Monday, July 12, 2010

Library roots and routes

So I stumbled on this wiki via CILIP today, and have decided to tell my (as yet, fairly short!) story and add it to the wiki.

As a child, I was a regular library user in most of the cities and towns we lived in: when I was very young and we lived in Verdun, my mum had the car one day a week and would bring me to Atwater and Westmount libraries. My grandparents would bring me to Fraser-Hickson when I visited them (they lived one block away). When we lived in St Lambert, I went to the local public library there (and I remember they used date due cards and - gasp! things of the past! - stamps!). My high school, rather uncommonly in Quebec, had a two-floor school library (and a rather hot librarian, as my Grade 11 math teacher never hesitated to point out). I oddly don't remember public library use in Otterburn Park, but then in Bedford I visited the tiny local library housed in the basement of the old school, with its one dusty shelf of English books. Needless to say, when it came time to write my 10-page thesis for my IB diploma (about the war crimes tribunal at the Hague for the Bosnian war criminals), my mum drove us back downtown to Westmount.

When I entered Marianopolis, I began working as a student library assistant there, shelving and working at the circulation desk. After my first year there, my mum suggested I apply to Westmount, as we were moving from Bedford to Pointe Claire, and thus my long tenure at Westmount Library formally began, as a page in the children's department.

Actually, funny story there. I was first interviewed as a page for the adult department, and got the call back that they wanted to hire me when I was on the train on my annual trip to Stratford with my mum. When I told the woman I would be back in a week (and yes, I am protecting the identity of this employee, even though she is no longer at Westmount), she said they really needed someone right now and would have to hire someone else. She said she would pass my name on to the children's librarian (the fabulous Wendy Wayling, undeniably my first mentor and, to this day, a wonderful friend). Wendy did call me in for another interview, and hired me soon after. So, thanks, Wendy, 'cause otherwise, who knows where I would have ended up!

In many ways, I think I am tied to Westmount in spirit because it's the longest I ever spent in one municipality, for work or "living," even though I never did live there. It is the longest I have ever spent in one area, save my grandparents' neighbourhood.

This time in my life, at Marianopolis, was a great turning point in many ways: I met my rez girls, I lived "on my own" for the first time, I returned to downtown Montreal from years in the 'burbs and country, I began my first romantic relationship, I studied Liberal Arts and continued my love affair with Math, and I began formally working part-time (at one point working three part-time jobs while attending classes full-time).

After graduation, I went on to a BA Honours in English Literature (as did, what? Easily half of us librarians? Sigh). My initial minor was Math, but within a few weeks at McGill, I realised my dream of being inter-disciplinary was going to be too much (I could see Math homework eating up too many hours in the week for a minor that was essentially supposed to be "fun" for me), and I switched my minor to World Religions. By the last of my three years, I was still working at Westmount (now at circ, and also getting my first storytime experiences, as seen at left, with my first homemade felt), had recently ended my first relationship, and was unsure what to do next.

[Post-publication edit: I also worked at Nicholas Hoare Books during this period, where I learned a great deal about hand-selling, readers' advisory without the aid of a computer, face-out merchandising and displays, not to mention I made some wonderful friends - including Nicholas, got a 40% discount on novels for university, and was encouraged to read at work! I actually miss the bookstore sometimes; especially the comraderie among staff, the joy of helping a harried customer who doesn't expect to be served by knowledgeable staff, and unpacking the brand new books from the warehouse... Sigh!]

My decision to enter librarianship was shaped by my upbringing (around books, in libraries, in a family in which learning was very much valued), my Liberal Arts-inspired interest in every subject (and the heartbreaking realisation that I could not study all of them), and my life experiences encountering ignorance and prejudice, and observing the importance of education in overcoming both. I was also intrigued by the diversity of jobs within the library profession: I could work with the public, in the government, for a company or private organisation, in a university, or a school.

