Beyond books: McGill’s libraries serve all
By Neale McDevitt
“It’s not just a sound bite, but I have the best job on campus,” said McGill’s new Trenholme Dean of Libraries Colleen Cook, earlier this week in an interview with the McGill Reporter. “Whether they are undergraduate students, graduate students or faculty – whether they are chemists or physicians or lawyers in training or undergraduate English majors or German majors – they are all ours. The Library serves them all.”
Having started on Jan. 4 (a tough time of year for a native of Texas to start a job in Montreal), Cook is nothing if not enthusiastic about her place of employment. “This is such a great institution and I just want to make sure that the library meets the needs of a university of this stature,” she said.
What have you been up to since your arrival here?
Mainly trying to get to know people, trying to understand what the major issues are, find out what the library does really well and the things we can improve upon.
What are some of those strengths?
One is the incredible student support of the library that is manifested in terms of dollars. The students have invested a lot in the development of the library, as has the Administration. Now it is up to us to make sure that the money is used in the best way possible.
Absolutely. Just by virtue of being in Canada – national licenses for electronic information in Canada allow research libraries to capitalize upon economies of scale so that every dollar that goes to electronic resources goes a lot farther than it would in the U.S.
On the collection side, the breadth and depth of our electronic holdings are great and the Rare and Special Collections here are superb.
What kind of impact has digitization had on the modern library?
The impact has been huge. Libraries are no longer tied to the physical world and so much of what we do is about convenience – getting users the information they need, when they need it, from wherever in the world they may be.
I read this wonderful report that used the term “lurking” to describe how librarians stay behind the scenes on the web to make everything transparent and easy for users.
We spend millions of dollars every year in licensed electronic resources. You can get to those resources if you are an authorized McGill member of the community from anywhere in the world at any time of the day.
Is this the death of the book?
No. Scholarly monographs will continue to exist but they will probably exist in electronic form, too. I do have a Kindle – I’m on my fourth Kindle because I break them a lot [laughing]. I’ve probably read 200 books on it because I find it very convenient – I like to read books in series and I can always get the next one right away.
At the same time, there are these physical objects called books that remain so important to us. Some of them are truly lovely objects. There is something very human about being able to hold a book and turn the pages and I don’t think that can be replaced. We’ve just added all these other [electronic and digital] dimensions.
With so much information online, has the importance of the library as a physical space been diminished?
Not at all. Physical spaces are really important to undergraduate students and they represent our biggest clientele.
Students need spaces that range from ‘ninja quiet’ to informal spaces where they can have a cup of coffee, meet in groups and relax a little bit.
They also need group study spaces where they can collaborate and do their work when they have team assignments and get lively and have a debate without disturbing other people.
So it’s all about study space?
Not entirely. There is also this very special thing about libraries that I came across in my studies. The library building is a symbol of the best part of the mind. It is similar to a cathedral or a mosque or a synagogue – you walk into one of these buildings and know that you’ve entered a place that deals with the sacred.
When I came across this in my research it surprised me because I thought in this digital age, this aspect was gone. I believed spaces would be very utilitarian and perhaps disappear altogether.
But that hasn’t happened?
On the contrary, the number of people coming into the library has exploded. It is because people really need these spaces. Even if they are doing their studies individually and they are really plugged in, they seem to have this need to be here with other people.
Do you have a favourite library?
Two, in fact. One is the Long Room in Trinity College Library in Dublin. It is a gorgeous medieval library with balconies and wonderful books.
The other is the Palafoxiana Library of Puebla in New Mexico. It has a similar architecture and ambiance to Trinity. But Peubla is also one of the sites of the earliest printings in North America so it carries an added weight.
What are some of the projects on tap for McGill libraries?
This summer we will be involved in a huge project with the McLennan-Redpath complex that will upgrade the heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system. Also, over the next two years the whole terrace will be renovated.
There are also renovations going on in the Life Sciences Library, the Law Library and we’re putting together a new audio room in the [Marvin Duchow] Music Library.
That takes care of infrastructure. What about content?
We know very well that, from a faculty member’s viewpoint, satisfaction in a library’s service comes down to the collection. If I said, “I have a dollar and I want to make a faculty member happy,” I would spend that dollar on the collection. And so, we’re constantly expanding. At the end of 2008, our holdings totaled 4.5 million volumes and we add between 60,000 – 100,000 volumes a year to the collection.