at its intersection with Broadway, from 1884 to 1920. It was also home to J. P. Robertson’s Legislative Library.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Legislative Building / / Kennedy Street 6, N620

On a personal level, Robertson was active in the community. Conscious of his Scottish roots, he was a member of the St. Andrew’s Society and served as its President from 1889 to 1891. He was also the first “chief” in the City for the Clan Stewart and afterwards the Royal Deputy. A member of Augustine Presbyterian Church, he was its auditor for many years. He was also active in sports, principally curling, and was instrumental in organizing the first club. The first winter after his arrival, Robertson and a group from eastern Canada curled in a makeshift rink in a warehouse on Princess Street belonging to Lieutenant-Colonel Kennedy. In 1881, they played in a canvas and frame rink erected on Lombard Street, later holding the lease of a building at the rear of the McIntyre Block, on Main Street. This was the beginning of the Granite Curling Club.

In his third Annual Report in 1887, Robertson sought help with the library: “The rapid growth of the Library and the resolve to give outsiders the advantage of its privileges by allowing books to go into circulation, entails so much work, that I am compelled to ask that assistance, hitherto temporary, be made permanent.” [2] Robertson’s starting salary had been $1000 per year and he had one staff person, J. A. Prendergast, designated as a messenger, to assist him, at a salary of $200 per year. By 1890, Prendergast’s status had changed to that of “Assistant.” Robertson received a second assistant, his daughter Kate M. Robertson, in 1895, later replaced by Miss Isabella “Bella” Norquay (daughter of the former Premier) who would remain with the Library until her death in mid-1915. Provision for two stenographers was made in the 1910 Library budget.

In addition to collecting all manner of government documents and book, the Library also subscribed to a wide range of newspapers and magazines. The list included most of the Manitoba rural weeklies as well as newspapers from around the North West Territories (now Saskatchewan and Alberta). The book titles acquired included reference books and encyclopaedias. Commensurate with the Library’s increasing acquisitions, its budget rose steadily, from $2,200 in 1895, to $3,767 in 1900, $5,165 in 1905, $6,945 in 1910, and $8,615 in 1915. Even austerity measures imposed during the First World War did little to diminish the resources allocated to the Library. By 1919, Robertson had a First Assistant Librarian, a second assistant, a cataloguer, and a secretary-accountant.

Robertson’s main concern in the early years was the need for a catalogue and a fireproof structure to house the Library, requests that he would make periodically, without success, for the next several years. But the Library continued to expand its holdings, including the development of a Natural History Museum. Early in the 20th century, Robertson was pleased to report that the Library had forged improved relations with the Dominion Archives, with a representative from Ottawa having spent two months in Winnipeg examining the Library’s archival holdings. He hoped this would be grounds for the Legislative Assembly to commit more resources to the Library. The Archives section had supplied copies of early documents from its holdings to the federal government as well as to the three provinces to the west. Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty promised a reciprocal relationship by providing copies of documents in Ottawa of interest to Manitoba, and the governments of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia promised to do the same.

By his second year on the job, Robertson had acquired three volumes of Court Records from the District of Assiniboia, which
had preceded the establishment of Manitoba.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, MG2 B1, Minutes of the District of Assiniboia

In 1912, Robertson began to champion a new cause, the development of a Public Library System. He noted that although a Public Library Act existed in provincial statutes, to all intents and purposes, it was going nowhere. He suggested the appointment of a commissioner and inspector to promote the library movement in Manitoba, and the amendment of the Library Act to give municipalities the ability to tax for the maintenance and support of public libraries. Two years later, Robertson remarked on an Order-in-Council whereby a Board of Trustees had been established to support the Library, consisting of the Speaker of the House, businessman and historian Charles N. Bell, and academic historian Chester Martin. Effort were being made to revive the moribund Manitoba Historical Society and its research on provincial history. He urged the government to stipulate the quality of paper used to print local newspapers so they would have better archival preservation.

With plans under way to construct a new Parliament Building to replace the one in use since 1884, Robertson began thinking about the work that would be needed to move his library and archival holdings into it, although an eventual scandal over construction of the present Legislative Building meant the move would not occur until after his death. Robertson could observe with some pride that his Legislative Library was now one of the largest provincial libraries in Canada and was being maintained at less expense than others of a comparable size and nature in Canada and the USA.

In what was to be his last Annual Report, in 1918, Robertson was looking forward to moving into new facilities:

“The outlook is looking good for a removal early in Summer to our new premises in the Parliament Building, now approaching completion. Although not as convenient as it should be, yet it will afford ample room for all our stock of books, archives and museum, and thus obviate the congestion hitherto experienced .... The main library is in the centre of the south wing, immediately in the rear of the Legislative Chamber, and will have a stacking capacity of 35,000 volumes. Upon either side of the Library are large and commodious reading rooms. The newspapers will be to the west, and the magazines and periodicals to the east. Both of these will have modern appointments well suited for the use of members and others having privileges of the Library.” [3]

In the summer of 1919, Robertson and his wife (the former Jesse Graham, also of Perthshire, Scotland) headed off on a two-to-three-month driving vacation in British Columbia and the western United States. Their daughter Beatrice, wife of grain merchant A. C. Ruttan, accompanied them. Their route included stops in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Earlier that year, the provincial government under T. C. Norris had established a new board to oversee the library and, significantly, to appoint a supervisor for the Natural History Museum and a dedicated archivist, to alleviate Robertson’s considerable workload. The board members included Premier Norris, Municipal Commissioner James W. Armstrong, House Speaker James B. Baird, MLA Albert B. Hudson, historian Chester Martin, University geologist Robert C. Wallace, and Charles Bell. It was assumed the new board would hold its first meeting during Robertson’s absence. Unfortunately, Robertson would not hear of its deliberations. While in Los Angeles, he suffered a stroke and died on 11 April 1919. Consequently, the Library’s Annual Report for 1919 was not in Robertson’s hand but in that of his assistant, the new cataloguer, William E. Smith.

Old Timers You Know.” By May 1920, when a reunion of “Old Timers” was held in Winnipeg, J. P. Robertson was a member of
the province’s elite, as his inclusion in this collage of prominent judges, lawyers, clerics, and businessmen in the reunion program
Source: Archives of Manitoba, George Gunn Collection #45

In 1920, Robertson’s successor was named. William J. Healy was a journalist from Ontario before coming to Manitoba in 1899 as Associate Editor of the Manitoba Free Press. He continued Robertson’s work in expanding the scope of the Provincial Library, while producing two seminal works of local history including Women of Red River (1923), until his retirement in 1936. His replacement, John L. Johnston, is recognized for ushering into existence the modern-day Legislative Library and Archives of Manitoba. But it can justifiably be said that, without the foundation established in 1884 by J. P. Robertson, Manitobans would not have the excellent library and archival facilities that they enjoy today. Said W. J. Ptolemy, Deputy Provincial Treasurer, “A more suitable man for the position of librarian could not have been found. Among his books, he was in his element, and his work was a labor of love, which is why it was done so well.” [4] Robertson deserves recognition as the province’s pioneering librarian, curator, and archivist.


1. J. P. Robertson, 1st Annual Report, 1885, Legislative Library of Manitoba.

2. J. P. Robertson, 3rd Annual Report, 1887, Legislative Library of Manitoba.

3. J. P. Robertson, 37th Annual Report, 1918, Legislative Library of Manitoba.

4. Manitoba Free Press, 12 April 1919, page 4.

See also:

Memorable Manitobans: John Palmerston Robertson (1841-1919)

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 24 July 2020