She Persisted

mary barkman“What you see here at the library today, and what you will see of this library in the future, you owe in a large degree to Mary Barkman.” At the opening of Steinbach’s first public library in 1973 Dr. Dennis Giesbrecht paid tribute to a woman who had been pivotal in its establishment.

The obituary for Mary Barkman last week mentioned she was a founding member of Steinbach’s library. I learned just what a key role Mary played in the library intiative when I researched and wrote the Steinbach library’s history in 1997.

Mary grew up in a book loving family and passed that love on to her children. She lived in Steinbach but in summers Mary’s family would join her husband as he worked on highway construction projects in other prairie communities. Mary noticed all these towns had libraries. Why didn’t Steinbach? She discussed this with other town residents who shared her desire for a library. Mary decided they should organize.

She called the first meeting of the Friends of the Library in 1969 and people from many walks of life attended. Each paid a $1.00 membership and offered their various skills to the library effort. They made several presentations to town council. Few councilors thought a library was a good idea so the group worked toward a regional referendum. The citizens of the Hanover municipality would vote to establish a central library in Steinbach with branches in surrounding communities. Mary’s group was so disheartened in October of 1971 when their library proposal was soundly defeated in the referendum.

After this the Friends of the Library group suggested giving up but not Mary Barkman. A Carillon article reports after the referendum defeat Mary was sometimes the only person to show up for  Friends of the Library meetings. She refused to abandon her dream for a library in Steinbach.

Mary met with the Manitoba Minister of Cultural Affairs and discovered new legislation to be passed in July of 1972 would mean that 360 signatures from Steinbach residents would act as a compulsory mandate for town council to open a library. Fellow Friends of the Library members Melvin and Elvira Toews hit the streets of Steinbach and in just a few weeks had the requisite signatures. These were presented to town council.

Steinbach Cultural Arts Centre- formerly a school and site of the first public library in Steinbach with a sculpture that pays tribute to learning and education in the community. 

Many councilors weren’t happy about having to fund a library but agreed to provide space in an old school building. It was councilor Jake Epp who admonished his fellow councilors for setting so many roadblocks in the way of a library and applauded Mary and her friends for their tenacity. It was also Mr. Epp who appointed the first library board. Mary Barkman was one of its members.

At the official opening of the library in October 1973 a Carillon reporter asked Mary how she had managed to see the library project through to completion despite so many setbacks. Mary said, “ I always tried to maintain my sense of humor and not take the opposition to the library personally.”

I was glad Mary could attend the grand opening of the new Jake Epp Library in 1997 as a guest of honor although she no longer lived in Steinbach. During my speech at the event I had the opportunity to recognize her significant contribution.

The library Mary helped begin is now one of the busiest in the province. The next time you visit the Jake Epp Library give a thought to Mary whose sense of humor and persistence birthed Steinbach’s first library. You might even whisper, “Thanks Mary.” I have a feeling she just might hear you.

Other posts……..

Images of Steinbach

Steinbach Pride- Homecoming, Forgiveness, Hope

Counting on Their Fingers


Filed under History

8 responses to “She Persisted

  1. Mary Lou: Thank you very much for this lovely tribute to my mother, Mary Barkman. I am so grateful that you did this research and know the story of the library’s founding. I well remember mother meeting with friends – yes, Melvin and Elvira Toews and Bert Suss among them – in the living room of our house, and talking strategy, but there are details in your account I did not know – that Mom met with the Minuster of Cultural Affairs, for example. I do remember the drive for signatures but was unaware, as an adolescent, of the political importance of providing a vehicle for the voices of Steinbach’s residents to be heard. Again, thank you. Audrey Barkman Hill


    • Dear Audrey,
      Thanks Audrey. I remember sitting with your mother at the banquet we held when the Jake Epp Library opened and having a great talk with her about books. I met Mavis at an event at the university a few years ago to honor my good friend and fellow Winnipeg art gallery guide Perry Nodelman. I was mentioning this meeting to someone recently when they told me your mother had passed away. I went looking then for my copy of the library history I had written in 1997. I had gone through old newspaper columns, library meeting minutes and done interviews to compile it. I thought a tribute to your Mom in my weekly Carillon column would be fitting and since the Carillon is not available without a subscription online I usually publish those articles on my blog . I’m glad you found it.
      I actually thought of you the other day as well Audrey when Ismaila Alfa was doing a feature on his CBC show about mistaken identity and people were calling in with their stories. I remembered how often when both you and I were teenagers and living in Steinbach I was mistaken for you. Thanks again for your affirmation Audrey. Take care.


  2. Patricia Allen

    Want to ask more about library background and how it has been celebrated but can find no contact info for you. I do not want to publish my thoughts publicly at this point. Clicking on your website link just takes me to a “for sale” page – are you disposing of your website? My point: Is there a way to contact you privately? — Patricia Allen


    • Dear Patricia,
      My editor Grant just sent me an e-mail with your phone number. I will call you in the next couple days. Thanks for the heads up on my website link. I need to remove that from my Blog Roll. In the meantime if you wish to contact me my e-mail is and I am on Facetime Messenger. Talk to you soon.


  3. Barbara

    It’s unbelievable to think that Steinbach did not have a library until the early ‘70s! I remember as a child we moved from Steinbach to southern Ontario for a short period and how my mother took me to the library in Clinton, a small town. I was mesmerized by all the books I could read. I would take out the maximum ten books for two weeks! It was so exciting and so stimulating. Moving back to Steinbach brought great disappointment when I realized the school library would have to suffice. A library was not built in Steinbach until a few years after I had graduated high school and moved to Winnipeg to attend university. Thanks to Mary Barkman and Jake Epp, Steinbach does have a library. Education won!


    • As a child I survived because of the University Extension Library which sent out boxes of books to rural areas and because of regular trips to the GoodWill store in Winnipeg where used books were only 10 cents. I would save my allowance and birthday and Christmas money and go there and splurge. I served on the Board of Directors for the Steinbach Library for many years and even was chair for a year. I also founded the Friends of the Library organization in Steinbach. I think not having a library as a child made me passionate about us having a good library in Steinbach for future generations.


      • Barbara

        Your parents, as were my parents, must have been supportive of reading and learning whereas there was, and still is somewhat, the notion in and around Steinbach area, that formal learning is not important. We also have believers of that kind of thinking here in Alberta, especially central south to Calgary areas. Premier Kenney has made education a very political discussion returning us to the uneducated times of Ralph Klein. Not sure if you know anything of Alberta politics, but it’s not a good thing.


      • One of my favourite examples of that from the library history I researched and wrote was at a Steinbach Town Council meeting when AD Penner said “Look how successful I am and I never read books.”
        A former colleague of mine in Hong Kong is now a high school science teacher in Alberta and he is appalled at the new education curriculum being proposed there.
        Luckily I had grandparents who believed in education. My paternal grandfather who had his own high school education ended because of the Russian Revolution actually didn’t give donations to his church in Canada till he had enough money saved to send all his children to the MCI in Gretna to finish high school something many young people in the 30s and 40s didn’t do. And my father and his five sisters all had university degrees as a result. My maternal grandparents were both avid readers and my mother a former high school teacher read to me religiously as a child. I did have some wonderful teachers in Steinbach though who read aloud to us, encouraged us to memorize poetry and affirmed my writing ability.


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