Characterizing a Collection: An Analysis of the McGill Library System

By Caitlin Bailey

Online library catalogues are not often regarded as sources for historical analysis. While they are designed and used for resource location, their consideration as a primary source document is infrequent. Extending the work of her doctoral thesis “ The Imprint of The Scholar: An Analysis of the Printed Books of McGill’s Raymond Klibansky Collection”, Dr. Jillian Tomm is now engaged in postdoctoral work, examining the character of the McGill Library’s historical collections. The primary source for her analysis? The library catalogue.

Dr. Tomm’s methodology builds on the mining of the library catalogue to build sets for data analysis. Using the results along with pre-existing knowledge of individual collections, she hopes to contribute to a better understanding of the McGill collections as a whole within the larger context of intellectual history and their relationships with each other. The project also aims to support the development of collections-level searching to help users identify individual special collections (as opposed to individual items) of likely value to their research based on their strengths, such as materials published in a particular country or time period or those rich in illustrated books.

J.Tomm, The Imprint of the Scholar. 2012.

For the moment, Dr. Tomm will be considering the 18th century as her primary area of interest, however she intends to expand to earlier periods. Additionally, Dr. Tomm notes that the project is only considering printed materials, however this may also serve as an expansion point in the future. The current timeline for the project is two years; to further her work after this period, Dr. Tomm has committed to documenting her project as completely as possible to facilitate further building on her work.

How Do I Work in Rare Books? A Career Primer

By Caitlin Bailey

For you Name of the Rose lovers out there, remember Eco’s descriptions of the abbey library and all its mysterious contents? I certainly do; in some way it was responsible for my desire to work as a Special Collections librarian.  However, there is a big difference between “wanting and doing” as they say, and pinning down just how to do it has proved problematic. So, to help both myself and others who may be considering the academic and Special Collection stream (either librarians or archivists) I decided to contact the Rare Books department here at McGill and ask, who else? A librarian…

Ann Marie Holland, the Liaison Librarian for the William Colgate History of Printing Collection, the Lande Canadiana Collection and various French Enlightenment collections (among others), kindly agreed to meet me on the fourth floor and to let me ask her all of the annoying unanswered questions that had been plaguing my career path for the last year. During the course of our interview, Ms. Holland revealed herself to be not only charming, but also passionately interested in her field and committed to her work. As she told me the rare books field is not an easily entered career, but once there most people don’t think of leaving.

'The press.' Photograph by C. Bailey.

Ms. Holland received her Bachelor of Arts in French Language and Literature from McMaster University and, after travelling in France for some time, decided to begin the MLIS program here at McGill. She holds a further Master of Arts in French Literature in addition to her MLIS. When asked to speak to the necessity of a second higher-level degree in a relevant subject area, she noted that in the world of academic librarianship it is critical to a competitive CV, though it is possible to work without one.

Regarding the absolute necessity of further schooling, the Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Cultural Heritage wrote that 82% of job postings in the field  “preferred” a second specialized advanced degree; however, only 14.5% “preferred” a PhD and even fewer required it[1]. However, Ms. Holland noted that for those pursuing a high level position, such as Head or Assistant Head, a PhD might become more important.

When speaking of the research requirements of academic librarians, Ms. Holland was quick to confirm that tenured academic librarians are required to conduct some sort of interest-based research, which may be based on the physical collection that they administer or alternately how users relate to that collection or libraries in general. While the options for research are virtually limitless, it is still considered “part of the job”; Ms. Holland has published book reviews for Papers, the journal of the Bibliographical Society of Canada and has written several articles highlighting the collections at McGill.

Perhaps the most critical question for those of us looking for an entrance into what is acknowledged as an extremely tight field is “how do I start?”.  Ms. Holland pointed out that while your first academic job may not be in a special collection per se, some experience with rare materials is essential. In her own case, her entry came after working in the architectural collection (which included a small archival holding) at the Université de Montréal. Furthermore,  Ms. Holland noted that volunteering work is a good way to gain initial experience and may garner later contractual work.

