Celebrating a quarter century of support: an interview with Friends of the Library Chair Cecil Rabinovitch

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Friends of the Library of McGill University. In 1989, a small group of Montrealers met in support of the Library’s mission.   Some were McGill graduates, many were not, but all understood the significance of the Library to McGill, to research, and to learning. Library Matters spoke with Cecil Rabinovitch, Chair of the Friends of the Library about the history behind and importance of the Friends.

Library Matters (LM): What is the most important thing that the “Friends” do?

Cecil Rabinovitch (CR): Trying to make people aware of the Library, what it does, and the role that it plays within McGill, by bringing them into the campus and bringing them into library spaces so that they can see for themselves how active it is and how different it is from possibly when they were there last as a student. At the same time, the Friends try to take the message out with letters, newsletters, and with special events and lecture programs that keep people not just informed but interested in how knowledge and learning originate with libraries.

LM: The Friends of the Library is probably best known for its lecture series. Are there any lectures that stand out for you?

CR: Yes, I can think of a couple. My own background is in the arts. I myself am an art administrator and I can think of three lectures that I have been to who have spoken to me in ways that are new. The first would be Glenn Lowry from the MOMA who gave the F.R. Scott Lecture in 2012. He talked about the legal aspects around restoring stolen art to the owners and the role of the museum in safeguarding art as well as the kind of legal tangles that that causes. What an exceptional speaker. He spoke for 45 minutes without a note. He was articulate and prepared and really compelling as a speaker. The presentation as well as the subject was wonderful.

The second was just last Fall at our Shakespeare Lecture – Seana McKenna. This was a master class in classical theatre or Shakespeare technique, aspects of which I knew about of course because I’ve been involved in theatre, but I have never heard it talked about in that very precise and evocative way. Seana demonstrated some of the techniques and talked about the training she goes through to get into character. It really great was for the general public to get an insight into the way actors prepare themselves for the role.

The third was Antoni Cimolino, who is now the artistic director of the Stratford Festival and had just entered the job. He was very, very new in this role. He talked about Shakespeare on film, Shakespeare on the stage and it was really very interesting. His talk also explored the false claims about Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s person as well as his place in history. For me those are the best ones – very personal highs. Somebody else, if they’ve gone to all or many of our lectures, is going to have a whole different set of memories.

Glenn D. Lowry, Director MoMA delivers the 2012 F.R. Scott Lecture entitled "A Fine Balance: When Art and the Law Meet"

Glenn D. Lowry, Director MoMA delivers the 2012 F.R. Scott Lecture entitled “A Fine Balance: When Art and the Law Meet”

LM: Let’s go back in history. How did the Friends of the Library start?

CR: It started in 1989. There were a few people who worked in the Library and who wanted to develop a group of supporters outside the campus. And so they reached out, they started building this bridge. This group of supporters has had its ups and downs for 25 years. And I think its strong now, which is a nice position to be in. To celebrate our quarter century, we are going to have a party. It’s going to be at the end of the 25th year at the annual general meeting which typically is small, but lively. This year it’s going to be big and lively. Usually we have it in the Rare Books and Special Collections section of the McLennan Library Building, and this year we are looking at a bigger hall. We hope to have some rare books on display and hope to have special guests. It’ll be in November.

First official announcement regarding the establishment of the Friends of the Library. McGill University Libraries Gazette, May 1989.

First official announcement regarding the establishment of the Friends of the Library. McGill University Libraries Gazette, May 1989.

LM: When did you start to become involved with the Friends?

CR: I think it was just about 5 years ago. I’ve been president for 3 years. The end of this year is the end of my term. I was recruited because I had other friends who were part of the group. I’m really glad to be a part of this group of people.

Cecil Rabinovitch introduces 2013 MacLennan Lecture speaker Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, April 2013.

Cecil Rabinovitch introduces 2013 MacLennan Lecture speaker Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, Birks Reading Room, April 2013.

LM: Can you tell us a little bit about the friendships that you’ve made? Have they kind of grown out of the work?

CR: When I became chair, I knew a few people. What has happened is I’ve gotten to know a lot more people a lot better. People who, like me, cherish the books and cherish the role of libraries. We have that in common and so it’s been a rich time getting to know a lot more people. It truly has been wonderful. The Friends’ executive group now has about 25 people on it. It is made up of McGill Alumni, ex-librarians, students, faculty – all the people who have used and continue to treasure the library. A full half of the members are Montrealers, who are not connected officially to the library, but who want to support it. There never were any committees before. The structure was very, very lose. Now it’s a little more organized with committees making decisions jointly about events. We also have committees that try and expand the membership and we have a committee that does communications in order to promote what we do to the world. It’s been fabulous working with a group of likeminded spirits.

LM: And what can people do if they want to find out more about the friends?

CR: I would encourage people to attend a free lecture! We have two lectures coming up that I think will be outstanding. The first is our F.R. Scott Lecture for this year featuring Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson on October 20th at the Birks Reading Room. The second, our Shakespeare Lecture, done in partnership with the Stratford Festival, is a conversation with the grand dame of Canadian theatre Martha Henry on November 4 at 5:30pm in Pollack Hall. Seats are still available but going fast. RSVPs are a must for our lectures!

Our website is also great starting point.  You can read more about our lecture series that is open to the general public as well as special events that only Friends members are eligible to attend. In June, renowned historian Desmond Morton spoke to a group of Friends about World War I propaganda by using the Library’s extensive Canadian War Poster Collection.  This small event that only members can attend is one of the bonuses if you become a Friend of the McGill Library. You get first dibs at attending the lectures. It is a great way of supporting the library, supporting learning, supporting McGill and being informed and entertained at the same time. I mean, what can be better than that?

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