OTD: Fire engulfs Library of Parliament

On today’s date in 1952, at just before 2 a.m., a fire broke out in Ottawa’s Library of Parliament, which would be badly damaged from the 10-hour blaze.

Tracing its roots back about 230 years, the collection of the Library of Parliament builds on the circa 1790s legislative libraries of Upper Canada and Lower Canada. While construction on the current library began in 1859, the project was postponed two years later and remained incomplete until 1876; however, its collection began arriving in 1866, a year before Canadian Confederation and five years before the Library of Parliament Act formed the institution.

Throughout its history, the current library has seen three fires—the first in 1849, a second in 1916 and the third one on Aug. 4, 1952.

“Because the stubborn blaze was in an almost inaccessible point in the central dome 120 feet or more above the floor it was necessary to keep the sprinklers going for about six hours in order to help extinguish it,” wrote Robert Hamilton in 1953, adding about 200,000 gallons of water “cascaded from the domed roof, or ran down the arched ceiling, and soaked or moistened the books on the main circular floor, many of the books on the two upper galleries, and many of the books and newspaper volumes in fifteen of the rooms or vaults in the basement.”

What Hamilton describes as a “mass evacuation” of the books began only five hours after the fire broke out on Monday morning “and was continued intensively for two weeks, after which period selective removal was carried on for another two weeks.”

About 150,000 books were removed to three main drying areas while “countless thousands” of others were stored on dry shelves in the library.

While other Parliament Buildings had received extensive climate control and electrical upgrades, the library was largely overlooked.

In more recent years, these deficiencies – as well as conservation, rehabilitation and other upgrades – were addressed when a $52-million renovation was researched in 1996 and completed in 2006.


In 1976, the Royal Canadian Mint featured the Library of Parliament on a silver dollar to mark the institution’s 100th anniversary.

The coin has a weight of 23.32 grams, a diameter of 36.06 millimetres and a thickness of 2.84 millimetres.

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