The McConnell: More Than a Library

It’s still a wonder to me that I can, from home or anywhere with internet access, go to the Cape Breton Regional Library’s website and search all Nova Scotia public library catalogs for a particular book I want to borrow, or just browse the collections to find something interesting, make my choice and then, with a click, put the book on hold.

Tree of Life stained glass window, McConnell Library, Sydney, NS

Tree of Hope stained glass window, designed by John Tynski. McConnell Library, Sydney, NS (Spectator photo)

Soon after there will be an email notification that the requested item is available for pick-up at my branch, the McConnell library in Sydney. If a book I want isn’t available in Nova Scotia, someone on McConnell’s first-rate staff will search across libraries in Canada to find it and then arrange an inter-library loan for me. I sometimes feel that we library users are the privileged remnant of a fading aristocracy.

Yet the price of this and many other extraordinary services is just signing up for a free card. I can still remember my excitement the day my father drove me over town so I could get my first library card. I can even remember what I took home from the McConnell that day: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and a new book, its first due date stamped in the back, chosen for its bright shiny cover. It was the the best deal of my life and I’m amazed that everyone doesn’t take advantage of it.


Cultural center

Of course, library services at the McConnell, if not the charming old building itself, have changed greatly since that drive from Whitney Pier over half a century ago. Now there are computers and a photocopier; the display racks hold DVDs and audio books. You can even borrow snowshoes and tennis rackets. There’s a Story-Teller in Residence (this term it’s Ronald Labelle, taking up the mantle from Ken Chisholm). Online, library service is 24/7, and if you should ever find yourself awake and unable to sleep at 3 A.M., you can go to the great new CBRL homepage and download from their collection of eBooks and eAudiobooks. Theresa MacDonald, the technical service librarian, tells me patrons have used that service while vacationing in Florida and working in Hong Kong.

However, the greatest change, I would say, is that the McConnell library has become Sydney’s cultural center. This manifests itself in many ways, including all the services mentioned above, but the most prominent are the public offerings that come under CBRL’s umbrella term “Activities & Events.” These include annual presentations like the popular “Celtic Colours Conversation Series” and the showcasing of art for the Lumière festival. There are the weekly chess and sewing clubs, the latter known as “Fibre Lunch.” And then there are the one-time events, like book launches, work shops, performances and lectures.

Outstanding events I’ve attended in the past year or two include a talk by philosopher Richard Keshen on Leonard Cohen’s last album, “You Want it Darker;” the Cape Breton book launch of Phonse Jessome’s crime novel Disposable Souls; and the presentation by the Highland Arts Theatre of scenes from Scott Sharplin’s play “First Time Last Time.” And I’m a member of one of the McConnell reading groups, this one led by Joyce scholar Donnie Calabrese, who brought us safely to the end of that modernist minefield of pranks and profundity Ulysses, and is now guiding us through Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

Then there were the events I regret missing, like Wade Pfaff’s presentation during African History Month on Whitney Pier musician Cy McLean who, in 1944, was the first black Canadian to join the Canadian Musician’s Union. The Maritime Bhangra Dancers, of the famous Peggy’s Cove dance video, appeared last November. And in March, the library participated in the week-long “Isle of Story Festival,” about which, more later.


Hive of activity

One recent mid-afternoon, I dropped by the McConnell to speak with Tara MacNeil and Chris Thompson, who are in charge of “Activities & Events.” The library is a busy place that time of day. Chess enthusiasts were playing under the huge northern window in the periodicals area, moved from their usual location, in the Program Room, by a public lecture.

The children’s annex was bustling, as usual. All six computers were in use. At two tables in the reference section, people were working on jigsaw puzzles. Near the Reference Desk, a journalist conducting research sat before a stack of folders from the Vertical File. There were the usual students and readers, some taking advantage of the comfortable chairs near the Government Documents Collection. At the Collection’s edge, a patron was seated at the microfilm reader (which gives access to census materials and newspapers; the Cape Breton Post goes back to 1901).