As many of the positions in Special Collections are rarely advertised and often occur through word of mouth, it may be difficult to find a permanent position immediately. Ms. Holland originally arrived at McGill as a replacement librarian and later left to work for an antiquarian book dealer in Montréal, when the official funds for her position ran out. Those with experience in the commercial antiquarian book trade may find themselves with an even more competitive CV. Again, the prerequisites for the Fisher position state that experience in ‘’the trade’’ is also preferred.

When asked about the future of Special Collections, Ms. Holland replied emphatically that it is digital, something which even the notoriously closed Vatican Library is embracing in its joint project with the Bodelian Library at Oxford. Special collections are notoriously difficult to physically access; as such digitization provides a particularly neat solution, given that most rare materials are not held under copyright laws. Through the increased use of digital exhibition techniques, Ms. Holland explained that collections were becoming available to a completely new audience and furthermore that audience is extremely excited to have the opportunity to “see inside” these famous treasure troves.

Perhaps the message we seekers of Special Collections careers should take from Ms. Holland’s thoughts is that while the path may be difficult, good things await those who persevere. Like many library jobs, the key appears to be experience, patience and the ability to learn from every job you take. Then one day you too may be involved digitizing a 10 ft.-long set of life-sized architectural specifications (drawn by hand) by the early 20th century architect Percy Nobbs, as Ms. Holland is currently doing for a future exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada.

Sources Cited:

[1] Hansen, K. (2011). “Education, Training, and Recruitment of Special Collections Librarians: An Analysis of Job Advertisements.” RBM: The Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, & Cultural Heritage, (12)2, 110-132.

From the McGill Archives

By Jacob Siefring

Back from the Life Sciences Library, I’ve some knowledge nuggets with which to distract you from the grueling last two weeks of this semester’s group projects and final papers.

McGill’s Life Sciences Library, also known as the Osler Medical Library, is located on the third floor of the remarkably annular McIntyre Medical Building. The Medical Library was established in 1823, and it’s the oldest and first of the McGill University Libraries. The pictured building was completed in 1965.

I went in pursuit of a reference to a certain George Mines of McGill University that appears in “Inner Rhythms,” a chapter of Chaos: Making a New Science (James Gleick; 1987). Circuitously I was pointed in the direction of “Sudden Cardiac Death: A Problem in Topology” by Arthur T. Winfree, an article that appeared in Scientific American in 1983. Therein Winfree relates the following piece of esoterica:

On November 7,1914, George Ralph Mines was working in his laboratory in McGill’s School of Medicine. Because it was Saturday, there were few observers to notice Mines’s presence. A 28-year-old physiologist, Mines had been studying fibrillation, a radical disorganization of the heart’s pattern of contraction. He was a pioneer in his discipline.

“Mines had been trying to determine whether relatively small, brief electrical stimuli can cause fibrillation. For this work he had constructed a device to deliver electrical impulses to the heart with a magnitude and timing that could be precisely controlled. The device had been employed in preliminary work with animals. When Mines decided it was time to begin work with human beings, he chose the most readily available experimental subject: himself. At about six o’clock that evening a janitor, thinking it was unusually quiet in the laboratory, entered the room. Mines was lying under the laboratory bench surrounded by twisted electrical equipment. A broken mechanism was attached to his chest over the heart and a piece of apparatus nearby was still recording the faltering heartbeat. He died without recovering consciousness.” (Winfree, p. 144)

Fibrillation causes the deaths of several hundred thousand people annually in the U.S. alone, and — the defibrillator’s invention notwithstanding — its causes are still not well understood. Mines’s work on the heart was pioneering, because was “the first to demonstrate that fibrillation can develop after a relatively small electrical impulse if the impulse is applied to the heart at the right time.” (Normally, after an electrical impulse is applied to the heart, the cardiac rhythm is momentarily disturbed, but returns immediately to normal. Fibrillation — that violent and disorganized activity of the heart during which the heart may feel to the hand like a “wad of writhing worms” — does not occur in most instances of shock application.)

A.T. Winfree. When Time Breaks Down. Princeton UP, 1987. 42.

Apparently, the name given to that small but ever-critical interval during which an electrical stimulus will wreak utter havoc on the rhythmically synchronised functioning of cardiac cells — this critical time period is known as “the vulnerable phase.” For the sake of interdisciplinarity, I propose this term — “vulnerable phase” — as an apt descriptor of the time we’re now going through, the end of the semester. If you feel stressed, just think of George Ralph Mines, who died so unexpectedly “in the line of duty.” R.I.P., George Mines. Beware of electrical stimuli; long live research.

