Gladys Allison the driving force behind North York library system


North York’s first permanent centrally located library building, opened Oct. 18, 1959, was called The Gladys Allison Building in honour of North York’s “First Lady of the Library.”

Allison was the driving force behind the establishment of North York’s excellent public library system. It took her decades of unstinting effort.

Born 1901, Gladys left school at 14 to go to work when her father became ill. She worked daytime as a cashier, studied stenography at night, then became a private secretary, all the while taking university extension courses.

In 1936 Gladys and her husband Bill moved to North York, still little developed.

Since there was no library she had to take their three children downtown.

“Why can’t our community have a library?” she wondered.

Her first move, in 1938, was to write to newspapers asking for information on how to start a local library. She received a lot of books but felt there was insufficient interest to proceed.

Gladys resumed in 1945 after working as a bookkeeper at St. John’s Convalescent Hospital during the Second World War. She obtained books from the Ontario government’s travelling library service, lodging them at a local church for borrowing two nights a week. However, bad road conditions and lack of street lighting prevented widespread use of the service.

Subsequently, she arranged for a room in the Memorial Community Hall on Yonge Street — below Park Home Avenue in central North York — to be set aside as a circulating library with largely donated books. There wasn’t room, however, for them all.

A permanent building was needed, for which Gladys campaigned as chair of the newly formed library board. The result was The Gladys Allison Building at Yonge and Park Home for which, fittingly, Gladys laid the cornerstone. She died in 1979.

The building was torn down in 1986 to make way for today’s four-times-bigger library as part of the construction of the North York Civic Centre. It opened May 13, 1987. The top floor, the sixth, was called the Gladys Allison Canadiana Room in her honour.

Susan Goldenberg is a director and membership chair of the North York Historical Society, which preserves North York’s heritage. For more information visit