The McConnell: Upstairs and Down

Librarians, in my experience, are often bearers of good news.

For example, last year, while spending a day in the country, I dropped into the local library just to have a look around. The librarian was friendly and helpful, and not only informed me that I could borrow items there on my CBRL card, but told me about a new service called BARA, an acronym for “borrow anywhere, return anywhere.” BARA is a lending system that allows Nova Scotians to do just that: borrow items from any branch in the province and return them to any other branch. I left the library that summer morning with a crime novel for the beach, knowing I could conveniently return the items to my own branch back in town.

The Cape Breton Regional Library (CBRL), comprising 12 branches and two bookmobiles, provides many such services to the communities of Cape Breton County and Victoria County. And there is great staff at each location, happy to provide information on these services and how to access and use them.


Vertical File

Janet Gillis (Spectator photo)

Angela MacLeod, librarian assistant at the McConnell, filled me in on an interesting older service, the Vertical File. This is a collections of folders containing resource material on many people and topics that the McConnell has been gathering since the mid-sixties. “The folders include news clippings, annual reports, government documents, and whatever we can get our hands on,” MacLeod told me.

There are, to be precise, 1,799 folders, each with its own subject. The Vertical File focusing on Cape Breton includes folders titled Cape Breton Gaelic Society, Tarabish, Pride Festival, Moxham’s Castle, Cruise Ships, and Ships and Shipwrecks. Many noteworthy locals have their own folders, and among the entertainers and artists listed are Rita Joe, Winnie Chafe, Harry and Liz Boardmore, Duncan Wells, and Hugh MacLennan. Librarians are always working to make things better, and now, MacLeod informed me, she and her colleagues are in the process of making all the folders available on digital media.

Librarians are a special breed: resourceful, dedicated and just nice to deal with. Like Janet Gillis at the McConnell, who assisted me as I researched last week’s article. Gillis has been helping me for 30 years now — answering my questions, finding me books, helping me navigate new technology — not just efficiently and with a great sense of humor but, most impressively, without making me feel like too much of a pest. Gillis introduced me to some of the latest offerings while reminding me to mention the old-school amenities that the library still provides, like that near-obsolete convenience of the past, a pay phone; a bulletin board listing interesting events in the community from Gaelic classes to new theater productions; and the daily papers hung on newspaper sticks.



Other McConnell staffers include Erin Phillips, who is in charge of the Victoria County bookmobile operation, ordering DVDs and audio books, and writing occasional

Chris Thompson (l) and Tara MacNeil (r). Planning big events in a small space.

Chris Thompson (l) and Tara MacNeil (r). Planning big events in a small space. (Spectator photo)

articles informing the public about library operations. Shelly Brown, another creative type, is responsible for the puppet shows in the children’s section and also writes library articles. The newest addition to the staff is Lindsay Thompson, an actor and playwright who brings her creative talents to the children’s section.

Shareen Dulvy is responsible for the display board behind the circulation desk, which changes with the seasons and now features an Easter theme. Children love the display board and adults appreciate the skill and talent that goes into these charming art works. Dulvy is another librarian doing a great job with limited resources.

Every self-respecting library should have a labyrinthine basement, occupied by toiling employees amidst overflowing book stacks and the scattered materials of the institutions inner workings. The McConnell is the central branch of the Cape Breton Regional Library, and, as well as branch librarians, most CBRL headquarters’ staff work at the Sydney location. Seventeen of them work out of the crowded but cozy lower level of the McConnell, which I toured with Theresa MacDonald, the technical service librarian.

There I met Ian MacIntosh, deputy regional librarian, who was at his desk poring over book reviews in literary journals and newspapers. MacIntosh is responsible for keeping up the excellent “New Books” collection, among other duties, and he achieves maximum results on a tight budget. The New Books rack is now my first stop on a library visit (all New Additions, including DVDs and audio books, can be viewed on the collection’s page of the CBRL website). Faye MacDougall, regional librarian, also works out of the McConnell and, as staff made a point of emphasizing to me, is responsible for much of the exciting innovation taking place across the CBRL system.

In last week’s article I discussed “Activities & Events,” the responsibility of two other headquarters’ staff, Tara MacNeil and Chris Thompson. They’re still toiling away along with the rest of the headquarters’ staff, though in their upstairs office. Two upcoming events they’re working on feature writer Iain Reid. On Tuesday, April 25th, at 7 pm, he will be reading from his novel, a psychological thriller called I’m Thinking of Ending Things. And on the following day, at 10 am, he will be conducting a workshop called “Writing Your Life: A different kind of Memoir.” Reid is the author of two nonfiction books, as well as his debut novel, and the events look to be entertaining and a great opportunity to learn about good writing.


‘Fountain of information’

Lisa Mulak (Spectator photo)

I once regarded the librarian as a kind of detective, hunting down the answers to my questions, discovering the books I needed, even solving the mystery of some troublesome glitch in the library search engine. Now that I’m older and take a more sober view of the world, I’m inclined to view our librarians as magicians. They certainly seem to this layman to have an uncanny ability to conjure up answers and creative solutions, even inspiring ideas.

Doing a little research on-line for last week’s article, I came across comments about the McConnell on a tourism site. One couple who visited Sydney remarked on the library’s branch manager:

Lisa Mulak is a fountain of information . . . If one is interested in Cape Breton genealogy then Lisa is the person to ask. . . . Thanks to her we learned a lot about our roots and located information that we had been researching for some time.

I asked Mulak about her training in the field and if she was the official genealogist for the CBRL. She laughed, telling me she had no special training in Cape Breton genealogy. “I wouldn’t want anyone to come here thinking I was an expert.”

Mulak was able to share the information she had with the tourists and point out where to go for further information. The couple were left with the impression she was a professional genealogist. In reality, she’s a good librarian.

In my books, that’s even better.

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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