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Groen sticks to libraries' helm
PHOTO: Owen Egan
In Frances Groen's office, overlooking the large playing field adjacent to the McLennan Library, is a painting of snow-covered trees bordering a townhouse, marked by the familiar broad brush strokes of its creator, the Group of Seven's Lawren Harris.
Like Harris, Groen is a product of Brampton, Ontario, and, like Harris, she's done well for herself since leaving home. The director of McGill's libraries, Groen was recently reappointed to a new three-year term that will begin in September.
Principal Bernard Shapiro credits Groen with a "marvelous capacity for both fundraising and for managing." Colleagues outside McGill clearly hold her in high regard as well. She is president of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) and, despite the demands of her job, has maintained her scholarly chops.
She recently earned the American Library Association's Library Collections and Technical Services Award for a paper she co-authored entitled "The Changing Nature of Collections Management in Research Libraries." She has steered the libraries through some difficult budget cuts and has had to make the kinds of decisions that directors hate to make. Maintain staff numbers or protect the library's collections? Safeguard which journals by cutting which others?
Faced with budget cuts, Groen and the heads of the individual McGill libraries agreed to do what they could to preserve collections while opening themselves up for pain on the staffing side. The budget for collections was preserved. Jobs went unfilled to compensate.
Even after making this choice, though, Groen and her colleagues still ended up having to cut back on journal subscriptions. The budget for collections was kept stable, yes, but journal publishers kept increasing the prices for their publications.
But now, with the University on sounder, if still precarious, financial footing and with McGill pledging to spend $3.4 million more on the libraries as part of its "contrat de performance" with the Quebec government, Groen is in a position to make some moves.
She is clear about what some of the money will be spent on -- more staff.
"We need people at both ends of the age spectrum, junior librarians and senior management. We haven't been able to hire anyone in five years.
"There are a large number of exceptionally talented young librarians coming out of graduate schools. I want those people on our staff.
"We also need more people in senior management roles," Groen adds. She wants to be able to focus more attention on what she sees as the core of her job -- fund development, planning and budgeting -- and parcel off more responsibilities to some seasoned library pros. "I want people who want my job," she says.
With the increasing reliance of researchers on the Internet and other electronic sources, many of Groen's new hires will come equipped with the skills appropriate for these more technological times.
She will be on the lookout for librarians with an understanding of what the members of a scholarly community are going to be looking for and the technical expertise to help scholars find their way through what can seem to some a daunting digital maze.
Critical judgement is key too. Students are adept at surfing the Internet in preparing their term papers, but what exactly are they finding? "Just because it's on the Web doesn't mean it's true," notes Groen. Librarians can play a role in helping students choose carefully.
Groen has had success in attracting support from donors for library projects, not always an easy task in the past. Support for the libraries was disappointing in McGill's last capital campaign. Groen's reappointment means she will be around for the next one.
"I want to be involved with that. I'm looking forward to it," Groen says, heaping praise on the support she receives from Development and Alumni Relations. "It's been said that libraries are at a disadvantage because we don't have alumni the way faculties do.
"We do have an alumni group," she asserts. "It's the whole student body."
Everyone who studies at McGill turns to the libraries. That marks the memories of those who have moved on. And it motivates the students currently using the libraries to be generous.
Over the past three years, students have voted in referendums sponsored by the Students' Society of McGill University to tax themselves in order to supply the libraries with hundreds of thousands of dollars in support. That support has amounted to about $3 million over the three years.
As a result, each year Groen sits down with SSMU representatives to tell them about the libraries' greatest needs and to listen to what students most want from the libraries. A big portion of the money raised is earmarked for special projects. "Something that will really make a noticeable difference," says Groen.
One year it was to support the McLennan Library's new electronic classroom, equipped with terminals hooked up to the Internet and access to a variety of specialized databases. Last year, students asked for the McLennan Library to be open almost 24 hours a day during exam periods and the money went towards purchasing the increased security and other resources required to make that happen.
This year, a library equalization fund will target individual libraries' special needs. One might offer extended hours as a result of the increased support. Another might purchase additional photocopiers or colour printers. The students' gift is topped up by matching funds from the McGill Fund Council.
One of Groen's major projects will be to finalize the plans for a new info café that will take up residence on the ground floor of the main library building bordering McTavish. Dozens of computers with access to databases and the Internet will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Unlike the regular library, students will be allowed to sip a coffee while they polish off assignments or check their e-mail. Specialized equipment will be available for students with disabilities.
There is also the happy chore of determining how to spend the millions of dollars set aside for the libraries by Richard Tomlinson's remarkable $64 million gift last year. "The stipulation is that we spend it on something that's new and not traditional," says Groen. She foresees a large-scale project aimed at preserving some of the libraries' most unique and fragile items using digital technologies that would also make them far more accessible.
While Groen is an advocate of the technologization of library resources -- part of her work at CARL involves negotiating licences with scholarly publishers that would enable academics to access research materials on their own computers -- she has traditional notions of her workplace in some regards.
"I often dream of the library of the future and it's still a place," she says.
"A university needs a sense of community and I think libraries are crucial to nurturing that. Students still find an identity and a focus for the University here. They all come eventually to study for their exams or to do research. I think that's why they've been so wonderfully supportive."