To get to MacNeil’s and Thompson’s office, I passed through the heavy traffic zone that is home to the DVD collection, the paperback racks and the graphic novel shelves. Their office is next to the Nova Scotia Room, which holds shelves of historical materials and also doubles as a “reading room,” a quiet place to read or write. It’s a bit hectic again inside MacNeil’s and Thompson’s office, however.


Community partnership

Bulletin board, McConnell Library, Sydney N.S. (Spectator photo)

Bulletin board, McConnell Library, Sydney N.S. (Spectator photo)

A great deal goes into presenting all the library’s activities and events, a lot of hard work and talent that is behind the scenes and, if all goes well, as it routinely does, remains off-stage and invisible. Some indication of the hard work required was given to me by MacNeil’s and Thompson’s feverish pace that afternoon. Thompson, busy working on an upcoming event, was in and out of the office, unable to participate in the interview; the phone rang; and during my interview with MacNeil, visitors with pressing matters kept knocking on the door. MacNeil apologized for the interruptions, as she reentered the room and returned to searching the file cabinets for some old “Activities & Events” bulletins I had requested.

Handing me some of the bulletins, which cover all CBRL offerings, she noted, “It’s quite a wide, wide range of programs.”

“We do have creative and resourceful staff throughout our library region, who help to make library programs happen in their region.” MacNeil finally gets to sit for a moment, while I flip through the bulletins, and she adds after a moment’s reflection:

“And it’s a community partnership, like with the Celtic Colours Conversation Series. It’s a great program! The artists perform a bit and take questions. People get a chance to meet with the artists they saw perform on stage. Partnerships like that are very helpful in giving us a variety of quality programs. We couldn’t afford to take in all those talented musicians.”

It’s important to MacNeil that the services are accessible and free. “And we do try to include all ages, babies right up to adults and seniors.” The CBRL targets youth programs to all ages and developmental stages: babies, toddlers, preschoolers; school-age children and teens.

“And, naturally, we want to include all the communities and cultures.” She cites a successful event from last year she really liked:

“An art exhibit toured Nova Scotia libraries, a multi-media exhibit, Thundermaker by Mi’kmaw artist Alan Syliboy.”

I pointed out that the McConnell is becoming an important location for showcasing art.

“And we’re part of the downtown,” she says, “We like to participate in great community events like Lumière.”


Isle of Story

Erin Bedo reads to Marcus at the McConnell Library in Sydney, N.S. The two are regular visitors. (Spectator photo)

She gives as an example of the library’s role and how it works with the local community the recent, week-long “Isle of Story Festival.” Other partners in the festival included the Beaton Institute, Membertou Heritage Park and Cape Breton Books.

“In honor of Canada 150, the festival had a goal that 150 stories would be told, and we surpassed this number with just over 200 stories told.

“They were fantastic events! There were the Storytelling Circles; the launch of a digital story collection from Cape Breton Books titled Great Cape Breton Storytelling; an Indian Classical Dance demonstration; and a Story Slam.”

MacNeil sees the success of the festival as indicative of the changing role of the library:

“People are looking to get out, to participate, to learn. There’s been a shift in libraries, and they’re becoming more program oriented. They are still great places to read and study, but they’re also a place to make and do and for more learning leisure activities.”

MacNeil (rightly) believes that the library’s role can only continue to grow in our community. Indeed, library systems are expanding everywhere across North America, and they’re all offering amazing new services. The superb Toronto system now has 100 branches, with new ones always popping up and older ones undergoing extensive renovation.

Haligonians love their new central library on Spring Garden, and it has quickly become a popular tourist site.

Antigonish shows what can be done with limited resources, creativity and well-researched planning. In what was once a grocery store, the town now has a wonderful library and popular local hub right on Main Street. These libraries are sources of civic pride and vibrant community centers. Our McConnell is no different, and given what they’re doing with the resources and space they presently have it’s exciting to imagine the role it could play in the future of downtown Sydney.

(Next week, in Part 2 of this article, I’ll introduce some more of the staff who are making all this happen.)


Ken Jessome


Arts reporter Ken Jessome was born and raised in Whitney Pier. His latest play, The Girl Out Back, was presented at this year’s Boardmore One-Act Festival in March, where it won four awards, including best script.





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