Some Challenges facing the Modern Research Library

This is the script I prepared for my presentation for the New Frontiers Graduate History Conference on February 21, 2014 at York University.  I feel like my thoughts are worth sharing to a larger audience because I feel like patrons needs to get a glimpse of the work that occurs behind the scenes in a library.  I hope this will spur a dialogue between scholars and librarians so that they can work together to create more functional research libraries that work for all stakeholders involved. For Part 2, click here.

Introduction and Institutional Background

Today I will be talking about the challenges facing the modern research library as demonstrated by the work that I have been doing as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Wilfrid Jury Library at the Museum of Ontario Archaeology, an affiliate of the University of Western Ontario.

The Museum is located adjacent to the Lawson Prehistoric Iroquoian Village in London, a site previously occupied by a Neutral Iroquois tribe in the 16th century which is now a designated provincial heritage site. The museum grew out of a collection of artifacts started by a father and son duo Wilfrid and Amos Jury, two pioneering archaeologists in southwestern Ontario who used to tour around county fairs presenting their popular artifacts.  In 1933, when Western was constructing the Lawson Memorial Library (now Lawson Hall), space was made to house and exhibit the Jurys’ collection in the library.  Forty-years later, the Museum was finally built as a more permanent home for the Jurys’ artifacts.

Museum of Archaeology exterior

Fig. 1: Museum of Ontario Archaeology

The Museum’s library was created from a series of donations from some generous individuals and institutions including Wilfrid Jury, the London Chapter of the Ontario Archaeological Society, archaeology professors L. Laetitia Sample and Albert Mohr, and museum volunteers.  The most valuable items in the collection are the unpublished theses, dissertations, and archaeological reports written by various scholars.  The library also features an impressive Jury archival collection as well as some antique books from the 19th and early-20th century.

Main Issues

There were three main issues that the Jury Library was facing when I arrived back in September: space, collection misdirection, and lack of a program.


Looking at the images below, the issues of space are very evident both in terms of the function of the space as well as space constraints.  This space is no longer just a research or reading space.  On the large table you see that artifact processing occurs.  You may also notice that on top of the stacks in the background there are baskets from the Museum’s collection being stored there.  The space is also used as office space for an employee as well.  In short, the space’s function has evolved substantially.

Wilfrid Jury Library 1

Fig. 2: Wilfrid Jury Library

Jury LIbrary

Fig. 3: Wilfrid Jury Library

A vital document necessary for the function of the library is a collection management policy.  This document outlines what kinds of materials the library will be acquiring, and establishes some direction for what the library collection should look like.  The Wilfrid Jury Library has never had a collection management policy.  Because of this lack of direction the library acquired a lot of material that really does not support the museum collection, or its mission.  Here is a small sampling of some of the intriguing books that the library had acquired over the years prior to my arrival.

No Established Program

The biggest issue the library is facing–as evidenced by the previous two issues–is the lack of an established program.  The library has only been a project for various people over the years, most of whom were volunteers from Western’s Master of Library and Information Science Program.  Because the library has not been a program, it has been left neglected for long stretches of time over the years.  I define a project as a task with a defined start and end date.  A program, on the other hand, is a component of the day-to-day operation of an institution.  Unfortunately, the work I am doing is also a project since my assignment ends in early-April.

What Steps have been taken thus far?

Reached out to Employees

The first thing I did was speak with the full-time employees at the museum to get their opinion of the library, and where they feel the library should go.  I also asked them how the library had been used as far as they could observe.  This was crucial since the library did not keep track of any circulation statistics.  I myself spent a lot of time walking around the space, getting a sense of which titles they had, how many duplicate items they had, just to get an overall feel for the collection.  After I had done that preliminary research, I proposed to the Executive Director that we undergo a complete collection review, and remove the items that we do not need or that do not have value to the Museum.  I continued and said that we could remove the five stacks in the middle of the room to open up the space and create more room for more tables and chairs (see figs. 2 and 3).  This would create more space for artifact processing, preparation space for children’s programming, and even just meeting space.

Reached out to the Academic Committee

After my project proposal had been accepted by the Executive Director, she forwarded it to the Museum’s Academic Committee for their approval.  They had no issues with my project and invited me to continue with it.  It was important for us to keep the Academic Committee closely involved in this process so that we could promote good faith, and so that they could become invested in the well-being of the library.

