Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The technology has changed, but the library remains a refuge

Paul Whitney checks out a volume about Jimi Hendrix. He is retiring as Vancouver's city librarian at the end of the year. Jeff Vinnick photograph for The Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 2, 2010


Paul Whitney, whose title in Vancouver for the past seven years has been city librarian, is retiring. He is 62. In his working career, library technologies have gone from the Flintstones to the Jetsons.

When he began, patrons searched titles by riffling through a card catalogue.

Librarians prepared small cards with handwritten and, later, typewritten information about each volume in the collection. These were arranged alphabetically and placed in long, narrow, pullout drawers.

(Stay with me, kids, we’ll get to the flashy online stuff soon enough.)

It was a painstaking process, which had been little improved since first developed for use in the eighteenth-century at the Bibliotheque du Roi (later the Bibliotheque National) in Paris. Trinity College, Dublin, adopted the French method, and by 1845 the library at the University of Rochester in New York relied on a card system. (Reference: “The Card Catalogue,” by William Charles Berwick Sayers. Accessed via Google Books.)

Card catalogues were the memory of the library when Mr. Whitney began working for a branch of the Burnaby public library in the mid-1970s.

Then, one day, computers changed everything.

“That was a revolution,” he said. “You went from dealing with only what you had in your local branch and having to pick up the phone if you wanted to find out what was on the shelf at another location, to immediately having this full view of your own system.”

Computers checked books in and checked books out. The card catalogue became a paper dodo.

Miss it?

No way.

“Filing and checking filing was one of the more tedious library jobs.”

Mr. Whitney recently announced his decision to retire at the end of the year, an announcement that coincidentally came about the same time as the launch of the library’s latest innovation.

BC Books Online, a digital collection of published books, is now available for patrons of several public and academic libraries.

A consortium of publishers and library organizations got together three years ago. The result is a diverse collection of 650 non-fiction titles about British Columbia, from “A Chosen Path: From Moccasin Flats to Parliament Hill” (a memoir by Frank Oberle) to “Zamboni Rodeo” (a book about Canadians skating for a Texas hockey team).

The books can be accessed online from home, work, or school. They are searchable, so one can find all references to, say, “Moccasin Flats.” Users can also copy, bookmark, cut and paste, and print a limited amount of the content.

It’s as if the personal libraries of every patron grew by 650 volumes, only you don’t need to get more Ikea bookshelves.

“People can get in touch with their province, the history of their province, the nature of their province, and its geography,” Mr. Whitney said. “We get swamped by content from the United States. As e-books take off, you become painfully aware of how little Canadian content is available.”

The consortium, which includes 17 publishers, hopes to arrange funding to ensure the collection is available in perpetuity to all libraries in the province by 2012.

It is the latest of many surprising innovations being introduced by librarians, who are making a rapid transition from dead-tree products to cyber wonders.

(Those seeking an entertaining, informative and surprisingly funny look at the new world of librarians should check out Marilyn Johnson’s “This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All.” The Vancouver library system has 13 copies, while Victoria has five, as does Surrey. The Okanagan Regional Library has four. So does Burnaby. Of course, you can always purchase a copy, making happy a retailer, a publisher and a deserving author.)

Mr. Whitney was born in Dublin in 1948, moving to Canada at age nine as his family sought greater economic opportunities. They settled in the Ontario village of Palgrave, northwest of Toronto, as his father advanced his career in the federal civil service.

(Palgrave was settled by Irish immigrants and was originally known as Buck’s Town after a local tavern keeper. Postal authorities named the settlement after an English critic two years after Confederation. Thanks and a tip o’ the hat to the Caledon Public Library.)

The village lacked a library in those days, but that did not limit the boy’s curiosity.

“I was always a voracious reader and there were always books in the house,” he said.

His grandmother presented him with a volume of “The Wind in the Willows,” a “treasured book” that remains in his personal library. He had an appetite for the Victorian adventures of G.A. Henty, as well as for Dickens. By the time he attended high school at Orangeville, he was ambitious enough to tackle E.M. Forster.

As a librarian, he has enjoyed the ability to influence a collection. While working at the McGill Branch of the Burnaby library, he ensured a full selection of the works of celebrated sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick were available. Many years later, a guest at a dinner party described coming across the novels, which he described as “transformative.” Nothing can make a librarian happier (other than returning a book in timely fashion and in pristine condition).

Mr. Whitney does not think the library will disappear anytime soon. As beneficial as is the virtual library, the physical library remains a gathering place for students, a refuge for “the most marginalized in our community,” and a haven for people like himself, a “print-on-paper kind of guy.”

The young come to the library in droves. The top three circulating books in the Vancouver system last year were volumes in the Twilight Series by young-adult author Stephenie Meyer.

So, there’s hope the future will include readers, at least “if it’s about cute vampires.”

No comments: