Behind the Palisades: An Autobiography.

McTavish (1834-93) was appointed Chief Trader of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1859, serving in several posts including Fort William, Albany, Rupert’s House, Moose Factory, and other locations. He retired in 1880; this posthumously published autobiography shows him very supportive and loyal to the Company.

p. 60: York Factory was fortunate in having a goodly collection of books, amounting to nineteen hundred volumes when I left in 1889. Who started the library is probably unknown, but the process of collecting must have gone on for many years, taking, for example, the annual bound numbers of “Punch”, contained therein, though not complete from the beginning. The duty of the librarian fell to the apprentice clerk for more reasons than one, the chief however being, that the ten shilling fee, otherwise to be paid from his first year’s salary of twenty pounds, was allowed for his services, and meant much to him. The higher officers paid one pound, the clerks ten shillings and the mechanics and labourers five shillings annually, the same rate applying, if I remember aught, to post managers and men in the district and adjoining ones. The books covered many fields of knowledge, selections being made from catalogues received from London by the ship, at an annual meeting, held prior to the departure of the Winter packet which carried the next year’s order to England via Winnipeg. The men had a representative, but dependence was placed almost entirely on the officers, who tried to get the best, and most for the available funds. The Company did not charge transportation for these books. The first care was to attend to the annuals, ‘Punch”, “Chambers Journal”, “Household Words” and one or two others. No trash was allowed. We could not afford to get worthless books. Thus was continued the good work of building up the library, and reflected the character of its subscribers.

The library was open on Saturday evenings, and the only illumination in Winter was with a candle. No fires allowed at any time. It was extremely cold work some nights when the thermometer was in the region of minus 40, or a blizzard blowing. We were supposed to keep open for an hour after ringing the big bell, on this occasion a privilege, or till everybody had pored around the shelves and made his week’s selection. One night I happened to place the end of my pencil in my mouth, and thegraphite or lead adhered to my tongue. The preservation and condition of the books were marvelous, considering the varieties of temperature they were subjected to during the year.

One of my inspirations was to check over the books, a rather difficult task; with a neglected catalogue, and practically no record of what books were at the outposts, whereby numbers could be located, or determined as missing. During that and the next Winter my spare time was devoted to stock-taking, classifying the books according to my immature ideas, hampered considerably by my ignorance, but having an intuitive instinct for system. Copies of the catalogue were made for each post, so that selection would not be left to the librarian, and avoiding complications, as one could not know the tastes of the subscribers, or keep track of what books they had previously received, a happy-go-lucky policy having been followed for some years. With these catalogues, however, they could now send in their own lists, ma[r]king a margin for books which might be in circulation for some other place. A list of the year’s importations to enter into copies was sent annually. In this way the catalogues were kept up-to-date, and the work of forwarding books once a year by water transportation made easier and effective.

The overhauling and systematizing process gave me an acquaintance with the volumes under my charge, though I did not become much of a reader, till I felt the want of companionship later when located at an outpost myself. There must have been an inherent love of books however in my composition, as this experience was never uninteresting, an incentive to help those so; isolated, that any little oversight on ordering anything on their part meant a delay of one or two years. That library was my best friend, and in later years I reaped the reward of my exertions, and became indebted to the founders for many happy hours. Goldsmith said, “The first time I read an excellent work it is to me just if I had gained a new friend: and when I read over a book I have perused before, it resembles the meeting with an old one.”

The library afforded us material for many a social evening and we formed a “Literary Society”, which name was subsequently altered in a jocose manner among the officers to “The Mutual Admiration Society”, everyone aiding or participating in the proceedings coming in for thanks and praise. Mr. Fortescue was the qualified leader. The Rev. George M. Winter gave little talks on becoming a band of brothers, in his inexperience, at that time, being ignorant of the fact that small places and intimate association were conducive to a full realization of the failings of our compatriots or neighbors.

Mr. J. K. McDonald, Mr. Cowie, Dr. Mathews. Wm. Wood. (B) the postmaster, and the men all contributed readings, songs, recitations, chemistry exhibits, yarns and experiences.