Janine Schmidt, Trenholme Director of Libraries

Janine Schmidt, Trenholme Director of Libraries embraces the explosion of information. / Photo: Claudio CalligarisManaging McGill’s great archive of knowledge

Janine Schmidt smiled broadly when asked how her summer had gone. “I think I’m the only person at McGill who hasn’t taken a vacation,” she laughed. Too late now. With the new academic year in the starting blocks, Schmidt will be hardpressed to find much down time once the gun sounds. As the Trenholme Director of Libraries, Schmidt oversees perhaps McGill’s busiest entity – with some 2.6 million people having visited one of the University’s 13 branch libraries last year.

But with more than 30 years’ experience in the field, the hard-working native of Ipswitch, Australia, is far from daunted at being the keeper of McGill’s vast holdings (some 6 million items at last count). In fact, as we found out when we sat down to talk with her recently, Schmidt’s love of libraries is written clearly across her face.

What is the role of a university library?

Our role is incredibly significant because we are here to assist learning – the very core of a university’s mission. In the library, users have access to what people call the scholar port or a knowledge gateway, and so has it always been – but now we just have such a wide variety of information that is available. We want to provide a space for them that is safe, secure, high-tech and also high-touch. Our motto is “information, innovation and service.”

Any advice to new students who may be a little overwhelmed by McGill’s extensive collection?

Learning from the minds of others is an inspiring experience. Take your time, smile and get to know your library.

For every one hour students spend in class, they probably spend three or four hours in the library. In order to save their valuable time, we really encourage students to take a library tour and one of the classes we offer. Sure it is fine to start with Wikipedia, but students will probably need rather more than that to distinguish their assignment from the others as well as to extend their own journey of knowledge. We can provide students with quality information that has been assessed as well as methods to find that information that supports the whole process of academic integrity and learning.

For example, we provide a variety of subject guides for almost every subject from anthropology to zoology. We direct students toward the resources that are available including some of the valuable Internet sites that have been assessed by our librarians.

What are some of the recent changes you’ve made to the physical spaces?

The new Cybertech space is probably the outstanding one. It is a wonderful learning space that is conducive to study and research.

We’ve also refurbished the Education library, the Schulich Library, and we’ve done some work on the Management Library. We’re seeking funding for a combined project that is very exciting – a combine live trading centre and business information centre working with the Desautels Faculty of Management and the Dean, Peter Todd.

We did the Macdonald Library a few years ago. The physical facilities are very important to us. We do surveys of students and faculty about our services and overwhelmingly that is one of the issues.

Is it safe to say that, as primary users, students have some say in what gets done?

We work very closely with students and we see it as a true partnership. We refurbished our foyers over the summer here in the Humanities and Social Sciences Library – and the SSMU provided us with the funds to do that. They are wonderful supporters. We really try to listen to what students want by meeting regularly with student groups and then providing them with the services they need.

Any other upgrades?

We’ve expanded our online service so students and faculty can contact an online librarian who can provide them with immediate assistance in finding the proper resources or information. We understand that students are very busy and most of them don’t come to McGill to get a degree in librarianship. We’re there to help.

We also just bought an automated robotic scanner which is part of our digitization strategy. We have a wonderful rare books collection. The tragedy is that many of them are not catalogued and are not available. We’ve been trying to catch up on cataloguing them online and now we’ve begun digitizing their content and making them available on the web. This is vitally important because much of this material isn’t available anywhere else. As well, we continue to buy electronic journals and we’re always expanding our electronic content.

Digitizing books and electronic content – are books going the way of the dodo?

[Laughing] The bookless library is as real as the paperless office – it just isn’t going to happen any time soon. As you can see with Amazon, there is a ready market for books. It’s just that we use books differently now. Here at McGill, we have more than 1.2 million e-books.

We haven’t seen much reduction in loans of books, so people are still reading. In fact, there is evidence that many researchers are reading twice as much as they did 10 years ago because information is easy to find.

Online or the printed page – what is your preference?

For relaxation I read print; but for journals and the like, I’ll go online.

With a simple stroke of a key, people now have access to an seemingly unlimited data. What is the biggest challenge in the face of this information explosion?

We’ve got blogs, we’ve got wikis, we’ve got social networking tools like Facebook – everyone has become a knowledge producer as well as a knowledge consumer. One challenge is accommodating the vast amount of information being produced, harnessing it and really putting effective search strategies in place so people can find it and to grow their knowledge even more.

Also, we need more quality control. What quality mechanisms can we implement to ensure people are being directed to valid sources written by real authorities on a given subject? Part of the challenge is that many of the scholarly societies have handed over the publication and the dissemination of information to commercial publishers who, in turn, are profiting from it and the academic community is losing out. In the academic setting, gaining control and getting some quality input is crucial.

What attracted you to this field?

You join a profession for one reason but you probably stay for others. I suppose I joined because I wanted to work with people in a learning environment but I stayed because I see the difference information makes in people’s lives.

Working with bright young students and scholars is one of the most exciting things you can do. Each year, you get another fresh group – and here at McGill we get the best, really wonderful young people.

Of McGill’s 13 libraries, which one is your favorite?

Actually I have two favorites – Birks and the Cybertech. They really are night and day, aren’t they? Birks gives you that beautiful, old-fashioned cathedral library experience while the Cybertech, which we modeled a bit on the Apple shops, is so modern and user-friendly.

And worldwide? Which libraries stand out?

Certainly the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec – it is just a stunning building and wonderful library. Of course, the Library of Congress is one of the world’s great libraries. I also love the young people’s library in Singapore’s Nike building.

The Parliamentary library in Ottawa is fantastic, as well. They did a huge refurbishment recently and it was just beautifully done. Timber shelving, a domed ceiling, a fine statue of Queen Victoria and a lot of work was done underground to build appropriate storage for the collection.

My sentimental favourite, however is the Ipswitch campus library of the University of Queensland. Probably no one has ever heard of Ipswitch but it is the town in which I was born. It is very hot there and the library was built with a stream running right through the building, complete with fish and plants. It is an example of beautiful design combined with a very efficient use of space.

Janine Schmidt’s first job

Fittingly, I put myself through university by shelving books in a library. But prior to that, I worked in a department store where I sold ladies clothes. I guess I was 16 or 17. One day I sold an outfit to the friend of my aunt. When my aunt saw her, she said it didn’t look quite right – I had sold it to her back-to-front [Laughing]. It’s funny because when she tried it on I had thought to myself “Well, that’s a little suggestive, a little brave, isn’t it?”