Looking back on 38 years of service: an interview with Anne Avery

After 38 years working in the McGill Library system, our colleague Anne Avery will be retiring at the end of the year. Anne came to the Gelber as a library assistant in October 2006 from the McLennan Library, and has been a pillar of our library ever since. Members of the McGill Law community will remember Anne as a friendly face at our circulation desk, always ready to help out, whether it be to check out a book on reserve or pick up a hold, navigate our catalogues, guide patrons around the library, solve a uPrint problem, or figure out how to work the microfilm reader, though of course Anne’s duties and impact on users extends far beyond circulation.

Before leaving, Anne was kind enough to sit down for a brief interview to talk about her experience working at McGill, and to share some fond memories about her time here. The following are summaries of Anne’s answers.

Career trajectory within the McGill Library system
Anne was first hired as a casual library employee in October 1981, working on the 6th floor of the McLennan Library, filing acquisition records. At the time, acquisition slips were printing in multiple copies. We’re not talking duplicate or triplicate here… more like upwards of 6 copies per acquisition! This was a one-month contract, after which Anne was hired to type updated subject headings on catalogue cards following Library of Congress Subject Headings. This required a “special typewriter with very small keys” (since you couldn’t adjust font size otherwise)! This job was also out of the 6th floor of McLennan. That position was abolished in July 1982, but just over half a year later, Anne was back, this time working in acquisitions at the Medical Library. In May 1983, Anne became a permanent employee.

In September 1984, Anne moved into a public-facing position in the Library School Library, then located on the ground floor of McLennan. This was a sessional job that followed the academic calendar. Anne worked at that branch for 4 years, before taking a one-year educational leave. When she returned in September 1989, Anne moved onto the Redpath Reserves. This is when computers were first introduced on the service side of the library, and when Anne started working with them!

In September 1991, Anne headed back to the Library School Library, which she managed for 3 years. With that branch library set to close, Anne then moved to the Microfilm service, a public-facing service located on the 2nd floor of McLennan. It is there that she first worked with the Gelber’s current supervisor, Elizabeth Gibson, who supervised the Microfilm service. An extremely popular service at the time, it was open 7 days a week, and during evenings. “That department was a gem source of information and included print newspapers and current serials, of course,” notes Anne. According to Anne, this was where she met the greatest variety of people.

In October 2006, Anne finally moved to the Gelber Library. At the time, the branch was also open evenings and weekends, and was “bursting with staff,” as this was before a lot of centralization of library services. Despite the many changes to the library system that occurred since Anne’s arrival at the Gelber, Anne stayed on at the Gelber for just over 14 years.

Upon reflecting on her 7 positions in the McGill Library system, Anne remarked: “It’s great to move around and meet different people!”

At the Gelber circulation desk, circa 2007.  From L to R: Anne Avery, Lisa Barrett, Mila Bozic Erkic, and Brock Cummings
At the Gelber circulation desk, circa 2007. From L to R: Anne Avery, Lisa Barrett, Mila Bozic Erkic, and Brock Cummings

In another life, another career path?
Who would have known that Anne worked as a surgical nurse in a veterinary hospital immediately prior to arriving at McGill in 1981? A lover of animals, Anne’s allergies contributed in part to her career change.

Our world traveler
And did you know that Anne has lived in 5 countries, and 3 cities in Canada (Vancouver, Thunder Bay, and Montreal)? In 1982, when Anne’s position was terminated, Anne and her husband benefitted from the extra time to go to France for les vendages, the grape harvest, an opportunity that her husband had heard of with l’Association Québec-France: “We were assigned to the champagne region near Reims on a family vineyard for 12 memorable days. We remained 4 months, following a theme of historical locations, living cheap, traveling by train, regional bus and ship, visiting many locations in France, zig zagging south through autumn, moving on to Florence and Venice, then Greece, and celebrating Christmas in Crete and New Year’s in Rhodes.”

While Montreal has been home for the past 31 years, Anne still calls the European cities she lived in “home” when she goes back to visit. Her favourite travel destination? “They’re all my favourite when I get there!”

