A Portrait of a Librarian

March 29, 2007

One of the strongest voices against the current government’s plans for the Legislative Library is that of Joan Barton, former Director of the library for over 30 years. Ms. Barton speaks with an authority that few people concerned with this issue possess and a frankness that current Library employees are not permitted to employ. Victoria columnists Jim and Nic Hume have written a short biography of this outspoken and admirable public servant:

Protecting our books, our history

Jim and Nic Hume
Times Colonist 

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Joan Barton
CREDIT: Times Colonist file
Retired legislature librarian Joan Barton: “It’s pretty obvious the politicians covet the historic spot for their own comforts.”

It is the calm in the eye of the storm. A few metres away hot winds of rhetoric may blow and angry shouts echo in the great debating chamber of the B.C. legislature. Sometimes political wrath has spilled beyond the chamber with physical altercations in the Speaker’s corridor.

But always, just beyond the tumult and the shouting, the legislative library offered the calm of a monastery’s cloisters. Under its own domed ceiling, overlooked by gargoyles designed to ward off evil spirits, the keepers of British Columbia’s political history and heritage ply their trade in close to silence.

Their place of work is where it is by statute that states: “The [legislative] library must be kept conveniently near the legislative chamber.”

It is a statute Premier Gordon Campbell appears prepared to ignore as he — via Speaker Bill Barisoff, who has jurisdiction over the library — plans to “make space” for more politicians and create a new area for fancy receptions and celebrations. It is a proposal that moves former legislative library director Joan Barton to uncharacteristic anger.

Born in Browns Town, Jamaica, on June 16, 1941, to Mervyn and Hyacinth Wright, Barton grew up with lively siblings, brother Anthony and sister Patricia. Her father was in charge of gasoline rationing during the Second World War. After the war, he became the government’s chief inspector of produce. Her brother and mother, now 92, still live in Jamaica, as do several aunts and uncles.

Barton’s early education was in the Jamaican private school system and at University College of the West Indies. She left the university college with a diploma in education and joined the teaching staff at Jamaica College. While at West Indies she met and later married a medical student who, on graduation, found a position in Vancouver where Barton joined the staff of the Greater Vancouver Library as children’s librarian. The marriage ended in divorce as she took the first steps on a long road that led to the directorship of the legislative library, a position she held for many years until retirement a few years ago.

Along the way, she added a bachelor’s of arts from the University of London, a master of public administration from the University of Victoria, a master’s of library science from the University of B.C. and a certificate for teaching English as a second language from Camosun College. In 1993 and 1996, Barton was the recipient of the award of merit from the Institute of Public Administration of Canada, in 2001 she received a citation from the Certified General Accountants of B.C. and in 2002 she was honoured with the Queen Elizabeth Royal Jubilee Medal for outstanding public service.

As befits a woman who has spent her working life in the muted world of libraries, Barton is soft-spoken, with a whisper of the Caribbean in her phrases — until you mention the Campbell plan to pack rare books and documents in boxes and store the documents in a warehouse in Saanich and the books in a makeshift library that is less than “conveniently near the legislative chamber.”

Then dark eyes flash and her voice takes on a hard edge as she challenges government thinking. She doesn’t trust promises easily made but without written guarantees.

“They say the library and records collection will be displaced only temporarily for a couple of years while earthquake protection work is carried out,” Barton says. “But if you ask for a guaranteed date for a return, you won’t get a response. It’s pretty obvious the politicians covet the historic spot for their own comforts. Once they get the library out I have the feeling it won’t be coming back. You have to wonder what will be next when they need more space. The provincial archives, maybe?”

The legislative library has been the carefully catalogued depository of all things political, provincially and federally since 1863 — eight years before Vancouver Island became part of British Columbia. Joan says the government suggestion that the vast reservoir of accrued knowledge is available on the Internet is ridiculous. And she shudders at the thought of reports and reference works being stuffed in boxes and warehoused for years.

