A livre by any other name: The Literary and Historical Society of Quebec keeps English literature circulating in a city that’s predominantly French.
English books are hard to come by in Quebec City, a place where less than two per cent of the population speaks the language as their mother tongue. But the library of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, hidden down a side street in the city’s Latin Quarter, has been lending English-language books for nearly 200 years.
George Ramsay, ninth Earl of Dalhousie and governor general of British North America, founded the society in 1824 as the colony’s first learned society. In addition to a library, it operated a natural history museum and an art gallery, and ran a popular lecture program. It published manuscripts on colonial history, as well as some of the area’s first comprehensive geological surveys. It fostered the creation of what is now Library and Archives Canada, and helped save the Plains of Abraham from development. As other public institutions across the country were born, the library slowly became the society’s main focus.
After a number of early moves, the society found a permanent home in 1868, joining Morrin College in a former Quebec City prison. When the college closed at the turn of the 20th century, the society stayed on, eventually buying and taking over the entire building, now known as the Morrin Centre.
The walls are lined with bookshelves and a wooden spiral staircase leads to a graceful gallery circling the high-ceilinged room. Windsor chairs surround long leather-topped tables, and an 18th-century statue of Major General James Wolfe, who successfully led the British against French forces on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, surveys the scene. The room looks like a quintessential British colonial outpost library – Louise Penny once set a murder mystery in the basement – but the book committee keeps its reading material up to date, and the waiting list is short. – Louisa Blair