Mississippi Mills Chief Librarian Peter Nelson

Peter Nelson - Head Librarian Mississippi Mills Library.The man in charge of Mississippi Mills’ libraries has had a serendipitous life. His great opportunities happened by lucky chance, one of the remarkable ones being his coming to the Almonte library in 1986.

Born in Kansas, and a child of the 60’s, he followed the ethos of that turbulent era to back pack around the planet for 12 years.

Peter hitchhiked alone through the Amazon jungle, which meant waiting for the only source of transportation — a boat — for four months. He worked as an archaeologist in Alaska in 1970 in a fly-in location supported only by helicopters. He visited Fiji, Samoa, New Zealand, Australia and south-east Asia, hitchhiking and back-packing through it all. Along the way he picked up jobs, many of them in libraries, that helped to determine his future career.

Of his time in Alaska, Peter noted that they were so remote they were supported only by helicopter and wild animals would join them in their camps, humans and animals living in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

It was totally by chance that Peter met his wife Elaine, now his partner for more than 30 years. He had planned to visit Hawaii, but when plastic-grass-skirted women met the plane as it landed, he decided this was just too touristy for him and booked the next plane out — to American Samoa. On that plane, among several hundred businessmen and five backpackers, he met his wife Elaine. All five backpackers left the plane at American Samoa and went their separate ways. Later, on Fiji, after accepting a lift and invitation of a Fijian, he saw Elaine by the side of the road hitchhiking. The driver picked her up and whisked them off — a day’s travel by car, then more on a trail — to a remote Fijian village. During two weeks there, the relationship blossomed.

Elaine and Peter subsequently moved to New Zealand, then Australia, and were visited in Hong Kong in the mid seventies by Elaine’s Canadian parents who told them that they’d inherited a farm in Perth, Ontario. Peter had never heard of Ontario at this point, but they were offered the farm, grabbed the chance and after more travelling through southeast Asia, fetched up in Perth Ontario in 1977, where they still live. Peter and Elaine now have two grown children, a daughter pursuing a masters in native studies at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George and a son who works for an aboriginal band in Northern British Columbia, investigating treaty violations, in an area so remote it does not have a name.

After several years of part time jobs, including that of bartender, Peter decided to try to use his education – a B.A. in Art History and Anthropology, to establish a career. He discussed the possibility of pursuing a library science degree with his wife and in the 1980’s, they uprooted themselves once again, but this time only to move to London Ontario, where Peter completed his degree at the University of Western Ontario in 1986.

Back in Perth, a chance conversation with the children’s librarian in the Perth Library alerted him to the fact that the Almonte library was looking for an employee. He immediately applied and on the basis of his degree and his, by now, extensive library experience, he was hired. Eighteen months later, the head librarian moved on to a larger community and Peter applied for her job. He succeeded and has been Head of the Almonte, and now Mississippi Mills, Library since 1987, a job he clearly loves. As he points out, there are only four libraries in the area, and the chance that he could find employment without going to Ottawa or Kingston were slim, so once again, he was blessed by chance.

Of the library, he says the six part time staff are stellar and the library wonderful. Four staff work exclusively for the Almonte library, one shares time between the Almonte and Pakenham  libraries and Mary Jack is the head librarian in Pakenham, devoted exclusively to that library. The library also employs 5 students who work part time.

Peter considers that the library belongs to its patrons and suggestions for changes to the library, development of programs and book suggestions are contributed by patrons. Library staff also cull book catalogues for new book suggestions. The Almonte library holds 55,000 books. The Pakenham library has a stock of 12,000 volumes. In addition, the library offers CD’s, DVD’s and is beginning to offer e-books.  It is a community centre, a place to read, socialize and learn.  Students congregate there after school to complete homework  and wait until their parents return from work; Carleton University teaches two afternoon courses there.

Of the origins of the Almonte library, Peter says it was incorporated in 1895, but long before that, in 1824, a group of farmers pooled resources to purchase a farm manual. Other manuals followed and soon the wives of the farmers took up the idea to collectively purchase books, which were prohibitively expensive at that time. A visiting Lord Ramsay, then Governor General (and the source of the name of Ramsay township) contributed more books and some funds. A collection of Carlyle’s Essays, bearing  the label of the Mechanics Institute, is extant in the library. The current library is named after Elizabeth Kelly, the respected and beloved quintessential librarian who served Almonte for many years.

The library hopes to expand with an addition and has started planning to plan, as Peter puts it. As Carleton is currently teaching two courses there and because there is a possiblity of a satellite campus for the university in Almonte, the library is hoping to collaborate with Carleton University on this project.

Peter Nelson in Fiji
Peter Nelson as an archeologist north of Brooks Range in Northern Alaska 1971
Peter Nelson on a solo climb of a mountain near Juneau Alaska