[UBC crest]

Building the Main Library

[History icon]

The Main Library is one of the three original permanent Point Grey campus buildings. The re-opening of the Library's main entrance in 1998, and the renovations currently under-way in 2001, provide an opportunity to reflect on its construction and early operations, as well as a few of its interesting architectural features.


The outbreak of World War I temporarily halted the plans to move the University of British Columbia from the overcrowded facilities at its original Fairview location (near Vancouver General Hospital) to its new home at Point Grey. In 1922, UBC students organized a publicity campaign to rally public support to resume construction on the new campus. By mid-October, the students had gathered 56,000 signatures on petitions, and during Varsity Week they staged a parade with floats, bands and banners which culminated at Point Grey. The Pilgrimage, or Great Trek as it has become known, focused attention on the University's plight and, in 1923, the Provincial Government authorized the resumption of work on the three permanent buildings at Point Grey (Science Building, Power House and Library).

Planning the New Library

[Sketch of Library] Left: Plan of the proposed University Library (1923 - south wing was actually not built until 1960)
(UBC Archives photo #1.1/1502)

An August 1923 edition of the Province newspaper published a sketch of the new Library. It pointed out that:

"...the perspective shows the ultimate development, have been designed so that the construction can be proceeded with on the unitary method without interfering with the use of any part or necessitating structural changes in the future. It is proposed to erect immediately the central portion of the scheme and drawings are being prepared to enable the government to call for tenders at the end of August."
[sketch of reading room] Left: Sketch of proposed periodical reading room in the Library (1923)
(UBC Archives photo #1.1/1503)


Designed by the architectural firm of Sharp and Thompson the Library was one of the three original permanent buildings on the Point Grey campus. The granite facing stones for the Library were quarried on Nelson Island in Pender Harbour and carried by barge to the foot of the Point Grey cliffs. A temporary aerial tramway and light railway system carried then carried them to the building site.

[library under construction] [library under construction]
Library under construction
Left: June 14, 1924 (UBC Archives photo #1.1/1866)
Right: September 8, 1924 (UBC Archives photo #1.1/1869)

A small publication entitled Buildings and Equipment of the University of British Columbia (1925) described the recently-completed Library as:

"....a massive structure of two stories and a basement built of British Columbia granite. The style is late Tudor, modernized. The entrance floor is devoted to offices, and to the Burnett collection which represents the arts, handicraft and weapons of Polynesia. The floors of the Main Entrance Hall, of the staircases and of the Concourse are finished with large marbled rubber tiles which harmonize with the general colour scheme, and ensure quietness in the principle parts of the building."

Library nearing completion (January 23, 1925)
(UBC Archives photo #1.1/1876)
"The Concourse has a floor space of 100 feet by 50 feet and is 60 feet in height. Finely designed exposed trusses support the roof. The interior walls are finished in Caen Stone. The woodwork throughout is of plain oak. Ample light is provided through large, pale amber-coloured Gothic windows. In these are inserted the Coats of Arms of Canadian and British Universities, which supply a touch of colour needed to relieve the dignified austerity of the interior stone. Two smaller reading rooms, each 60 feet by 30 feet, open off the main reading room. The concourse provides accommodation for 250 students."
[Library concourse] [Concourse filled with students]
Library concourse (1920's)
(Left, UBC Archives photo #1.1/1060)
(Right, UBC Archives photo #1.1/1057)

First University Librarian


John Ridington (left), University Librarian from 1916 until his retirement in 1940, enjoyed a reputation amongst students as a rigid authoritarian for which he earned the nickname 'King John'. With its completion in 1925, the new neo-gothic Library became known as 'King John's castle'.

(UBC Archives photo #1.1/1510)


Entranceway Carvings

David Brock, in Scrapbook for a Golden Anniversary: The University of British Columbia Library, 1915-1965, pointed out one of the Library's unique architectural features:

"Slightly above and a little to each side of the main door there are two little carvings, left there as a private joke by the stonemasons. They are not very big, and they are in low relief, and your eye does not normally seek out that part of the entrance anyway. But hundreds and thousands of us know that they are there...One carving represents a Fundamentalist and is labelled FUNDA....The other carving shows a kind of ape, and it labelled EVOL. And thus the visitor can tell, even now, that these carvings were made while the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, was hot news. In other words, in 1925.
Click on the red squares to see the carvings
("funda.gif" and "evol.gif")

[god.gif] [darwin.gif] [Library front entrance]
(UBC Archives photo #1.1/1017)

Stained Glass Window

Although the idea of a stained glass window for the area above the front stairwells leading to the concourse had first been discussed in 1924, the project did not come to fruition for several years. In 1927, funds provided by an anonymous donor allowed work to proceed on the Canadian Jubilee Memorial window (below), which marked Canada's first 60 years of nationhood.

[Stained glass window]
(UBC Archives photo #1.1/1046)

Unveiled by B.C. Premier S.F. Tolmie on November 28th, 1928, the nine panels of stained glass included the Dominion coat of arms, flanked by those of the other eight provinces. University architects Sharp and Thompson prepared the original plans for the window, and the design was later modified by the Bromsgrove Guild of Montreal and University Librarian John Ridington. The contract for the work was given to the Canadian branch of the guild in Montreal and the work was executed in England. Final costs for the project was $1,600.

Landscaped Library (1927)

[Finished Library]
(UBC Archives photo #1.1/1036)

Virtual Displays

University Archives

Dates: 1998, 2001