90 years of collective wisdom

The University Library is suffering a loss this month, but not the kind that first comes to mind, like a rare volume. What the Library is losing is about 90 years of collective wisdom and experience shared by three retiring employees – Pat McFaull, Tammy Birns and Iris Owchar.

By Mark Ferguson

McFaull, Birns and Owchar are all moving on to new chapters in their lives after 22 years, 33 years and 35 years respectively serving the Library and the University of Saskatchewan community. They admit it's a change that comes with some trepidation; Owchar, for one, has been working here since she was 18 years old, a long time to devote to one employer in this day and age. But all three speak very highly of their experiences, relish their memories and are looking forward to what the future may hold.

McFaull's career began in 1989 when she joined what was then called the production department "where apparently 99.9 per cent of people in the Library started." The work involved ordering, process and entering data of library materials. She then spent 10 years in the Natural Sciences Library before moving to her current position in interlibrary loans.

Her work now is not unlike that of a detective, she said, searching the world for materials to borrow from other libraries for clients. Her current quest is for an Iranian journal. There are few holdings anywhere and her most recent query with the National Library of Iran has gone unanswered "but it's the best part of my job."

What started out as a three-week term position in the cataloguing department became a 33-year career for Birns who also worked in the Health Science Library and the reference department before joining acquisitions, now called collection services. "We go everywhere in the world looking for a book, a publication, a source somebody wants," said Birns. And those searches are not always easy. She even went so far as to take a Spanish course to help her in her quests for Spanish materials "but they're really difficult to obtain, not because of the language but because of the country of origin."

Owchar has spent her entire Library career in the cataloguing department which now functions within a department called description and discovery. When she started, part of her work involved typing labels for materials on a manual typewriter, and then ironing them on, but those days are long gone. "We used to have 10 librarians and 15 library assistants but now I have three and a half staff because we send a lot of our material out now to be catalogued by a vendor."

A lot of time was also spent managing the Library's enormous card catalogue, another aspect of the job that has disappeared. "When you think about it now, we used to spend an enormous amount of time filing, and then pulling it out again," said Birns. Owchar said she has seen the catalogue evolve from an individual card for each item to an efficient online search system that continues to improve; the Library is currently testing U-Search which will further enhance the ability of patrons to find exactly what they are looking for.

All three agree that technology, more than anything, has changed their jobs. Birns pointed out that the internet has revolutionized the search for Library materials "because we go anywhere and everywhere to find them," and that includes Amazon. A university library buying books off Amazon? "They're slick and they're fast," she said.

Often speed is of the essence, added Owchar, and Amazon is fast. "When people request material, they often want it now, not a week from now. It's up to us and the people we work with to provide that material as quickly as possible. Ultimately we're here to serve this university, the city and really the whole province."

Online catalogues at libraries around the world has made it easier for McFaull to fulfill inter-library loan requests and while she enjoys the thrill of the hunt, "I feel a little luckier than Tammy or Iris in that I get to interact with the university community a bit more, with students, faculty and staff." One of her favourite interactions over the years as been with a faculty member who uses inter-library loans frequently.

Carefully protecting his identity, McFaull said "he often tries to stump us, the borrowers." His most interesting request was for a dog. Yes, a canine. "He apparently heard that some library in the U.S. had a ‘borrow a dog', a real dog, and it was catalogued so he thought he should ask for a dog." McFaull in fact found the dog at the Lillian Goldman Law Library at Yale. Monty, a 21-pound border terrier mix with call number SF428.2.M66 2011, is described in the online catalogue as a legal therapy dog available to circulate for 30-minute periods.

"I contacted the library. I knew it was probably impractical to ship the dog but I thought he might be interested in the circulation statistics. I know I was, but they didn't answer. I let him know they don't share his sense of humour."

Birns' favourite acquisition story goes back a number of years and involves a request from the veterinary librarian for a book about small horses. "The book they were requesting was very obscure, hard to find and very expensive. It took us about three months to get it and when it arrived, we unpacked the box, took it out of all the wrapping and it was about an inch-and-a-half by an inch-and-a-half. It was a scam," not unheard of in the publishing world. "And we paid $350 for that book!"

A career highlight for Owchar was a trip she and Birns made to Winnipeg to meet with the university's cataloging vendor. What made it special was that the Library paid their expenses. "As CUPE employees, we don't have those kinds of opportunities so it was great."

Another highlight for her was an invitation from the dean to be part of the team that developed the Library's first integrated plan. "I really value the respect the current dean has for people at all levels. It helps everyone feel they have a part to play in the direction of the Library and really opened up the doors in terms of communication."

For all three, it will be the people they will miss the most when they retire. Birns and Owchar both work on the sixth floor, part of a strong team "that celebrates the least little thing," said Birns. "We're known for our food days when everyone contributes and everyone comes," Owchar added. McFaull nodded and relayed the message that travels through the Library like wildfire – "Sixth floor has food!"

All three women have made plans for their retirement, including travel, time with family and even new kinds of paid work. But McFaull admitted, like the others, to having misgivings about her decision to retire "and part of that is keeping up with technology. I don't want to get stupid.

"In the Library, technology is always changing so I still have my Library privileges and I'm going to come and use the resources. I've told my friends ‘you're still going to see me here but I just won't be doing work for you.'"