I rarely blur the line between my role on the Toronto Public Library Board and my writing for Spacing but today is an exception. On February 25, I attended the Ontario Public Library Awards, which are exactly as billed. Among awards handed out is the Lifetime Achievement Award, this year bestowed upon the recently retired chief librarian of the Woodstock Public Library, Stephen Nelson. While succinct, Nelson beautifully captures the importance of public libraries and highlights the vital role women have played in shaping this particular institution in spite of being noticeably under represented in the ranks of library management.
Save some timely off-the-cuff remarks about women’s curling and hockey, here is Stephen Nelson’s acceptance speech:
It’s a great honour to receive this award tonight but I can’t help feeling that there are others who are more deserving of it than I am. I feel that acutely as a man in a predominantly female profession and in a world that’s still largely controlled by men.
I believe that librarianship as a profession is associated with a specific set of values and that those values have largely been shaped by women. Thanks to their influence librarians stand for the propositions that entering into partnerships is preferable to exercising power, that wealth should be shared, that intellectual freedom should never be sacrificed to an intolerant orthodoxy and that reading is a right not a privilege. We may not command as much respect, power or wealth as professions like business or politics, professions that remain bastions of male privilege, but we stand for something brighter and more beautiful.
I’d like to pay tribute to all of the amazing women that I have known in this profession who have exemplified these values. Women like Lee Bennett and Julie Segal who demonstrated for me what being a librarian meant when I was growing up in Woodstock, librarians like Penny Quinn and Susan Start who I had the privilege to work with throughout my career in Woodstock and librarians like Jane Horrocks and Adele Kostiak whose leadership I was proud to follow in the wider library world. Thank you for wanting me on your voyage.
Photograph by Newton Free Library.