Public libraries have always played an essential role in the educational, recreational, cultural, and community development of Saskatchewan. Towards these ends, Saskatchewan libraries have provided excellent public services through their development of co-operative practices and through their willingness to utilize the latest technological advances to meet the needs of their patrons. Libraries were first established in Saskatchewan's two major cities, Regina and Saskatoon, in 1909 and 1913 respectively. In 1914, to meet the needs of its dispersed rural population, the Travelling Libraries were started by the province's Legislative Library. They consisted of large wooden boxes with sixty to eighty books that were loaned to a group or community for one year. These travelling libraries existed until 1961, and contained as many as 100,000 books in the 1930s. The Open Shelf Library, begun in 1912, was phased out as regional libraries were created.
In 1953, the Provincial Library was created to extend and improve library services in Saskatchewan. Mary Donaldson was named the first Provincial Librarian, and it was her vision of library co-operation as a means of developing public library services in Saskatchewan that was the basis for the foundation of the present public library service in the province. The first regional library was established in north-central Saskatchewan in 1950. By 1967, seven regional libraries replaced the many random private libraries that existed across the province: Lakeland Library Region (North Battleford area); Wapiti Regional Library (Prince Albert area); Wheatland Regional Library (Saskatoon west area); Parkland Regional Library (Yorkton area); Chinook Regional Library (Swift Current area); Palliser Regional Library (Moose Jaw area); and Southeast Regional Library (Weyburn area). Each regional library covers a large geographical area with a substantial population, and represents a group of cities, towns, villages, and rural municipalities that have joined together to deliver public library services. The northern Pahkisimon Nuye?áh Library System is a federation of thirteen northern community libraries and fifty school libraries. It has a legislated mandate to act as the central library for northern Saskatchewan, and acts as the coordinating agency for all school, regional college, public, and special libraries in the region.
The Public Libraries Act of 1996 established a structure for the provincial public library system to ensure equitable access to basic library services for all residents of Saskatchewan. The purpose of the provincial public library system is to ensure the existence of a Saskatchewan union catalogue composed of the records of many libraries, interlibrary loans, reciprocal borrowing, and autonomous library boards. Also through the Act, the Provincial Library is entrusted to coordinate and support the province-wide library system. Historically, the Provincial Library's mission has been “to work co-operatively with all libraries and communities to secure equitable access to library resources, information, and services for Saskatchewan people.” The Provincial Library also administers the Libraries Co-operation Act, which encourages co-operation and resource sharing among all types of libraries throughout the province to benefit Saskatchewan people, and also acts as a coordinator and facilitator with the boards in the provincial public library system.
The Regina Public Library and the Saskatoon Public Library serve as special resource centres, and provide large resource collections available to all residents throughout Saskatchewan via interlibrary loan and reciprocal borrowing. Both libraries have Local History Rooms that offer historical material on the entire province while focusing on the history of their own city. Both Regina and Saskatoon public libraries have contributed extensively to the culture, economy, and general well-being of their respective cities by offering expert information retrieval skills in an increasingly electronic age, by providing substantial employment in the library sector, by patronizing local businesses, and by generally improving the market worth of their communities. Both libraries provide assistance in the field of traditional literacy and also in the field of information literacy.
Public libraries in Saskatchewan circulate over eleven million books and other items from their collections annually. About 50% of the population are registered borrowers of one of the 320 public library branches or service points available in communities in every area of the province. In addition to circulating books and other library materials, public libraries provide answers to information questions, borrow books from other libraries on behalf of library patrons, and provide access to online, full-text information via library websites. A relatively new role for libraries is providing public access to the Internet.
The main challenges faced by public libraries in the 21st century are the emergence of library networks connecting libraries, patron access to catalogues and other library services, access to electronic books and journal articles, and the provision of digitized information. The democratic vision, however, of service to all with equitable, free-to-the-individual, and open access to Saskatchewan libraries will remain paramount.