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The Library of Parliament Turns a New Page
Denis Labossière

Over the next 25 years a five phase project is scheduled to transform the Parliamentary Precinct. In February 2002, the Library of Parliament, one of the most stunning buildings on Parliament Hill, was closed as work began on the first of these projects, a large-scale conservation, rehabilitation and upgrade project.  The collection is considerable, numbering in excess of 17,000 linear metres of books, cassettes, and microfilm reels. While the building is physically closed, the Library of Parliament continues serving the Senate, House of Commons and authorized clients from another location. This article describes the renovation project and the work that will be done on the Library over the next three years.  For more information about the rehabilitation of the Library of Parliament building, or other projects under the “Long-Term Vision and Plan”, see web-site:

Construction of the Library of Parliament began in 1859, and was completed in 1876.  From the outset, the building was acclaimed both in Canada and abroad for its beauty and grandeur.  In 1916, a fire destroyed the original Centre Block.  The Library was spared from the flames by a quick-thinking employee, who closed the heavy iron doors at the entrance of the building.  As a result, the Library of Parliament is the only remaining link to the building that housed Canada’s first Parliament.

In 1952, the Library of Parliament experienced a fire of its own caused by an electrical deficiency, in the dome some 40 metres (14 storeys) above the reading room floor.  After 10 hours, when the fire was finally extinguished, 908,000 litres of water had poured off the roof or run down the ceiling, soaking books in the reading room, in the two upper galleries and in many of the underground vaults.

The fire, combined with the perennial lack of space and the effects of the unforgiving Canadian climate, forced the Government of the day to consider two choices: tear the Library down and replace it with a modern structure, or restore it.  Parliament opted for restoration and the Library building was subsequently closed for 46 months.

Since that time, the building has been continuously assaulted by the effects of age, the weather and corrosive air pollution.  Structural repairs, in some cases, have been inadequate.  As well, space requirements have continued to increase, as more and more publications have been added to the collection and as services offered have expanded and diversified.  Staff has increased to support these expanded functions and in recent decades, computers, photocopiers and other equipment have become essential components of a modern library.

In 2001 a Parliamentary Precinct Oversight Advisory Committee was established to oversee the “Long-Term Vision and Plan” for Parliament Hill.  John A. Fraser, a former Speaker of the House of Commons, chairs the committee which also includes  Denis Desautels, former Auditor General of Canada, Frank LeBlanc, a professional engineer, Jean-Claude Marsan, an architect and urban planner, and  Terence Williams, another architect and the former Chancellor of the College of Fellows of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.

Each of the members of the Parliamentary Precinct Oversight Advisory Committee is distinguished in his own right, and I am proud to have them on board.  Each brings a wealth of experience that we can draw from.”

Ralph Goodale Minister of Public Works and
Government Services Canada

Former Speaker Fraser has described the Library of Parliament as the jewel of Parliament Hill, but even jewels can lose their sparkle and, in part, that is the case with the Library.  “Having said that, we can’t remove from the equation the necessity to render this building more efficient and more responsive to the needs of users.  As Canada grows, Parliament will continue to grow, and we have to be sure to not simply meet the current demand, but to also respond to the needs that are anticipated for the coming generations of Parliamentarians.”

The Road Ahead

As a result of a competitive process, the Thomas Fuller Co. Construction (1958) Limited was awarded the $52 million rehabilitation of the Library,”  By coincidence, Thomas Fuller, the namesake of the Fuller family firm, was responsible for the design of the original Parliament Buildings in the mid 1800s.

 The work can be broken down into three categories: conservation, to preserve what is there; rehabilitation, to repair what has been damaged; and upgrade, in order to meet current building standards.

According to Mary Soper, Senior Project Leader for the Library Project, the work to be carried out in the next three years includes masonry conservation, roof replacement, window repairs, improved insulation, weatherproofing of the entire building, plus repair and conservation of ironwork.  In addition, the electrical, mechanical, communications and security systems will be upgraded to support current and future equipment demands.  The basement structure will be lowered to increase headroom in the two collection storage levels and to add a new level underneath for mechanical systems.  The parquet floor in the main reading room will be replaced. Woodwork will be repaired and the lighting and plaster will also be repaired, as required.

As part of the conservation, rehabilitation and upgrade project, the three roofs of the Library will be replaced.  The heating and ventilation systems will be upgraded to protect the important collection of books and other materials.  The electrical, communications, security, and life-safety systems will be upgraded to meet current health and safety standards and the Library’s future needs.

In order to permit exterior work year round, the Library of Parliament building is to  be surrounded by steel scaffolding and covered with white architectural fabric.  The fabric will contain the dust, reduce noise, and provide protection during the winter months and inclement weather.  The Library will remain covered for the next two years while the extensive conservation, rehabilitation and repair work is carried out.  The work to erect the scaffolding and fabric is taking place in stages.  Last fall, scaffolding was erected up to the bottom of the main roof and, in January, it was covered with white architectural fabric.

By spring 2003, the final section of scaffolding will be erected over the dome roof and then that section will also be covered with fabric, giving it a cone-shaped appearance.

While preserving the historical character and architectural distinction of the “old” Library, the “new” Library will offer advantages for staff members, clients and visitors alike. Employees of the Library will return to a safer, more efficient, modern, and more spacious workplace.  Access for public tours will also be improved.

When completed, staff and visitors will be able to marvel at the enhanced beauty of the Library of Parliament, a treasure to be enjoyed by future generations.

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 26 no 1

Last Updated: 2020-03-03