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Who needs Cancún? This past February, a team of McGill MBA students spent spring break in search of the real Kahnawake.
Photo: Owen Egan
While throngs of fellow twenty-somethings fled to tropical latitudes for an escape from winter and work, Erika Rodrigues, Laird McLean, Juan Quiceno and Rozel Gonzales headed straight into the teeth of that dihedral monster on a scholarly project. They lived for the week on the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve just across the Mercier Bridge to get to know the community and produce a feasibility study for its proposed new library.
It didn't turn out to be much of a break, at least in the classic sense of the word.
"We thought we'd have a lot of free time that week," says Rodrigues, laughing at her own naïveté. "But when we weren't meeting with people, we were working together on our laptop computers until midnight."
"And it was so cold," recalls Quiceno (who's from Colombia) with a marked shiver.
How did four MBA students come to consult a small reserve town's library project? Serendipitously. Their story begins one October day last year, when a retired professor from the Faculty of Management named Ian McLachlin was driving a carload of old books to the McGill Book Fair. McLachlin switched on the radio to CBC in time to catch an interview with a 13-year-old Kahnawake girl named Skawenniio Barnes who, with a letter to her community newspaper, had sparked a drive to create a public library in her home town for the first time in two decades. CBC was organizing a book drive to help fill the future shelves. But McLachlin, an expert in entrepreneurship, had other ideas. "The timing was impeccable," he recalls. "I knew how I could help."
McLachlin made some calls to the newly formed Kahnawake Library Committee and learned that it already had a temporary home, seed funding, an army of volunteers, momentum and, increasingly, books. What it lacked was a comprehensive plan to start a library from scratch. In league with the Canadian Executive Service Organization (CESO), McLachlin posted the opportunity to MBA students who might want to put their business development and consulting skills to the test in an unfamiliar circumstance. There were four takers. "What appealed to the students, first, was the opportunity to work with First Nations people and, second, the chance to get out of the mainstream of business and do something meaningful with their skills, in an unconventional way," says McLachlin.
When the four second-year MBAs took on the project for independent study credit in January, there was much work to be done before they even began discussions with library organizers. They met with Valentina de Krom, director of McGill's Office of First Nations and Inuit Education, to learn more about Mohawk culture and traditions. Then they turned to the foreign world of libraries. "We went into this project with a lot of questions," admitted McLean. "We all use libraries, but we've never started one."
They decided to seek counsel from Jamshid Beheshti, director of McGill's Graduate School of Library and Information Studies. "It was challenging to condense a two-year master's program into two hours," Beheshti says of the cram-session meeting. "We had to start from ground zero."
He tutored the MBA students on cataloguing models, collection policy, technical services and basic staffing requirements. "You can cut corners," Beheshti advised. "But if cutting corners means not hiring a professional librarian, then what do you have? A warehouse of books. Today, the profession has gone beyond pointing to containers of information to providing content. And libraries are becoming community information centres."
The students absorbed as much as they could. Soon it was late February and time to begin writing the feasibility plan from their headquarters at the Riverside Inn in Kahnawake. They soon realized it takes a village to build a community library. "As a consultant, you're supposed to be the expert," says Gonzales. "But you learn just as much from the client. It's arrogant to go in thinking you can solve everyone's problems by writing a report. It's something you have to work at together."
They did work together. While other students swam, skied or slept, the four MBAs logged 16-hour days, meeting with the Mohawk Council, community elders, teachers, library committee members, students and parents, gauging the hopes for this library, but also the realities. They learned that Kahnawake is not just another small town. "We could really see what this community is about and why it is unique," observes McLean. "They spend a lot of time consulting and debating and discussing, so it takes a long time to come to a decision. But when they've made the decision, that's the way it's going to be."
They also met Barnes, the teen catalyst who received the Peter Gzowski Literacy Award and was named CosmoGirl! of the Year for her determined efforts. Despite her recent celebrity, the MBAs found Barnes to be refreshingly normal, just a kid who likes to read and managed to articulate a community need that had gone unspoken for too long. "It became clear that everyone agreed on the need for a library, but nobody had the drive until she put the idea into words," adds Quiceno.
The job of the MBA consultants, then, was to take those thoughts and words and synthesize them into a plan that was feasible, and to envision a library that met the needs of the entire community. The thrust of the document addresses financial requirements and operational needs: the nuts and bolts of managing a small library of mostly donated books and funding staff, rent, furniture and utilities without being able to generate revenue beyond late fees. But the 50-page document also offers remarkable detail, providing a history of the Mohawk people and libraries on the reserve, and touching on issues of collection development policy, advertising, cataloguing, computers and internet access, periodical subscriptions, even humidity and dust control. "The report flags things, suggests factors to consider," Rodrigues explains. "It's not our job to decide. That belongs to the Library Committee."
Now in its final draft, the feasibility study is being vetted by McLachlin and CESO project representative Robert de Chancenotte before delivery to the Kahnawake Library Committee. Kim Delormier, the library coordinator so instrumental in organizing meetings and information for the MBAs, is anxious to see it. "I believe this study will be a great help because it formalizes what must be done to pull this off," Delormier says. "On our committee, we just don't have that experience. But we have come a long way."
Now the grand opening is only weeks away. The Kahnawake Public Library's temporary home once housed a bakery, and it smells no less fragrant today. Inside, the sweet scent of fresh-cut wood from the custom-built shelves permeates the air. Stacks and boxes of books -- the choicest 8,000 from nearly 30,000 donated -- await placement in the ranks from floor to ceiling. Magazines canvas the periodicals rack; a pastiche of books colour the children's section; the reference section sits ready for new computers. It is a bright, clean and welcoming place. A place of pride.
The four MBAs agree that they have come away with at least as much as they put in. The experience taught some invaluable lessons. "A consultant's job is to learn as much as they can as fast as they can, and listen," says Gonzales. "If you are not listening properly, your report is garbage."
"A key skill to learn early," chimes in McLachlin, the proud mentor. "I don't think I've been involved with a group of students that have been as committed to a project. They adopted ownership very early and spent a great deal of their life on it. It was not only about writing the report, which was the academic goal, but to come up with conclusions they believe will work. In a lot of these independent studies, we see students with plans to start their own business, but how real is it? This was real."