50 Years of Library Service (1924-1974): Martha McCallum in her own words

To ring out McGill’s Bicentennial, the Library is featuring an Unsung Hero of yore. On January 7th, 1974, Miss Martha McCallum, Gift and Exchange Clerk, celebrated her 50th anniversary as an employee of McGill University Libraries….Miss McCallum received a letter from Dr. Bell, Principal and Vice Chancellor. Quoting from this letter Dr. Bell writes, “I would like to congratulate you most heartily on this remarkable record of service, which must be almost unequalled in the university.” The following quote was found in a letter received from Dr. Farley, Director of Libraries, on the day of the anniversary, “It is comforting for an administrator to realize that sometimes experienced staff can find their jobs interesting enough to stay on for a long period of time.” On January 7, 1924, Miss McCallum was met at the door of the Redpath Library (now Redpath Hall) by the Building Janitor on this first day at work, to be advised in a very unpleasant manner, that this was a terrible place to work and that she would not last one month. Miss McCallum’s reply – “I expect to achieve the longest service record of anyone in the history of McGill University.”

– written by George McCubbin, Acquisitions Department, Library News, February 1974

Below is a testimonial written by McCallum that appeared in the same edition of Library News. Read an interview with Martha to learn more about the history of the Library’s people, services and spaces.

When I joined the Library Staff, the entire Staff numbered about thirty people. We all knew each other and there was a very friendly atmosphere. The University Librarian personally supervised every phase of the library work. Every day, he made what he called his rounds. He spoke to each of us and made sure that we were doing our work in accordance with his instructions.

Under the University Librarian, the senior member of the staff was the Head of the Circulation Department, Miss Laura A. Young, a lady of outstanding ability and great personal charm, who conducted the work of the Library with meticulous efficiency.

Redpath Library Building, circa 1950s, McGill University Archives, PR037992

On joining the staff, we were told exactly what was required of us and we were given instructions concerning dress and deportment. We were told that coming to work without a hat was undignified, and we never went outdoors at any season without hat and gloves. The importance of quietness in a library was impressed upon us. We were expected to “speak low, tread softly through these halls where wisdom lay enshrined; where slept in silent majesty the monarchs of the mind.”

Every member of the staff was required to have some knowledge of every aspect of the work, and to be able to fill in in any capacity where help was needed. Consequently, although my official job all through the years has been ”Gifts and Exchanges,” I have worked concurrently in many other capacities. We were given excellent training. We took great pride in our work, we enjoyed it, and we appreciated the privilege of being part of this great University.

The Cutter card catalogue was a model of perfection. The cards were typed by highly qualified typist and each card was carefully scrutinized by a member of the Cataloguing staff. No mistake ever passed unnoticed. If a single letter was a fraction of a millimetre out of line, a repairman was immediately sent for to check the alignment of the typewriter.

Redpath Library Reading Room, 1950. McGill University Archives, PR032170

The Redpath reading room which is now Redpath Hall, was divided into two halves. One half was reserved for ladies, the other for gentlemen. All readers were kept under constant surveillance. Anyone caught talking or creating noise of any kind was immediately suppressed. Any man who crossed over to the ladies’ side of the room was ordered back to his place, and if some poor fellow dared to remove his jacket on a hot day, he was told to put it on at once.

The McLennan Travelling Libraries were housed in the Redpath Library, and we were frequently permitted to set up libraries for shipment to remote communities. The famous Gest Library of Oriental Research was also housed here and it attracted many distinguished visitors to McGill. Each year, we attended a wonderful party in celebration of the Chinese New Year.

Across the years, the Library has entertained many distinguished visitors. Among them I recall Queen Marie of Roumania, The King and Queen of Siam, The Emperor of Ethiopia, The Princess Royal, and many others.

During the nineteen sixties, the whole library system was re-organized. The University Librarian became the Director; The Order Department became Acquisitions; The Presentation Department became Gifts and Exchanges: The Periodical Department became Serials. All of this was quite disturbing to me. However, I soon became reconciled to the changes and perhaps, after all, they were improvements. To Dr. Farley, Miss Cole, Mrs. Little, Mr. McCubbin and all the members of the Library Staff, I would like to say thank you for making this anniversary such a happy occasion for me.

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