“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.
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.