A Portrait of a Librarian

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.

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