Advice from a Texan Yankee in McGill’s Library Court

Whoa! It’s the last piece of advice from Dr. Cook! Big thanks to Justin Soles for this great article! Make sure to read the rest of the series in the posts below. What do you guys think? Anyone surprised by any of these tips? Leave comments!

By Justin Soles  

5. Expect to Work Hard!

Dr. Cook credits her success both as a library administrator with 30 years of experience at Texas A&M, and as a researcher associated closely with the internationally-renowned LibQual evaluation system, to her work ethic: “There’s no success that didn’t come from hard work.” Dr. Cook stressed that landing a job in a library, archive or information center is just the first step in your career and that those of us who will go the farthest in the profession will also be the ones who work the hardest in making the most of their opportunity.

Dr. Cook pointed to her own experience advancing through the ranks of the Texas A&M library system as evidence. Even when she was faced with a job that wasn’t particularly interesting or challenging, she tried to learn as much about that particular field and/or department as possible. This information became invaluable later once she moved into management, since she had in-depth knowledge of what every library department did, how it worked and who in it did (or didn’t) work hard .

Although Dr. Cook feels that the future in librarianship is bright, she cautioned that you will inevitably face certain challenges and have disappointments in your career. When these happen, she suggested that you need to accept them and move on by keeping them in perspective: just as rain clouds are always followed by sunshine, the disappointments you’ll face in our career will be followed by professional successes that may take you places that you never expected to go!

Advice from a Texan Yankee in McGill’s Library Court

By Justin Soles

Guys, we’ve got 80% of Dr. Cook’s advice! That’s like an A- or something! Check in at the end of the week for the final instalment of the Advice from a Texan Yankee in McGill’s Library Court series.

4. Care About Your People

Although it’s somewhat clichéd, a library is more than a static collection of books: it is also a collection of people, including librarians, cataloging technicians, shelvers, webmasters, desk staff and possibly library volunteers. Although this group may sometimes act like a dysfunctional family, Dr. Cook pointed out that your people skills are just as (if not more) important to the smooth functioning of a library, archive or information center as your technical and managerial skills.

In terms of the ‘soft-skills’ worth developing, Dr. Cook suggested focusing on effectively listening to your staff and users. She also recommended getting out of your office to regularly meet your staff and users in their “homes” since neither of these groups will actively seek you out until a crisis has developed.

However, the most important soft-skill that Dr. Cook feels that librarians must have can be the most difficult to maintain: caring genuinely about your staff and showing them that you do care about them as people. As anyone who’s taken Information Agency Management (GLIS 620) learns, factors like union rules/collective agreements, arguments and grudges over promotions, budget/staff cuts, flextime benefits and holiday/vacation schedules can affect library staff and lead to a toxic work environment. Regardless of the day-to-day struggles and problems, Dr. Cook pointed out that at the end of the day “…you really do have to care about your people…you just can’t fake this stuff.”

Advice from a Texan Yankee in McGill’s Library Court

By Justin Soles

This piece of advice from McGill’s Trenholme Dean of Libraries, Dr. Colleen Cook, is the third of five. Be sure to check out what else Dr. Cook has to share with us fledgling professionals in posts below!

3. Be Prepared to Make Decisions

Dr. Cook reiterated what Prof. Bouthillier said during SIS orientation: regardless of where you work or what you end up doing, you will be expected to make decisions. Although this might sound scary, Dr. Cook provided the following advice regarding decision-making:

  • Not making a decision is the same as making a decision…and the worst-case scenario might be to leave things as they are.
  • If you make a decision and it turns out to be wrong, be prepared to admit that you were wrong and then make it right.
  • No decision is permanent; you can always undo a decision that you made.
  • Regardless of the magnitude of the decision, always strive to avoid “doing harm” to anyone, including your users, your staff and yourself!

Dr. Cook also provided some advice about developing your own decision-making style. In her case, she watched how leaders at Texas A&M made their decisions (both good and bad), and was also challenged by her peers when it came to her own decisions. As a result, Dr. Cook’s decision making style is inclusive: she’ll listen to as many views as possible so her decision will be based on what she has heard tempered against her experience. If it turns out that the decision was wrong, she’ll admit it and then try to undo it.

