Collection Spotlight

The Library of Parliament’s Book Stacks

The Library’s many outstanding architectural features include its remarkable book stacks. They stand three tiers high, and run around the room just below the clerestory (the high section of the wall that has windows). Eight bays of book stacks project into the centre of the circular space like spokes on a wheel. 

This defining element of the Library had its beginnings in a visit to the British Museum in the 1850s by Alpheus Todd, Canada’s first Parliamentary Librarian. Todd was so impressed by the iron book stacks around the Reading Room that he proposed laying out the future Library of Parliament the same way. In 1872, the Department of Public Works hired Frederick John Alexander (1849–1930), an architect from London, UK, to design the Library’s interior fittings. The book stacks, the main feature of the reading room, incorporated Todd’s technical and functional specifications.

Alexander’s drawings reflected the High Victorian era. In addition to mapping out the intricate carvings along the three-storey bookshelves, he designed all the woodwork, including mouldings, panels, cornices and carvings, that make up the Library’s interior. Many of the motifs are typical of that period and include carved pediments (the triangular gables at the top of the book stacks), panels decorated with raised foliage designs, patterned borders, hand-carved rosettes, and daisy and sunflower designs.

Alexander’s plans demanded exceptional craftsmanship. This prompted the department to retain a Toronto firm known for its high standards, Holbrook and Mollington, to finish the Library’s interior. This firm insisted that only the very best carvers be hired for the most intricate of the hand-carved work. This work began in April 1876 and was completed by January 1877.

Spared by the Parliament Hill fire of 1916, the Library sustained extensive damage after an electrical fire in its dome in 1952 and required a major restoration. This involved further work on the carvings. Workers labelled, dismantled and packed 7,000 individually hand-carved pieces, 8 km of mouldings, 96 carved doors, thousands of tiny rosettes, 1,900 oak drawers and hundreds of panels. In total, 273 crates were shipped to Montréal, where each piece was then cleaned and refinished. Photographs of the book stacks after the project was completed suggest that the refinishing completely removed the dark patina of age, giving the stacks their present-day light colour.

The book stacks had a more recent facelift as part of the 2001–2006 rehabilitation project. Heritage woodcarvers were brought in to repair and restore the rosettes and a sprinkler system was installed inside the book stacks themselves. Continuing dedication to fine detail ensures that the crown jewel of Parliament Hill will be seen and enjoyed well into its second century.

Library Interior
Interior of the Library, circa 1876.
Detail of a pilaster.
An architectural illustration of the Library book stacks (creator and date unknown).