“Maybe,” she adds with a twinkle in her eye, knowing she’s talking to a life member, “they could find some extra room by evicting the press gallery.”

(The press gallery is located on the third floor of the main legislature with private access from the working gallery to the legislative chamber. Like the library, it is under the jurisdiction of the Speaker’s office. It was arbitrarily “evicted” by Speaker’s orders from its traditional place on the Speaker’s corridor in 1975 and kicked upstairs one floor to make office space available for legislative clerks.)

The righteous indignation of this 65-year-old, now retired but still a fierce protector of her old books and records, softens when she talks of other work, past and present — of Silver Threads, the Swan Lake-

Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary, Saanich advisory planning commission, the Institute of Public Administration and half a dozen other organizations ranging from being a lay member on the board of governors for the Certified General Accountants of B.C. to president of the Association of Parliamentary Librarians in Canada.

Some of those positions are in the past but her community activity calendar remains, well, active. Her trim condo in the high Quadra, which survived the leaky condo era at enormous personal expense, is as orderly as her libraries always were and as bright as a Caribbean summer day. I ask her what it cost to fix the leaks. “Let’s just say I bought the condo twice and haven’t — yet — received a penny in compensation.”

Several times a week she works out at Cedar Hill Recreation Centre and cheerfully admits becoming a late addict to golf. She says one day she picked up a leaflet advertising golf lessons. “I phoned the pro and he said come over and give it a try. So I did — and I’m addicted.”

We leave with the impression that the next time Joan tees off, the golf ball will have Campbell or Barisoff scratched on it — and the drive could make the Guinness World Records.


Legislative Library the Brains of Our Democracay

March 29, 2007

Stephen Hume lambastes the government for it’s underhanded library “land grab” in the Vancouver Sun:

Conspiring politicians and the land grab at the legislature
Stephen Hume
Vancouver Sun

Friday, March 23, 2007

Philistinism — actually, the street term “creeping meatballism” sounds better — spreads through British Columbia’s political class like some zombie virus in a B-grade movie.

Consider plans to abruptly close the 144-year-old legislature library for up to two years and warehouse its irreplaceable collections.

Now, a case for moving the library can be made — if it goes into a new building with the provincial archive and creates a leading-edge research facility for both politicians and public in the 21st century.

But what’s underway is diminishment, not enhancement. The legislative chamber is the heart of democracy, the library its brain. These collections are B.C.’s memory. Making it less accessible invites political Alzheimer’s disease.

This sorry process began when the provincial archive was rolled into the Royal B.C. Museum and saddled with cost-recovery demands that resulted in fee schedules that discourage public use.

Want a copy of a historic map? The fee is $35 to $75. Want a simple photocopy? Forty cents a page, twice what Vancouver Public Library charges, four times the fee at UBC’s library. Want to review some cabinet minister’s briefing notes or some society’s annual report? That might cost $50 an hour.

And don’t expect research help –unless you can afford a day off work. Cost constraints mean archivists are there only four days a week between 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

Recently, Premier Gordon Campbell raised the importance to literacy of early reading. He pontificated as elementary school librarians became an endangered species. The Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association reported in 2005 that 96 per cent of public elementary schools didn’t meet the recommended student-to-librarian ratio. More than 50 per cent operated with fewer than half the recommended ratio.

Meanwhile, Mr. Literacy has flitted to a new enthusiasm. Now he’s Mr. Green. Hybrid cars are in and the library is out, the specialized staff is to be cut by half and collections boxed up and shipped out. Documents will supposedly be available “within 24 hours.” Note the wording. A working day is eight hours. Does that mean round-the-clock service from half the staff? I doubt it. Bet on “24 hours” meaning within three working days. That will be a joy on deadline.

Remember the sizzle about cost overruns on the Coquihalla Highway? Those stories sprang from engineering reports in the legislature library. Soon we’ll again be debating hydro development at Site C on the Peace River.

