Garnett closes the book on 15 years at Western

By Paul Mayne
June 19, 2013

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GarnettPaul Mayne, Western News


With more than 25 years of professional experience as a librarian and library administrator in the public and private sector, it’s safe to say Joyce Garnett’s love of everything books goes back even further – to her high school days a student assistant at the public library in her hometown of Montreal.

As Western’s University Librarian for the past 15 years, Garnett has led the libraries through what can only be described as a period of extraordinary change. This has included the way in which physical collections and electronic information resources have grown and become more accessible, as well as the way the physical space of library facilities is utilized.

Western News reporter Paul Mayne sat down with Garnett, who retires at the end of this month, to talk about the changes she has seen at the university and her hopes for the future.

*   *   *

Western News: We might as well start off with a fastball. With the proliferation of social media tools, what is the future of the campus library?

Joyce Garnett: I’m always happy about the future. I like change; I like technology. I see a future enabled by technology, but the people will still be here (physical building) and that’s the important part.

What I see happening is more and more customization, and more opportunities for one-on-one, in-depth working with researchers and students, and putting a lot of self-serve options out there, which is a good thing.

People want that – until they need the help – which is why we are there. In the future, I’d like to think we’ll have a holographic librarian, you press a button and a holographic librarian will pop up and say, ‘May I help you?' The technology is there. You can have three-dimensional copying of objects, so why not a 3D librarian projection of some sort?

WN: So, we can expect to see the physical Weldon Library building there for years to come?

JG: The majority of people want to find stuff and find it quickly. But I’m not worried because libraries have always embraced technology. Libraries are becoming more and more a social place or communal space. Libraries are under exploited and under used in terms in contributing to the university’s strategic direction. One of the things I’ve read is that libraries are the ‘Third Place’ – the place, after home and work, where people feel comfortable, where they can congregate and create a sense of community.

WN: Do you think people really understand the important role libraries make to an academic institution?

JG: I think people do tend to take the libraries for granted, and part of that is we do what we do so well, and we do it so transparently, that people don’t realize what goes on behind the scenes. We’re just always there. Sometimes we should shake the cage a little.

While we have eight physical locations (six libraries, Map and Data Centre and Archives), the biggest ‘location’ we have is our web location. Our presence there, there are twice as many visitors (more than 6 million visits to the site), as opposed to the 3 million to the physical environment. But the physical environment is symbolic. It has that presence people really want – particularly the students and graduate students. It’s a place where they can feel they are in an academic environment and feel inspired. I’ve heard anecdotes about students who feel much more productive once they move into a physical library than they are in their dorm or at home.

In the future, what I’d like to see is having that same sense of community created in the virtual space. More and more, the library will be accessible from the palm of your hand, but there is something to be said about the physical environment; we are physical beings. Students, faculty and staff come to the physical place in order to access the digital space, but they’ll be sitting in the library and look across and send an email or text to someone at the desk “I need your help, please come and see me” because they don’t want to give up their space. I don’t see it disappearing.

WN: Be it at Western, or your early work at Laurentian and McGill universities, you have been through quite a period of change within the library system. Tell me about your time here at Western and the change you led.

JG: I think when you’re living it you don’t realize, but when I reflect back 15 years ago, in 1998, it was a very physical environment. While most of the material we had was physical, our electronic was on CD-ROM discs in jukeboxes and locally maintained; quite vulnerable actually.

We were a text-based environment, but moved to a web-based graphical environment, all the while there was some resistance from people who thought this was a major change. But now we have everything – anytime, anywhere. We still have the physical books, but well over 80 per cent of the monies we spend now are on digital materials. It was very minimal, perhaps just a few per cent, when I started.

In 2002, we made a conscious decision that within five years we would be 80 per cent digital, and at the time many didn’t believe us. We were among the first, if not the first, to do that in Ontario and were very early in Canada to make the conscious decision to move to digital to improve the access.

I’m very interested to see what’s coming forward in the years to come. Part of it is because we don’t quite know what’s happening. If you go back to 1973, that’s pre-PC, pre-web and pre-this whole mobile environment that we have, technology has moved on, which means the accessibility has changed. Libraries have always collaborated and I remember we would do that by phone or fax. I remember when faxes were leading-edge technology. (Laughing.)

In 1973, we were doing dial-up searches with 300 Bot modems, these portable computers that weighed 25-30 pounds. But at the time, it was amazing. I was working in the medical library at McGill at the time and we would have doctors coming in from the operating room needing to know information to save people’s lives. Now they have it bedside.

Social media has changed the way people interact with one another and with libraries as well. We do have followers on Facebook, Twitter and all that, but were still using our physical areas. We’ve moved literally a million books out of our physical location in order to provide more and more space for students and faculty.

WN: Not many folks may realize, but you also taught graduate courses (academic libraries) during your time at Western. How important was it for you to still have that presence in the classroom?

JG: I started teaching way back in 1976 at Concordia University. When I came here I was asked if I would teach and was happy to do so. It is important to me to stay in contact with the academic world and students. It’s also a great time to recruit new librarians. (Laughing.)

I will still be teaching this winter, after I get back from my time in Provonce where I’ll be spending a month. It’s my ideal vacation. It’s one of the alumni trips – cooking lessons, painting lessons, walking and hiking in the countryside.

WN: Sounds like you may not be coming home?

JG: Some people have said that to me. Like Peter Mayle (British author), he went for a year in Provonce and, 20 years later, he’s still there. It’s an ideal transition to immerse myself in.

WN: As if your responsibilities as University Librarian weren’t enough, you held many roles within the community (Canadian Association of Research Libraries president, Ontario Council of University Libraries chair and Planning & Allocations Committee chair for the United Way of London & Middlesex). People might say, ‘Why this extra work?’ I imagine you see it quite differently?

JG: London is a really good size community for being able to have the opportunity to give back and become involved. It’s a great way to learn about the community and hear the stories from individuals who are the volunteers or beneficiaries. …

There are some wonderful people in this community. Being involved with the university there can be a tendency to look inward and be involved with only university people. This (community involvement) is a reminder we live in a very privileged environment here and not everyone is that privileged. It’s a reality check and way to remain humble.

WN: So, after 15 years, what is the one thing you’re going to miss?

JG: I won’t miss the 12-hour days; I can tell you that. (Laughing.)

I will miss the feeling I can have an influence and make a difference at the university, and for education in general. Like I’ve said before, the academic mission is a noble one, the one that advances us forward and having people learn, and live productive lives. I’ve had information at my fingertips all these years.

I’ve had the privilege to work with so many wonderful people, not just within the library, but also within the university community. Higher education is a noble field and libraries are a part of that.

You miss the people, for sure. I promised myself, ever since I came to Western, to take a leisurely walk around campus without having to be anywhere at a specific time for any meeting; just to be able to stroll and look at the trees, flowers and buildings. I’ll be like Ferdinand (Disney movie), and be able to smell the flowers.


8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
(holidays excluded)


Helen Connell

Jason Winders

Paul Mayne

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