Librarians look back on years of change

Beaches branch library staff Rita Connoly, with 29 years experience, left, Gwen Sims, with 30 years, and Maureen McPhee, with 35 years, all retired on March 31. PHOTO: Phil Lameira / Beach Metro News

Three long-time Beaches library staff have retired. Maureen McPhee, Rita Connolly and Gwen Sims all called it a day at the end of March, taking with them more than 50 years of work at the branch. As fate would have it, the three spent their final weeks on strike, settling just in time for the last day of the month.

Each of them also worked at other branches, but each says the Beach branch is a special one because Beachers have made it so.

“It’s one of the busiest branch libraries. It’s part of people’s daily lives. You go to the grocery store, and you go to the library. People really complained when we were closed in 2004 (for renovation),” said Sims.

“It’s an intense branch. The readers are very sophisticated, not just casual readers. It’s sometimes difficult because it is a very busy branch with few guaranteed quiet periods,” added McPhee.

Connolly agreed, and said “it’s very family oriented. It’s in the park basically, which helps make it popular. And the original architecture is just priceless. It’s cherished in the community, people are happy to have such an amazing branch.”

The branch, which is nearing its 100th birthday, is a Carnegie library, built to a designated architectural design. In 2011 it had 251,000 visits, an average of 4,800 a week. McPhee calls the activities and operations there “a microcosm of everything that’s going on.”

Staff have always been a part of the branch’s attraction, dealing with changes and supporting programs. Sims, who is a born Beacher, said “it was my first library and my first introduction to books. We came in from an entrance in the park, and Miss Stock would read us stories by the fire, and it was a real fire.”

Maintaining tradition, she now works with a program for the youngest set, ranging from newborns to 18 months. They giggle at the games, and “dance a lot,” but the idea is “to introduce babies to books, and they actually pay attention when you read to them.”

Connolly and her colleague Eniko Szabo put on puppet shows, inventing their own choreography and music, putting a spin on old stories.

McPhee hosts and helped organize the monthly book club, this one for adults.

Library staff have not only moved with the changes in the system and the ever-increasing presence of computers, they have helped library users learn to navigate them. These three all retain an affection and respect for books and for the basics of what libraries offer. They believe firmly that libraries and paper books have a future.

“There will always be a need for libraries,” said Sims. “They are the last democratic institution, a place where people can come for free for pleasure and for knowledge. Lots of people are coming in to download books, but lots also say, ‘no, I want to be able to turn pages and read’.”

“People do a lot of their daily living online now. I don’t know what will happen in the future, but I hope print won’t disappear. I really like print,” said McPhee.

“I think the buildings are one of the things people value the most about libraries, and I think the library has always made available more than people can acquire on their own,” she added.

Connolly agreed, saying that the books and research materials that libraries offer can add fresh insights or serve as correctives to unsourced material on the web.

What are their own favorite books, the sort of thing they might read now that they have more time to do so? McPhee takes the classic route and says Jane Austen. Connolly chooses a current fictionalized story of Victor Hugo’s wife titled The Reinvention of Love, and Sims cites the best-selling Half Blood Blues about a jazz musician in Nazi Germany.

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This article brought back many happy memories for me.

I spent many wonderful hours at the Beach library during the 70s. The second floor was my favourite refuge. I’d go up there with my current book and read for hours.

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