Where will those engineering reports be — buried in some warehouse? How convenient for any government that might find them embarrassing. How inconvenient for a public that wants the facts behind policy.

As Miro Cernetig’s story noted Saturday in The Sun, it appears the magpies who roost periodically in the legislature covet the library’s real estate. Word wafts out from under the dome that the premier’s office lusts after space now occupied by the library, while the NDP longs for new offices in the west wing where the premier’s suite resides.

Judging from NDP house leader Mike Farnworth’s assurances that the library’s “core collection” — translation, the collection will soon become two or more collections spread over several locations — will stay “near” the legislature, the Opposition was initially on-side, as it was at the beginning of that sleazy deal with the government to quietly hike MLAs’ pay.

Frankly, subsequent backpedalling notwithstanding, the NDP faithful should tell their leader to get out of bed with the Liberals. Political incest always breeds bad policy, as this library plan demonstrates.

Why the pressing need for office space, anyway? Most MLAs are seldom at the legislature. They’ve only averaged 63 sitting days a year since 1996. Last year, it dwindled to 46 days.

Or is this really about spacious new offices for “Kublai” Campbell and Carol “I’m All Right, Jack” James?

I suspect Olympic vanity — politicians who want a stately pleasure dome and marble-clad reception area where they can swan about on your tab impressing international VIPs with their witty bon mots.

Your average B.C. government librarian — oops, warehouse worker — pulls down $222 a day. Calculating from 46 sitting days, your basic backbencher earned $1,654.35 for each day in the legislature.

For that kind of pay, MLAs should happily hot bunk in a broom closet.

via CUPE loc. 391

Is a Library Without Books Still a Library?

March 28, 2007

In anticipation of April Fool’s Day the University of Michigan student newspaper has lampooned the current trend towards replacing library books and journals with electronic media:

Mardigian Library to remove all books; students won’t notice

Asinusim Inlitteratus
Issue date: 3/27/07 Section: April Fools’

Students visiting UM-D’s newly-renovated Mardigian Library will find plenty of room to study and hang out, now that the books are gone.

Library administrators undertook the renovations in response to a Student Government petition, removing all books and shelving and installing a state-of-the-art sound system and night club-style lighting. According to the SG petition, the books and shelves were “taking up a lot of unnecessary space that might be better utilized by students who want to see their tuition used to serve their needs.”

He added that library administrators had made the changes with the best interests of students in mind. “We took a good hard look at how best to meet students’ needs. We figured no one was using the books, so why not get rid of them? I mean, come on, we all know that students really come here to surf the Internet and make out on the second floor. And with these new innovations, they’ll be able to do so much more efficiently.”

Although the response to the changes has been mostly positive, Richards explained that there was some initial hesitance on the part of some faculty members. “Yeah, a couple of the professors weren’t down, they wanted to make waves. It was cool, though. I just had to let them know what’s up,” said the former Navy Seal, cracking his knuckles menacingly.

If only the Provincial Government was joking as it suggests that the Legislative Library can continue to function with half the staff and most of its collection in a warehouse half an hour outside of the city. Who do they think they’re kidding?

“Barbarians threaten legislative library”

March 24, 2007

Letter to the editor of the Vancouver Sun:

Barbarians threaten legislative library

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Re: Historic legislative library faces uncertain fate, Westcoast News, March 17

The legislative library is an architectural treasure. Specifically designed to house a library, this is more than a building, it is grand, illustrious and noble, lifting soul and spirit. I never fail to go there when visiting Victoria.

And now it is to be converted to offices. Is someone mad? It is akin to turning Christ Church Cathedral into shops or Stanley Park into a condo strip. Is nothing sacred? Have we no regard for history, culture, beauty? Barbarians are in the garden city.

Nick Loenen

B.C. is about to lose a historic treasure that is also a gold mine of information. As a former member of the B.C. press gallery, I found the legislature library to be an invaluable resource when researching articles for the Victoria Times Colonist and later when reporting for television under tight deadlines.

