Welcome, bienvenue! An interview with Dean Colleen Cook

By Maya Willard-Stepan, Outreach Assistant, Humanities & Social Sciences Library

With 12 branches and more than seven million items, the McGill Library is one of the largest – and most enjoyed aspects of our university. No one knows this better than Colleen Cook, Trenholme Dean of Libraries. Since joining McGill in 2011, Dean Cook has seen the libraries grow and evolve alongside the rest of campus. As her final day at McGill nears (Dean Cook’s mandate ends in August 2022), we’ve gotten her behind-the-service-desk take on all things McGill Library.

Colleen Cook, Trenholme Dean of Libraries, 2021

Tell me about your history with the library. What drew you to McGill?

I flew into Montreal in the dead of winter on December 15, 2010 from Houston, Texas with my cat, Fuzzer, tucked into a cat carrier under the seat in front of me. I had been Dean of the Library at Texas A&M University in central Texas for 7 years and was very happy to be beginning a new adventure at McGill as Dean of the Library. I began my job the beginning of January 2011, and have enjoyed almost every moment of the past decade. I have said that I believe I have the best job on campus, and it’s true. However, I still find Montreal winters a bit daunting. I still kind of feel as though I’m living on an ice planet in winter.

I was attracted by McGill because of its reputation, and status, its international atmosphere, and by the diversity of Montreal. Although I really only began to learn French when I came here, and manage only intermediate level French, I love the multilingual environment, having been a language (German) major for my B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. People have different personalities when they speak different languages. I’ve always been intrigued by that and am still.

What is your favorite part about the library community?

I think I like everything! I have always enjoyed libraries, since I was a little girl and my older sister introduced me to the city public library in the town in north Texas where I grew up. I am particularly attracted to the largest research libraries in the world, such as the one at McGill, because they are so incredibly complex. We deal with all of humankind’s recorded knowledge, all subjects, all eras, all languages, all forms. We own many one-of-a kind materials. We answer user questions, and are service providers. I like the fact that our users need and appreciate us. The more traffic we have, the more questions we answer, the more we help students and researchers, the more buzz I feel when I walk through the library buildings, the better I like it. 

As an administrator at one of the world’s great universities, I enjoy working with many smart people, who have all sorts of interests and jobs. Because a research library is a diverse, large organization, I get to work every day with all kinds of interesting people. And we’re all here to support education and discovery and we get to make a living doing it.

If you had to say one thing to students who are accessing library services, what advice would you give?

This one is easy. Two things actually. Don’t hesitate to ask a question and find your library comfort zone. There is no such thing as a stupid question. Let us help you! We want to! We are the canines of the academic world, we live to please! Find your comfort zones in the library buildings according to your need and mood. Do you need a ninja quiet space to solve a calculus problem? Do you need a loud and raucous space to solve a calculus problem? Do you learn better in a group or alone, or both depending on the assignment? We have the spaces for you!  

Do you have a favourite spot in any of the libraries?

Oh my goodness, how do you choose among your children? The Octagon Room in the Islamic Studies Library? The lobby of McLennan during class changes? The views to the Mountain from the 6th floor of McLennan? The Birks Reading Room? The modern, black, gray and white of Music? Or the stairs and courtyard at Law? The historical Reading Room of Redpath Hall? The wooden beams of the ceiling in the early 20th century additions to Redpath Hall that aren’t open to the public now but will be with Fiat Lux? The serene library at the gorgeous Macdonald Campus right on one of the world’s most wonderful rivers?  I mean, I guess I can’t answer this question.

Tell me a little-known secret about the libraries.

Libraries are fun! Some of the McGill Library’s little-known facts will surprise you. The oldest item in our collection is an Assyrian clay tablet from 700 B.C.E. that lists medical recipes. We have materials in over 250 languages. We have artworks in over 90 McGill buildings across three campuses. One of the smallest items in our collections, Hazeltine’s Pocket Almanac from 1893 measures in at just 1.8 inches whereas one of the tallest items is Marcel Barbeau’s monumental sculpture Fenêtre sur l’avenir at a whopping 12 feet tall.

Also, libraries are not just books! One of the quirkiest items in our collections is Stephen Leacock’s walking stick. And by far the heaviest item we own is our 200-year old Columbian Printing Press in our Book Arts Lab that weighs in at around 2,300 pounds.