So off I went, back to McGill, having merely slid down the hill from the Arts Building (or rather, the steps of the Arts Building, where I spent most of my time), to the dingy basement of McLennan.

I continued to work part-time at Westmount, gaining experience at circ in all three departments (children's, AV, and adults - during my summer full-time contract in the latter department, I had that "dress to impress" convo). I also decided to experiment a bit, taking another part-time job at the Health Sciences Library at McGill, a job I found alternatively fascinating and (during the quiet periods) boring. I discovered I was not made for sitting behind a quiet desk, even if there were projects to distract me. In my second year, I left Health Sciences, and took on a Practicum working at Miss Edgar's and Miss Cramp's School, again in the spirit of experimentation. Steeling myself for a return to the world of primary and high school (where I began as a reasonably cool kid, and, following successive moves, ended up hanging out with the marginals), I was very pleasantly surprised to find that I loved ECS, loved the students and faculty, and loved the work. I did, however, miss being in a larger library with colleagues to work with.

I was very worried about finding work after graduation, and so, a few months prior to that, upon a tip from Wendy, I accepted a job at the Eleanor London Côte-St-Luc Library. The deal was, they would hire me part-time for now, and move me to full-time after graduation, to replace a librarian who was on maternity leave until January the following year. If you're keeping track, that means I spent my last months in school also working part-time at Westmount and Côte-St-Luc, while also finishing up Practicum hours. Wheeee!

I learned a lot during my time at Côte-St-Luc, but it wasn't the best fit for me, and after my contract ended, I decided to return to Westmount, where a good friend and reference librarian was taking maternity leave. Her colleague was also poised to retire, and I was hoping to compete for that post. I did, and lost (coming in second after a rather intense written exam and formal interview, with the largest and most diverse panel I had ever been interviewed by, including librarians from other communities on the Island of Montreal). I elected to stay and do the mat leave job, working with the person who had been hired for the other permanent job I had lost.

It was a very difficult, and also in many ways very wonderful, year. I helped create a formal Readers' advisory corner, undertook extensive archival research into Westmount writers for Montréal, capitale mondiale du livre, animated our Readers to Readers book club, attended some of my first outreach activities (health fair at right) and updated and edited the website, all while negotiating a difficult relationship with a colleague, navigating the de-merger of Westmount from the City of Montreal (what I ultimately believe was a somewhat understandable, but miserably short-sighted, decision) and panicking about how to find a permanent job. I was frustrated with the insularity of Westmount, the divides between our library and most others, and the fact that, overall, my home city and province were, essentially, more than a century behind in terms of public library services. A little-known fact: Westmount offered to extend library services to the neighbouring municipalities after de-merger: if Montreal would give Westmount a cut of the taxes received from NDG and St-Henri residents (two mostly working class areas, with abysmal library services), the Westmount Library would give these people free memberships. Montreal turned us down, citing plans for the improvement of library services in these neighbourhoods "in the next ten years" as the reason. Sure, and just screw the kids growing up there right now.

After interviewing and being offered one job I wasn't thrilled with, and following up on two leads that didn't pan out (they weren't hiring yet, and that wasn't good enough), I began looking in Ottawa, on the advice of Megan, a good friend from library school who was happily working for OPL already. Rideau Branch continues to be a good fit to this day, a busy urban branch with some Westmount similarities (sandwiched between low-income and wealthy neighbourhoods, attached to a seniors' home!) and some big differences (part of a large, amalgamated library system and city).

And I guess that's pretty much it, so far!


  1. I'm so happy you were at Westmount. You are a very inspiring librarian. LB

  2. why not also detail what you are doing or have contributed to, here at the OPL? you are such a great librarian...I enjoyed reading about your "débuts" ;)

  3. maybe i will....

    it took me an hour to write that post, though, so now i will get some rest :)

  4. Great post! Thanks for sharing your story. I've added the link to the Library Routes wiki to the SIS wiki, since I think that students may find it interesting. --Ed