Every great university has a library at its centre

Matthew Rowlinson

Like many humanities scholars, I work in a somewhat antisocial way. Come the end of classes, as soon as I can I get out of my office and set up at a table in the library. My method, such as it is, for beginning a new project consists in finding the relevant shelves of scholarly books and skimming them, beginning with the most recent. Those I want to read in full get checked out and brought home. For my primary archive, usually in texts published in nineteenth-century Britain, I am often able to proceed in the same way, thanks to the D. B. Weldon Library’s deep holdings going back to 1800, both on the open shelves and in the ARCC. For primary texts not available in hard copy, I have access to databases such as NCCO (Nineteenth Century Collections Online). On rare occasions, I have the privilege of traveling outside Canada to work in rare book and manuscript collections, but this kind of travel has become less and less necessary as more and more archives have been digitized.

The end of term is also in practice usually when I get caught up on the 6 or 10 journals I try and follow in my field; these are all available online through the library, so I can pull up the contents on my computer and hole up at home to read what I need. For the most part, I can do all this work without having to talk to anyone or explain what I am looking for—which is a good thing, usually, because in most cases I won’t know what I am looking for until I have found it. As I say, antisocial.

But the illusion of working alone that I fondly entertain about my scholarship is, of course, just that—an illusion. Every one of the books and databases I use at Weldon has been selected by a librarian. When I find what I need in our library, I am relying on the work not just of the extraordinary field librarians there today, but also on the knowledge and skill of librarians going back to the university’s founding in the nineteenth century. The work of humanists who depend on textual archives absolutely relies on the training of librarians, who choose what to collect in the first place, what to preserve, and who do the curatorial work of maintaining the material artifacts of which the archive is made.

This work has only become more demanding and complex as archives have come to include online databases and digital texts. Unlike a physical book, which only has to be bought once, digital archives undergo ongoing renewal; they need regular updating to deal with new generations of hardware; and, of course, end users need ongoing instruction in their use. The transformation of the library has vastly increased the range of skills librarians need, while reaffirming their indispensable place as enablers of every kind of research in the humanities.

Every great university has a library at its centre; and, as I have tried to argue here, the library is above all an institution sustained by the knowledge and skills of the professionals who staff it. Western faculty like me are enormously privileged to carry on our research at Weldon and at the university’s other libraries; as our librarian colleagues enter what may be a difficult set of contract negotiations, we owe them our unconditional support.

Matthew Rowlinson is a professor in the Department of English Studies