by Barbara Black
Let's play word association. Take the word library. What's next? Books, of course. Wrong, says William Curran. The next word is access.
Concordia's new Director of Libraries, like professional librarians everywhere, wants to drag us away from a crippling stereotype. "It used to be that a library could legitimately aim at amassing the world's knowledge in a single institution," he said, from his office at the back of the R.H. Webster Library's second floor. "No more. There's just too much."
There's certainly too much knowledge for Concordia's modest capacity. The Webster's three floors of the 10-storey J.W. McConnell Building, built in 1992, are already woefully inadequate, Curran said. Now packed into the second, third and fourth floors, with its own elevators and staircases for security reasons, the library needs the fifth floor.
Fortunately, the fifth floor was reinforced to bear a library's weight. Unfortunately, several academic departments are quite comfortable there. It doesn't help Curran's argument for more space that the library still looks airy and light, with broad, spacious corridors ringing the vaulting atrium. However, he loves the design. "You really need the atrium. The library is full of light, bright corners."
There are other bright spots for Curran. A somewhat reluctant candidate for the director's job, he had spent nine pleasant years running the library at Bishop's University. His wife, a geriatric nurse, had a good job, and they had put a lot of work into their house.
However, as he went through the interview process, he became more and more enthusiastic about the challenge presented by Concordia. After finishing the year at Bishop's ("I felt I owed them that"), the couple traded their Eastern Townships house for a downtown Montreal apartment.
He's not sorry. "I'm impressed by the quality of the academic programs at Concordia," he said. "There's a lot to be proud of. This is an impressive library because of its equipment, such as the virtual library classroom at the Vanier Library [at Loyola]. And the staff are competent, hard-working and dedicated. You couldn't ask for better people."
A word about the stress of being on the front lines in a library: "It's a hard place to work. You're working with faculty a lot, and there's that hierarchy. There is a great deal of pressure, at times, to provide information quickly and accurately. Occasionally, users can be abusive."
Staff are the linchpin of the complex service component of the modern library. They have become quasi-psychologists, constantly trying to train people who wish they could just go and fetch the darn book. Because the Internet is a wide world of often bogus information, library staff can give the post-secondary students training in how to recognize the authoritative voice and the accurate data that make for genuine scholarship.
"It's a new definition of literacy," Curran said. "We want our users to be able to manage information for the rest of their lives."
The recent frightening plunge of the dollar will be echoed in university libraries across Canada for years to come, Curran said. Roughly 85 per cent of our acquisitions -- books and journals, films and videos -- are paid for in expensive U.S. dollars, and the biggest squeeze is on science journals, which are often essential for courses. There are tough choices to make, and not everyone will be happy with the results.
However, the financial squeeze is pushing inter-university co-operation, which Curran says is already excellent among Montreal's four institutions, thanks to CREPUQ, the network of Quebec rectors. There will be great ingenuity in the use of technology, also well advanced in Concordia's constantly regenerating library computer systems.
The rest is up to us, students, faculty, staff and friends of the university, who must start thinking about "the collection" not only as beautiful art books, classic novels and back copies of journals, but including such upstarts as a newspaper subscription, a Web browser and a video.