Documenting a culture sounds like the work of anthropologists.
In Saskatoon, this work is done at the George Sheppard Library, which has collected 135 years of catalogues, manuals, maps, photographs and books to tell the story of prairie settlement.
Interested in how to operate a Rumely steam tractor? Want to know what towns existed on a piece of long abandoned railway line? Restoring nearly any piece of farm machinery or truck from the past 100 years and seeking a service or parts manual?
The George Shepherd most likely has it.
The library is part of the Saskatchewan Western Development Museum but hasn’t shared the same limelight that has shone on the museum’s other facilities.
It is often considered mainly as a resource to the museum’s curatorial staff but is also open to the public.
The library has been assembling its collection since 1953, but its name and new location came in 1972 when it moved into the museum’s Curatorial Centre. It eventually expanded to house more than 10,000 items, with more added every month.
Warren Clubb, research and library co-ordinator at the museum, has been cataloguing the library’s contents for 35 years.
“It contains a cultural history of Western Canada. A person can get a picture of what life was like by looking at the publications of the day: the machinery catalogues, the retail and wholesale goods (catalogues), the manuals and breed books,” he said.
“You can get a very good impression of the economics of the times. You can find instances of deflation, as new price lists show drops, such as after World War One and in the Great Depression.”
The collection includes clothing and housewares, such as a rare set of Eaton’s catalogues from the company’s head office. Special catalogues were once produced just for Winnipeg and the West, which featured everything from plows to underwear.
Fashion is documented through advertising material and books.
“We are lucky to have a lot of these items because they wouldn’t have been considered important at the time and were often superseded by the next issue,” Clubb said.
Machinery company catalogues from the first decades of western settlement use dramatic and competitive language to describe machinery, land and pioneer life. They contain lush photographs and detailed illustrations of the tools that a farmer might order.
The collection also includes books, such as Locomotive Engines, Breakdowns and How to Repair Them, which was part of a hardbound series that described how to operate a railway, including editions on pricing and human resources.
Radio was the television or internet of its day, and many books are dedicated to repairing the hundreds of models that were available.
The library continues to collect material, most of it coming in as donations from farm families, although the centre also has a small budget to purchase items.
“About 10,000 items are computer catalogued. We add more every day,” said Clubb.
The library’s collection is available online, and some items are scanned, including photographs. Copies are available to the public for purchase.
For more information, visit www.wdm.ca/library.