Interview with Roch Carrier

National Librarian of Canada

By: Alison Blackburn & Meagan Morash

Photo by D. Gwyn

Imagine is a cold, winter morning with a wind chill factor of roughly minus forty-five (not too much of a stretch). The residents of an upper-middle class street are easing their way into the day. The sun has not made an appearance yet and still there are those out scraping their windshields, getting into their cars and heading off to work. The last thing you would want to be doing is trudging up the front walk of Mr. and Mrs. Jones' suburban split-level house, complete with two-car garage and station wagon, bowed under the weight of your burden. You ring the doorbell with your elbow, knowing that you are interrupting morning coffee, breakfast and CBC Playground. The door opens. The time has come for you to convince someone in a housecoat and slippers that you have something they need: knowledge, status, a piece of the past, a glimpse of the future. In sort, a set of encyclopedias - twenty volumes of gold embossed, vinyl bound omniscience. Sign up today and you get a complimentary dictionary and alarm clock.

Everyone has to start somewhere; in fact an experience similar to the one above can be found on the resume of our current National Librarian, Roch Carrier, who early on in his career learned the value of books and the power of a good sales pitch. His recent appointment as National Librarian will no doubt put these skills to the test as he moves forward to raise the profile of the National Library, and reinforce the importance of libraries and literacy across the country. Mr. Carrier visited McGill's Graduate School of Library and Information Studies in early November and spoke to a full house of staff and students about his role, his vision and his thoughts about information and society.

(For a full report on his speech see David Kemper's article)

Before Mr. Carrier headed back to the hallowed halls of the National Library he sat down to talk with two first year students. He described himself as "being a man of the book", and seeing that he is an author, this is not an inaccurate description. There has however been some controversy over his appointment as National Librarian. When it was announced in July last year that the author and former director of the Canada Council would take over as National Librarian, the Canadian Library Association voiced its disapproval with the government's decision. The CLA has always maintained that any appointed person should have a recognized degree in librarianship, and detailed knowledge of the issues and opportunities faced by Canadian libraries gained through direct experience in library operations. Other desired qualities noted by CLA members include: proven leadership, management and political skills, an international profile and scholarly credentials. The National Librarian should also have a vision for the application of information technology in National Library programs. While Roch Carrier does not typify the textbook candidate, he does possess all of the desired qualities that CLA outlines above. With regards to direct experience and detailed knowledge of library operations, he says he will rely on the staff at the National Library, whom he describes as being extremely competent. He makes no pretenses about being a librarian and admits to never having been in a library school before his presentation. He says he has a lot to learn about the internal details of the profession. Despite what some consider a local of professional qualifications, he can and does have a vision for libraries across Canada and for what his job as National Librarian will be. His focus will be on lobbying for, and promoting and increasing the status of libraries in the eyes of the government and the public.

In order to better understand the status quo of Canadian libraries, Carrier was preparing to set off on a two-week, whirlwind tour across Canada, including a stop-over in the new territory of Nunavut. His goal..."to learn about what we are doing, what we are not doing, and what we should be doing. I want to visit our partners", he said. His aim was to get a sample of the reality of Canadian libraries, both big and small and to assess their efficiency, in order to help build a strategic plan for the future. When contacted earlier this month, Carrier said that he found the tour very educational. "The library community did not hesitate to express...their appreciation for the National Library's services, but also where they felt we might be more relevant to them. I can tell you I was most impressed by the level of commitment and the creative ways in which library staff across the country are endeavouring to serve their various communities." Carrier wanted to include the areas furthest from Ottawa first; therefore, the tour did not include Ontario or Quebec. He plans to break these provinces into sections and schedule one or two-day visits on a regular basis to cover as much as he can.

When asked about his priorities, Carrier listed three main challenges he faces as National Librarian. The first and foremost is to interpret the governmental mandate for the National Library and fit it into the newly delineated vision. Challenge number two is to take an objective look at what the National Library is doing, and to identify areas for improvement. Challenge number three is to increase funding for libraries. He did not believe that asking for a bigger budget was feasible without addressing the first two challenges on his list. "[Budget] cuts need to be corrected and won't unless people know what libraries are doing." Carrier said. He plans on getting the word out.

"Libraries need to be connecting with the people who are paying for them" says Carrier; "and ideally the kid in the most remote area, sitting at his computer, should be able to go through the network pf the National Library, or any library, to get information as easily as the student at a large university like McGill." He felt that, as a whole, libraries did not need to radically change, but what needed to change was the public's perception of libraries. According to Carrier "about 80% of people believe that librarians are the ones dusting off the books and that's all they do, even if, every week, those same people go to the local library and see the activities, programs and services the librarians provide to the community." He claims that even excellent products need a lot of wrapping, and in a world of high tech information storage and retrieval, libraries and librarians must strive to remain competitive and visible. He even goes so far as to say that information is sexy and therefore libraries can be viewed as being sexy as well. Just think of the marketing potential!

When talking specifically about the National Library, Carrier states that, in his opinion, its primary function is to preserve the national historic record. Cutbacks, however, make this a difficult task particularly in the area of storage. Many valuable books are at risk of being damaged by building and storage facilities that are inadequate or not properly maintained because there is no money to do so.

Aside from library business, Mr. Carrier also shared his views about a growing corner of the publishing industry in Canada - "children's books are a Canadian success story" he said. The growth in the Canadian children's market has provided a source of identity for young Canadians. "Why should the Americans always be the heroes?" he asked with a smile. Our discussion about children's literature prompted Carrier to touch upon another issue that is very important to him - literacy. He was passionate about literacy and felt that it was not just the responsibility of the school system, but that the main responsibility for literacy belongs to the family unit and then society as a whole. Despite his rigorous schedule, Carrier remained open to the possibility of visiting schools and reading stories to young children...and maybe even an adult or two.

Finally, his advice to library students - " you should acquire the best technological knowledge you can...and if I may," he said, "I would advise you to get some real business learn some management skills, to be confident, to be flexible, to keep well informed." And yet, when asked by The Ottawa Citizen what he would include in a personal time capsule, the item that topped Roch Carrier's list was a pencil, "with a pencil you can build planes, monuments, buildings, computers." Although his days of selling encyclopedias ended long ago, Carrier once again has many doors to knock on, and many people to convince that he has something they need.

Click here to go on a virtual tour of the National Library

Photo by K. Kovacs