Library director passes the torch 

By Barbara Black

William Curran can leave his post as Director of Libraries with the sense of a job well done.

He has been director of an academic library for 19 years — nine at Bishop’s University and 10 here — and he can remember a time when his job would not have been a desirable one. The library was in an old building on Stanley St., and it was clearly inadequate. That all changed in 1992, when the J.W. McConnell Building was built and its library function was emphasized.

“That sent a signal to the rest of Canada that Concordia was serious about improving its library,” Curran said in an interview. Over those 15 years, “Concordia has not only moved with the times, but it has actually been at the forefront of technological development in some areas.”

Access to information has become almost overwhelming. “The Google generation who are now in university were born after 1980. They go to the keyboard first to find what they need.”

As a result, information literacy is a top priority. Hands-on instruction helps students separate the wheat from the chaff, and learn how to use material legally and ethically.

“That’s where the pedagogical role of the library comes in,” Curran explained. “It’s why we need to be part of the academic unit, and involved in decisions in academic planning. Ideally, information literacy should be part of a required course. It’s a module in a required course in the John Molson School of Business, and very successful.”

Concordia was a pioneer in keeping the library open continuously around exam time, but even that’s not enough. “I’d love to be able to say the library is open 24 hours a day throughout the term, and I’m pushing for that.”

Circulation has been automated and 97 per cent of the renewals are done remotely. In that sense, the library is already available 24/7. The inter-library loan service is almost entirely electronic now, and requests can be generated pretty much all over North America.

Concordia was also among the first university libraries, seven years ago, to initiate the loan of laptops. Demand has levelled off — more students are coming in with their own laptops now — but they will always be useful for students working in groups.

“The biggest challenge for my successor will be space,” Curran said candidly. Eighty per cent of our students made Concordia their first choice, but he wants us to make sure they stay and do well.

“The library used to be halls and a couple of tables, but take a walk through Café Depot, the Second Cup — those students are all working. The library could run a café for profit in the library and do fine, and many of the academic libraries at other universities are doing it.”

Curran said he has been able to respond decisively to the technological challenge because of “the best administrative team that I could dream of: Irene Sendek, a 41-year veteran, Lillian Rubinlicht, who recently retired after 35 years, and Jean-Marc Edwards, who joined the staff eight years ago from Ottawa, plus Alex Konyari, Jocelyn Godolphin and David Thirlwall. They have moved this library by leaps and strides.”

He also paid tribute to the active encouragement of former provost Jack Lightstone and former president Fred Lowy.

A consortium of academic libraries under the provincial and federal bodies has enabled the university to purchase expensive software and subscriptions to online journals. “This support opens the doors to access to journals we wouldn’t be able to access in any other way.”

Feedback suggests that the library has reasonably good collections for undergrads, but graduate students don’t fare as well, and the faculty worse still.
“This is no surprise, because the research collection has to be built,” Curran said. “It’s not like buying a fleet of tractors. Most of the scholars who come here understand that it’s a work in progress. But if one is serious about building the scholarly research component, the library acquisition budget has to reflect that.”

As the patterns of usage change, however, all libraries are asking the same question: If I put journals on the shelves, am I taking away space for the library user?

“We need to acknowledge that if we’re going to have 40,000 registered students, we have to think about seating space. There are space standards for academic libraries, and we’re way below them.

“The library is a learning laboratory, not just a warehouse of old books. We’re going to continue to have shelves, but we have to give people room to consult them.”

Curran will probably stay in his post until his successor, to be called the University Librarian, is chosen; three candidates were presented at open meetings Nov. 19-21. As for the next stage of his professional life, he says he has lots of options, including teaching, but no firm plans.


Concordia University