Fun facts about the McGill Library, 80s edition & Anne’s career trajectory
To work in the library when Anne first started, one had to first pass a typing test. Now, we won’t mention how Anne did on the test, but Anne did want to give a little shout-out to human resources for helping her overcome that little speed bump!

When Anne started working at McGill, access to the McLennan library was limited to graduate students and the employees working there, with undergraduate students studying in Redpath instead. Consequently, a guard was stationed at the bottom of the McLennan stairs to confirm IDs! There were 25 library branches at the time, compared to the 11 we currently have. While students were not permitted to smoke in the library, library staff with individual offices could smoke in them.

Checking out a book? Some of us might remember the old index cards that we used to check out books on in elementary school, but in the 80s, McGill’s system was a little more sophisticated than that! Circulation staff would instead check out books using manual sliding card machines – like the ones used for credit cards!

Prior to coming to the Gelber, Anne worked with two individuals who would later become law library directors: Michael Renshawe and Bob Clark. By the time Anne moved to the Gelber, however, they had already left. Upon arriving at the Gelber, Anne reconnected with a former student who had attended library school when Anne ran the Library School Library: the current Head of the Gelber, Daniel Boyer! A helpful tip to anyone in the library system at McGill, considering the amount of internal movement here, but also really great advice for anyone in or entering the workforce: “McGill is a community; your working life will interweave with many individuals over the years so make the most of positive contacts and create a network of supportive connections.”

Library trends over time
From card catalogues to our newest catalogue that allows us to see not only our own holdings and availability of texts at McGill, but holdings in hundreds of thousands of libraries across the world, as well as availability of texts through the Quebec university library system “technology has changed things so amazingly,” says Anne. “It’s a huge difference,” Anne notes, laughing, when I ask her what surprises her the most about how library patrons use the library now versus in the 80s.

How librarians provide services has also changed. Before the explosion of databases, reference used to “all be in the librarians’ heads,” and if anything escaped them, they would consult index cards kept on reference desks. Now, a liaison librarian’s primary duty is to know how to find things in a database, and of course, know what database to use!

Matching at the Gelber, circa 2008.
From L to R: Mary Lourenço, Mila Bozic Erkic, and Anne Avery.

Funny stories involving law faculty
I was hoping for a good Overheard for the Quid Novi, but Anne is all class ‘til the end! She notes that she enjoyed getting to know law staff and faculty alike. One fun thing that happened as a result of chatting with a law professor at the desk was that she was able to get some family papers translated from Swedish!

Some unique Gelber finds
Looking for some neat Gelber discoveries? Anne recommends checking out the PN section on the 3rd floor. A quick catalogue search tells me that there’s a nice mix of freedom of the press in there and fun texts about lawyers and literature, for instance The lawyer’s cartoon book, by Pascal Élie and Lawyers’ merriments, by David Murray.

Anne also recently went through the Rare Books collection and found a number of gems there, including a book by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. She notes that the annuals in our collection are fantastic resources for “history buffs” interested in social history, thanks to the ads that precede and follow the main text.

Fondest memories working in the libraries
The chair of our social committee, Anne notes that what she’ll miss most is the camaraderie she shared with colleagues – with a special shout-out to our famous Gelber birthday parties – and socialising with patrons over the desk. Having had worked in 6 other library positions, Anne notes that it “really made a difference working in a satellite library.” Working at the Gelber, Anne had a variety of work, and also got to meet “people from all over.”

Throughout the years, Anne has been particularly impressed with the opportunities that our students have taken for study and work abroad. She pointed out in particular the students that have gone on to work with NGOs and in human rights advocacy.

Final farewell message to students
“Seize opportunities for personal enrichment… and go to all the library teaching seminars! You’ll need it!”

Photo from Library Matters, vol 3, issue 11 (November 2007)
Seated, front row from left to right: John Hobbins, Daniel Boyer, Jason Elsliger, Inge Hernandez, Veena Vohra, Brock Cummings, Carlos Rojas, John Kirkpatrick, and Kathleen Vandernoot. Standing, back row from left to right: Lisa Barrett, Mary Lourenço, Anne Avery and Louisa Piatti.