Although Dr. Cook had the benefit of working with and learning from some great leaders, her advice regarding decisions is best summed up as follows: “There’s no decision in a library that can’t be undone…except maybe the amount of steel in the walls. And even then, you can always add to the [building’s] load-bearing capacity.”

Advice from a Texan Yankee in McGill’s Library Court

By Justin Soles

This piece of advice from McGill’s Trenholme Dean of Libraries, Dr. Colleen Cook, is the second of five. Thank you to Justin Soles for sharing this wonderful information! Check out Dr. Cook’s first tip and then stay tuned for more this week!

2. “Learn to Add!”

Dr. Cook notes that financial management is one of the most critical functions within a library: it’s what maintains the collection and allows services to be offered by the library, archive or information center to its users. Yet, she feels that financial management, budgeting and negotiation skills don’t seem to be taught well (if at all) to aspiring librarians today.

Dr. Cook’s admonition above (yes, that’s a direct quotation) is meant to help you avoid “… getting bamboozled…” by salespeople and vendors in the library industry. Knowing your library or information center’s revenues and expenses will help you focus on what is important and also provide some perspective when it comes to assessing the relevant importance of different projects. As Dr. Cook says, “The number of zeros…matters. A $300 expense is different from a $3,000 expense, which is altogether different from a $30,000 or $300,000 expense.”

Although Dr. Cook’s advice was focused mainly on library expenses, she also touched on fundraising as a revenue source, which is especially important in a University library. She said that although fundraising was a tiring and something thankless job for library managers, it could also be very rewarding: “…when the opportunity is right, it’s a win-win situation. The library wins and the donor gets the feeling that they’ve donated to something bigger than themselves.”

Advice from a Texan Yankee in McGill’s Library Court

By Justin Soles

When you enter Dr. Colleen Cook’s office, you are struck by a sense of order. Not the hurried “I’ve-got-someone-outside-the-door-my-place-is-a-mess-and-I-need-to-cleanup” order, nor the anal-retentive order imposed by someone who ensures that their desk materials are separated by a maximum tolerance of 0.5mm. No, the unhurried order evident in Dr. Cook’s office is more subtle and belies her organized mind and her long experience in keeping things organized – which is exactly what you would expect from McGill’s newest Trenholme Dean of Libraries.

However, after talking to Dr. Cook for a few minutes, you might be surprised just how totally at home this transplanted Texan seems here in Montreal, especially considering the majority of her 30 years of experience were spent at one of her alma-maters, Texas A&M University. And the more you talk to her, the more you see that this familiarity is born from a deep wellspring of experience that we fledgling librarians, archivists and knowledge managers can all benefit from.

It was the exciting prospect of drawing on this experience that lead me to meet Dr. Cook to discuss her life and career, as well as to get some advice for those of us thinking about possible careers in our field. Dr. Cook was very generous in sharing with me some of her stories, experiences and thoughts, which I’ve distilled into the following five points. Although Dr. Cook cautioned me that her experience and advice was generally limited to academic libraries (and large university libraries, at that), there is something all of us can relate to and take away from Dr. Cook’s observations and experience.

1. Be Prepared to Move Around

Though Dr. Cook advised that “I would never recommend anyone follow my career path”, her first piece of advice was that you should be prepared to move around, both in terms of moving between different libraries/archives/information centers, as well as moving around within an organization. She explained that this type of experience allows you to see how things are done elsewhere so you can get ideas and see what works and what doesn’t in practice.

For example, Dr. Cook spent time early in her career working with library directors who had “…particularly liberal views on how to run libraries…” and wanted to experiment. Although not all of the experiments worked out, these experiences showed her what library management theories did and didn’t work when they were put into practice.

Similarly, Dr. Cook took advantage of opportunities to move laterally within the Texas A&M library system to learn the various parts of the organization and see how they worked together. Although this didn’t translate into a stable work situation, she credits this strategy with helping her learn most of the parts of the university’s library operations and preparing her to take the reins when she became Dean.

Dr. Cook has 4 more pieces of advice for fresh information professionals, so stay tuned! 

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