NC library director embraces new chapter as OLA president


Shown above: Karen McGrath

NC’s director of library and bookstore services Karen McGrath wants you to erase the image of a timid introverted librarian from your memory.

While you’re at it, toss the stereotype of stern “Shhh!” warnings that outnumber rows of dusty books.

“‘I get no respect,’” says McGrath with a chuckle, imitating Rodney Dangerfield.  “People are still holding on to that terrible perception of librarians, but that’s not the way things are. ‘”

This self-professed ‘accidental librarian’ admits that she too once held the same perception until she delved into this exciting field. She has not only witnessed seismic shifts in the library scene over the years, she’s been an active part of the transformation which has evolved alongside waves of technological advances. She knows firsthand how libraries, as purveyors of information in the information age, are not only positioned to have a long shelf life but are very exciting places to be.

Here at NC, McGrath is helping to break down the image. At both campuses, the libraries are hubs of activity, where staff, students and faculty meet and mingle; where staff warmly lend a helping hand to those navigating through vast array of resources; where visitors can sip on a coffee or munch on a snack as they browse through the latest issue of Canadian House and Home or DVDs they’d like to take home for the weekend.

She’s also tackling the most pressing issues facing modern libraries at the provincial level, after recently being elected president of the Ontario Library Association – a new chapter of her life which began Jan. 1.  In conjunction with her role at NC, she is now presiding over the largest library association in Ontario, representing more than 5,000 members – not only librarians but all levels of staff including technicians, school administrators, publishers and producers, trustees and agents, expert supports to research and development and protectors of the culture.

She is looking forward to playing a leading role in advocacy, supporting and demonstrating the value of different types of libraries. She also values the opportunity to participate in collaboration at the   national level, with library representatives from across Canada.


Don’t close the book on libraries

The whole notion that the library will become extinct due to e-books and other technology is flawed, she says. With a vast array of information available, it’s vital to have library staff point people in information-seekers in the right direction and sift through the junk to find credible sources. McGrath explains how library staff members are information managers who provide access to information, organize it, and keep on top of the evolution of digital technologies and their impact on the publishing world.

“Library staff are major resources because they really know their stuff and they really want to help,” she says. 

She also notes the key role libraries play in promoting literacy from the very beginning, helping to instill a love of reading in young children.


The beginning of her story

Helping others, in fact is one of the things that initially drew McGrath to the profession. She had always intended to follow-up her four-year Honour’s degree in French from Wilfred Laurier University by going to teacher’s college. After graduation, with her French-language skills in demand, she had been working at the Toronto airport making reservations for an airline when one of her sisters suggested she attend library school.

“I thought, ‘are you kidding? Library school?’” she says. “I had the perception most people still have; ‘You can get a Master’s for that?’”

The decision to pursue her Master’s in Library and Information Science is one she has never regretted. It led McGrath to Ottawa where she spent about 20 years working for the National Library of Canada. From there, in 2003, returned to the Golden Horseshoe to be closer to family, working at the Lincoln Public Library in Beamsville. She later moved on to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library before applying for a position at NC.

McGrath embraced the opportunity to join the NC team where she oversees the NC libraries – one in Welland and one in NOTL – and is the contact for college bookstore managers. She notes how NC’s libraries were shortlisted for a Minister’s award for Innovation at the OLA’s 2012 conference and how NC was one of the first colleges to enter into a consortium with public libraries, sharing the same circulation system as public libraries in NOTL, Lincoln and Fort Erie. 

“It’s interesting to be a college library because I wanted to be a teacher and there’s so much in common with that – it’s all about teaching and helping,” she says.


Library resources for NC staff

Here at NC, McGrath finds it rewarding to watch staff come up with new, creative services to offer – such as the recent introduction of online study room bookings. Now she wants to spread the word that the library is here to help not only students and faculty but all staff members.

In addition to its formal resources specific to the curriculum, the NC Library offers a collection of fiction, popular journals, film DVDs and the latest movies that staff can take home – all they need to do present an employee ID card.  The library also offers drop-in tutorials at both campuses to teach students and staff how to search a database and find any information they need. Staff can also book appointments for personal assistance during off-peak times.

A wealth of resources are available on the library’s website. By accessing the database, staff can find books, articles, journals and videos – the latter which can be streamed directly into classrooms. Catalogue services may be accessed online and if the desired material isn’t available at one campus, library staff will send it there upon request. All staff has to do access the database is enter the site and use their Blackboard password.

“In my ideal world, when people need information, the first thing they do is call the library,” says McGrath. “We’re your best search engine; we like to say, ‘the library is the app for that.’”

Visit the library website at the NC Library’s Website and keep up with the latest news by reading the  library blog regularly.

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