Over the past year, we have developed three unique online games. Each one is a world unto itself and tests your knowledge of McGill’s campus and history through a wide range of clues and quizzes. See? I told you Libraries were fun.

Why do you think the libraries are so important to the McGill community?

This question makes me pause to think. I’ve been at several other universities and experienced their libraries as a user or an employee. I honestly think that the relationship between the McGill Library and the McGill community is special. It’s different. It’s closer, warmer, more friendly. We in the library feel that we are an integral part of the university community. The place wouldn’t be the same without us. Why? I can speculate. First could be geography. The whole west side of the Green is devoted to McLennan-Redpath. And right across to the north is the Islamic Studies Library and right across the Green is Schulich. Our special libraries are woven into the very fabric of the faculties they serve: Law, Music, Macdonald campus. Libraries are physical symbols of the life of the mind. And today they have become the agoras, the meeting places of our times, where serendipitous encounters produce great thoughts….whether physically or virtually. The people who built McGill way back when and over time understood the place of libraries in the life of the mind and they situated them so that they would be convenient to users, but also in prestigious spots. Libraries belong to everyone; they are ecumenical. McGill’s long roster of architects and decision-makers chose the best spots to site its libraries. All knowledge is vital; it is the great equalizer.

Less lofty perhaps is the fact that it is very cold here in the winter, and there aren’t too many other places for people to go to get out of the weather.  I do seem to dwell on weather….brrrrrr.

Then there is the fact that our library collections are wonderful. They are the result of two centuries of investment. To put that into perspective, just last year, we spent $22,142,088 on collections. Think of that investment over 200 years. THAT is the collection that our community has at its fingertips. (And we can borrow anything for you that we don’t have!)

Finally, a library would be a warehouse of random objects, if it weren’t for the people who have laboured for lifetimes to acquire, make accessible and interpret humankind’s accumulated wisdom. It takes flesh and blood human beings to make sense of the deluge of information that has been created over our time on the planet. Without the McGill Library workers who made finding and understanding that information possible, if not always easy, it would just be more data and not transformable into knowledge by students and researchers. 

There is simply an appreciation for libraries built into McGill’s personality. I felt it the day I arrived and have been very fortunate to be able to work in such an amiable and appreciated environment for the past decade. 

Is your reading preference print books or eBooks?  Settle the debate.

Oh dear. I like eBooks because they are convenient. I have an extensive Kindle library of personal reading. Saves on luggage space when traveling and I don’t have to lean over and turn off the bedside table lamp at night as I fall asleep. I just fall asleep and wake up with the Kindle in my bed. When I finish a book in a series, I can immediately buy the next one.

Ah, but the feel of paper, the mischievous pleasure of dog-earing a corner to mark my place when I know I am not supposed to, the smell of paper, the heft of a book. And then there are the books that truly are sacred objects. The Book of Kells in the Trinity University Library in Dublin perhaps the most beautiful of them all. Children’s picture books. Pull out books, small press printings. I give up. I can’t answer this question either!

Looking back on your time at the library, what are some successes you have seen to improving services?  What challenges do you believe lie ahead?

Goodness, so many wonderful things have happened during my time here. We have had university support for ensuring that our collections continue to grow. I have very much enjoyed working with student leadership each year, and am always a bit sad to see their terms come to an end.  But I’m always rewarded with a new group of talented and enthusiastic students to get to know. Working with students, we have expanded hours, and now stay open 24×7 for much of the year. We hire students to work in the libraries. We have been able to upgrade furniture and create a better ambiance generally for users. We have opened up loan periods and discontinued fines.

We listen very intently to what our students have to say.

We are opening up our rare and special collections for all to see. And we added University Archives and the Visual Arts Collection to the Library organization. 

And, of course, there is Fiat Lux – our vison to transform the McLennan-Redpath Complex for the 21st century and beyond! And yes, it is really happening. The McLennan-Redpath complex – thanks to generations of support from university administrators, hardworking Friends of the Library and benefactors – will be transformed to a space that McGill and Montreal will beam with pride about. 

What is a message you would like to share with incoming students?

Welcome! Come in! Explore! Enjoy! Come see us! Learn a lot! We love you! We’re proud of you! The McGill Library is your home away from home during your time at McGill and beyond.

Some helpful links:

Library services and spaces reopen September 1, 2021: https://www.mcgill.ca/library/node/10554/.

Library Orientation webpage: https://mcgill.ca/library/orientation.

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