When Leslie Weir, BA 76, was recently named director of Library and Archives Canada, she became the first woman to assume the post since the merger of the National Archives and the National Library in 2004.
The former University of Ottawa librarian begins her tenure as the nation’s Librarian and Archivist on Aug. 30, 2019.
We spoke to Weir about her notable career and what the future holds as she prepares to helm the world’s fourth-largest library.
How has your job and the role of the library evolved since the advent of the Digital Age?
Leslie Weir: Libraries tend to be on the leading edge of technological change. They began by automating their catalogues in the 1950s and 1960s. Then they embraced the Web. But it was only in the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s that we started digitizing full text. Libraries have completely morphed and evolved because they always need to reflect the needs of the people.
What kind of career did you envision for yourself when you were a Concordia undergraduate?
LW: When you’re an undergrad, you don’t always know what you’re going to be, or what you’re going to do. I studied in the Faculty of Arts and Science and used the Norris Library. It piqued my interest about how information was organized and how to collect books for students and faculty. Then I got a part-time job at the Côte Saint-Luc Public Library.
The philosophy and culture was to serve as a hub for the community. It was a great place to learn about what libraries could be. When I graduated, I was lucky enough to get a full-time job there. By then I had decided to get a Master’s in Library Sciences.
What excites you most about your new role at Library and Archives Canada?
LW: I get to work with an incredible team of experts and specialists. There are a number of exciting projects. They’re building a new preservation centre in Gatineau. There’s a partnership with the Ottawa Public Library, which is building a new central library. There’s going to be a joint facility which will help bring Canada’s heritage, physically, to the people. As well, there are initiatives with our Indigenous peoples, like documenting and protecting languages and digitizing records that will support Truth and Reconciliation and decolonization.
It has been written that the library is the last bastion of democracy. To what extent do you believe this to be true?
LW: We’re lucky to have institutions in Canada that put democracy at the core of what they do. So I’m not sure we’re at that ‘last bastion’ place yet. I think we’re committed to open government and data at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. Our country can be something of a leader in that area. I think we’re in a relatively healthy place.
In 2013 Salon.com published an article entitled “Bring back shushing librarians.” It promptly went viral. Where do you stand on this contentious topic?
LW: What I would say is that different people need different kinds of spaces. And depending on who you are and what you’re trying to do, you need quiet spaces, where people can focus and concentrate, and you need spaces where they can work in groups, and exchange and debate and discuss. And libraries try to have spaces that cover the gamut, from silent to vibrant. It’s sometimes challenging to be able to maintain those categories because it depends on who’s using the space and how they’re using it. But quite often when you have a very formal, more traditional reading room, nobody needs to shush because people can feel that it is a space for contemplation and for concentration. It almost self-polices.
Then when you’re in the, sort of, marketplace areas of libraries, you know it’s going to be louder and vivid and exciting. So we work very hard to try and design libraries so people can find the spaces that they need.
I suppose intuitive design plays a big role in this.
LW: Design is huge. Because ideally you don’t want to spend all of your time telling people what they can’t do. You want to create a space, a service model, that makes it so that the people using it know how they should behave. And they model that behaviour because they enjoy – whether it’s a vibrant space or a silent space – they enjoy the experience of being there. So design is critical.