I also felt that the library needed its own collection management policy since the Museum’s collection management policy did not acknowledge the library in any way.  So, I created a new collection management policy specifically for the library.  After a few revisions by the Executive Director, we sent it to the Academic Committee for their approval.  The Academic Committee made one small tweak and approved it unanimously.

The collection management policy in place states that the library will only collect items related to Archaeology, Anthropology, and First Nations History in North America with a focus on the Great Lakes Region, and Northeastern North America.  It also states that the library is interested in collecting items discussing relevant material culture, and items regarding North American planning, environmental and heritage management, and museum studies.

The Museum was also interested in preserving institutional memory, so we also decided to keep books pertaining to the history of the University of Western Ontario, anything published by present and past curators and other executives, anything written under the name of the Museum, and anything written by the namesakes of the Museum like Wilfrid Jury.

Here are a few examples of some interesting books I found in the library. Below the images I give an explanation as to why I find them interesting to give you a glimpse into how collection development librarians think:

Fig. 4: Books written by, and about Stephen Leacock

Fig. 4: Books written by, and about Stephen Leacock

These books (Fig. 4) written by and about Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock are very close to my heart and important pieces of Canadiana.  However, they really do not belong in an archaeology/anthropology library since there is no mention of First Nations or the politics around them.

Fig. 5: Smithsonian Institute Reports

Fig. 5: Smithsonian Institute Reports

These Annual Reports of the Smithsonian Institute (Fig. 5) from the turn of the century are great and certainly belong in the collection since they give a history of museum management and administration.

Fig. 6: "Indian Races of North and South America" published in 1856

Fig. 6: “Indian Races of North and South America” published in 1856

This book gives a history of the indigenous peoples of North and South America (Fig.6).  This book was written from an ignorant point of view; however, it is useful to the collection because it presents an accurate perspective on how Europeans and North Americans viewed First Nations people.  Furthermore, I know that the tensions and problems of race have not been resolved yet, but reading this book helps the reader appreciate how far we have come.

Fig. 7: The Pacific Islands

Fig. 7: The Pacific Islands

The Pacific Islands (Fig. 7), confuses me.  The Museum is in Ontario, it’s dedicated to Ontario, and our artifacts were found in Canada.

Fig. 8: Oedipus Myth and Complex

Fig. 8: Oedipus Myth and Complex

I’m at a loss for words as to why my library has this book (Fig. 8).

Fig. 9: Asian Picture Book inside

Fig. 9: Asian Picture Book inside

Fig. 10: Asian Picture Book front cover

Fig. 10: Asian Picture Book front cover

This Asian picture book really intrigues me because it looks old, and it it’s written completely in Chinese (I think).  Though this book does not belong in our library, I am hesitant to deselect this book right away because I don’t know what it is.  In order to make a responsible collection decision, I’ll need to show it to an expert to read the text so that I can determine its value.  This book may be a candidate for restoration and/or donation to Western’s rare book collection.

Fig. 11: Holy Bible

Fig. 11: Holy Bible

It is amazing to me how many libraries and special collections tend accumulate Bibles.  To be honest, a Bible written in English does not really fit into our collection.  We do, however, have some parts of the Bible translated into Cree and Navajo which I have happily kept in our collection.  The other funny thing is that this is not our only family Bible, we in fact have three.

Fig. 12: The History of the North West Rebellion published in 1885

Fig. 12: The History of the North West Rebellion of 1885, published in 1885

I don’t know if we can call this book a history since it was published in the year that the event took place (Fig. 12).  Nevertheless, it is an important event of Metis history.  Perhaps if it is an account of the First Riel rebellion, we could call it a history.

Backhouses of the North

Fig. 13 Backhouses of the North

Backhouses of the North (Fig. 13) is the most hilarious of our library collection.  It is a book featuring poetry and short stories pertaining to the Canadian outhouse.

This is the end of Part 1. Part 2 will discuss my recommendations for the library. 


One thought on “Some Challenges facing the Modern Research Library

  1. Pingback: Some Challenges facing the Modern Research Library, Part 2. | Writing History and other things

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