The library’s central location is crucial since reporters often have very little time to spare, much like MLAs preparing for committee work, legislative debates and question period. It’s important to have immediate access to materials.

In addition, I believe the library should be maintained in its prominent location in the heart of the legislature for symbolic reasons. The B.C. government should be applauded for its recent efforts promoting literacy. But if we allow the library to be shut down or shunted aside to an ancillary building, it sends a signal that we as a province do not hold libraries in high regard.

Of course, a library is only as good as its staff. At the B.C. legislature library, the level of service is exemplary. The librarians were always most helpful, ensuring I got my facts straight. I hate to think what their loss will do to the quality of research by reporters, MLAs and legislative staff.

Susan Danard

What happens when a government values its library

March 23, 2007

Restored Library of Parliament, Ottawa.

The Government of Canada recently spent $136 million restoring and upgrading our national parliamentary library. (See a video of the entire process here.) Like B.C.’s Legislative Library, the Library of Parliament is located in its own wing of the parliament buildings and boasts spectacular architecture. Unlike B.C.’s Legislative Library, the Library of Parliament is valued by its caretakers for its role in providing vital information to lawmakers and for its beauty and heritage value.

Not only was the Library of Parliament restored architecturally, it was upgraded to modern archival standards to ensure that its contents would be preserved for future generations. Workers cut through the bedrock to expand the library’s basements and new systems were installed to provide a climate-controlled environment for the collection. The result is a more secure, more efficient library that continues to be the jewel of Parliament Hill.

There is no reason why B.C. shouldn’t attempt a similar project. Our Legislative Library was built during a boom time. We are experiencing another such boom, with large budget surpluses every year and more on the horizon. This is the time to talk about expanding the library, not downsizing it.

B.C. Library Association responds

March 23, 2007

Inba Kehoe, President of the B.C. Library Association, has sent a formal letter to Premier Campbell expressing her association’s concerns about the future of the Legislative Library.

March 21, 2007 

Dear Mr. Premier,

The British Columbia Library Association (BCLA) would like to take this opportunity to address the recent announcement concerning the relocation and service reduction at the Legislative Library of British Columbia.

The situating of the Legislative Library within the Legislature is symbolic of the importance of knowledge and learning to the founders of our province.  These values continue to be important to our present government and citizens.  As international attention to our Province grows, it is important that the world knows of our collective commitment to literacy and the quest for knowledge.

As I’m sure you would agree, in our democratic society it is the responsibility of government to protect the public record and ensure that it is freely accessible to all citizens.  The BC Legislative Library preserves official publications of the province and makes these available for the use of current legislators, their staff and for those who will succeed them.

We recommend that you offer clear and continued assurances that:

• The collections of the Legislative Library will remain fully intact and readily accessible

• Services which benefit everyone in the province, including the collecting, cataloguing, and indexing of government information in all forms, will continue without interruption

• The Legislative Library will be restored to its original prominence once the seismic upgrades have been completed.

The British Columbia Library Association requests you demonstrate your support for the services provided by the Legislative Library implementing our recommendations when you announce your plan for the future of the library known affectionately throughout the province as “the Leg”. 

Respectfully yours,

Inba Kehoe
President, British Columbia Library Association

via LibTech Life

More coverage by bloggers

March 23, 2007

Librarian Activist: “MLAs need access to all the information that a parliamentary library provides, and the assumption that all relevant information is available online is made by those who don’t work in libraries or use them enough. Such assumptions undermine what we vote for: representatives who we count on to inform themselves adequately and then make decisions on our behalf.”

Paying Attention: “There’s something nastily symbolic about the politicans’ plan to shut down the magnificent legislative library so they could have better offices.”

Ballad in Plain E, CLA Montreal, and Access to Government Information also raise the alarm in their corners of the blogosphere.

Good work, people!