Q & A with Chris Lyons, New Associate Dean of ROAAr

Christopher Lyons recently stepped into the role of Associate Dean of ROAAr, McGill Library’s rare and archival collections group. With Prof. Nathalie Cooke on sabbatical, Lyons will be leading ROAAr for the next year, bringing his wealth of experience and passion for history and teaching into his new role. Read on for an informal Q & A with Chris.

A collector through and through, Chris Lyons has over 40 typewriters in his personal collection.

Tell us about the road that brought you here.

I have always loved books and history.  After graduating with a BA in history in 1989 I worked as a casual in the McGill Library, including in Rare Books and Special Collections. At the time, I remember saying that I wanted to do an MA in history, work in international diplomacy, then become a librarian.  It took a bit longer than I expected, and I also ended up teaching for a few years, but I finally landed here about 18 years ago.

Describe yourself in three words:

Enthusiastic, funny, energetic

One of Chris’ 40 typewriters

Tell us 3 facts about yourself.

  • I once drove a steam train in India.
  • I own 40 vintage manual typewriters ☹
  • Friends and even perfect strangers tell me I look like Stephen Colbert

You are an avid collector. What do you collect professionally and personally?

Professionally is obvious – rare books, although not so much in my new position.  In my personal life I am something of a magpie.  I have about 4,000 books at home.  I especially collect books by and about George Orwell, Montreal, Russian literature and 20th-century history.  I also collect “stuff” like typewriters, old signs and tins, and vintage radios and telephones.  

Tell us the story behind the phone booth in your office.

phone in a wooden booth
Phone Booth dating ca. 1920-30.

It was being thrown out by the telecommunications department of McGill.  I am guessing it dates back to the 1920s or 30s and I assume it was kept because it is so beautiful – it’s made with stained oak.  I gather that the space where it was stored was needed, so it was offered to the library.  My colleague rightly saw no justification for keeping it, but the idea of tossing it out was just too much for me, so I stashed it in my office.

If you had to pick a favourite item from the collections, which one would it be?

That’s like being asked to pick your favourite child!  I think I am most proud of having acquired a copy of the first thesis ever written at McGill.  William Logie was the first graduate of McGill.  He graduated in medicine in 1833.  All medical students had to write a thesis in the 19th century.  It was not uncommon to get a few copies printed.  When I was at the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, I noticed that there were three known copies of the Logie thesis, all held in UK libraries.  I was very lucky that the Wellcome Library in London graciously gave us their copy.  The title by the way was “Medical Inaugural Dissertation on Cynanche Trachealis.”

If not a librarian, what would you be?

A flaneur.

What do you appreciate about ROAAr? 

How my colleagues are able to bring such wonderful collections to life!  Without people to animate them, collections are beautiful but lifeless objects.

Which famous actor would play you in the movie of your life? 

Oscar the Grouch!  He is hilarious in a cranky way and had the best lines on Sesame Street.  He also collected lots of “stuff”!

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ROAAr collections are open to all, consult collections during opening hours at the ROAAr Reading Room or at the Osler Library of the History of medicine.

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