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Leader of the library

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services

Hay River (Oct 21/02) - Sandy MacDonald is a librarian, but he doesn't look after just one library. As the territorial librarian for the Northwest Territories, he oversees an integrated system that allows anyone anywhere in the NWT to borrow material from any public library.

Originally from Cape Breton, MacDonald himself is an avid reader who enjoys mystery, biographical and historical books.

News/North: What does your work involve as territorial librarian?

Sandy MacDonald: The job involves being the supervisor of the provision of services to the public libraries in the Northwest Territories. There are nine public libraries and we provide essential services for these libraries. The major thing we do is run the automated library system which lists all our holdings throughout the Northwest Territories. It can be reached in any of the libraries or through our website. Anyone can get on there and see what's in any of the libraries. We also purchase books, catalogue the books, prepare them for the libraries and send them out to all libraries, except Yellowknife Public which does the majority of their own purchasing. For the other libraries, we send books, videos and CDs on a rotation basis. Every four months we send out a shipment to a library.

N/N: What does that rotation involve?

SM: It's the newer material that they haven't had before. All the libraries also receive some funds from their own communities, in which case they buy some books of their own, which are theirs. But they are also then put on our catalogue so everybody in the Northwest Territories can see.... If somebody in Inuvik wants to borrow a book from Hay River, they're able to do an inter-library loan with Hay River to get that book.... In addition to that, we provide through the website a book-by-mail service. Anybody in the Northwest Territories where they don't have a public library, if they send us a fax or an e-mail saying they would like to borrow something, we will provide them with material. That happens quite a bit.

N/N: What other services are offered by the NWT Library Services?

SM: Another program which has been operating for two years and is actually expanding is called virtual library. We put computers and a printer into communities which don't have public libraries. We put it in a place where the public can have access to it, such as a community learning centre. One of the things we have noticed this year is we have had almost a threefold increase in the number of people applying for borrow-by-mail, and one of the things we ask them the first time they apply is how they found out about it. The majority of them have said through the virtual library.

N/N: How many books are in the public libraries in the NWT?

SM: On our database, we have in the neighbourhood of 170,000 items. Of that, there are probably about 140,000 individual things. The other 30,000 are duplicates. That is books, videos and CDs.

N/N: How important are public libraries to literacy in the NWT?

SM: Time and time again you hear teachers and parents express how useful they are. Where the public libraries come in to good use is most of them run programs such as parents and tots, kids learning to read, and various programs for the younger kids. That happens throughout all the public libraries in the NWT. They also bring in whole grades, particularly younger kids, where the librarian shows them around and reads them a story. It tends to give them a good feeling about libraries so they come back.

N/N: How did you become territorial librarian?

SM: I arrived in the territories back in December 1999. But it was a return to the Northwest Territories. I had my first job as a librarian at the Arctic College Nunatta Campus in Iqaluit.... When the vacancy became available in 1999, it was advertised nationally and a number of people called and said this job is here. I had left Arctic College in the mid-1990s and had gone back South to Ontario for a few years.

N/N: Do you personally like to read?

SM: Yes. That's what probably brought me to librarianship. I had a first career as an army officer, but over the years I spent a great deal of time reading and looked at it and thought that would be nice, that I would like to continue my association with books and reading.

N/N: What sort of books do you like to read?

SM: I prefer biographies and histories. Those are my preferences, and mystery. I like P.D. James and the British mystery writers.

N/N: How important is reading, not to just a person's education, but to a person's well being?

SM: There isn't any subject in the world that hasn't been written on. You can't think of anything that you can't go and get a book on it. So first of all for satisfaction, whether you'd like to do furniture building, gardening or philosophy, you can get help if you know how to read and you can use a library. So just as a practical thing, there's more do-it-yourself books than just about anything else. That's the practical side. There's also the recreational side. You can pick up a book and, after you're finished working on how to fix your furnace, you can sit down with a great novel and completely relax. The third area it can help you is just your personal well being.

You can read material that shows that people have been through hard times and overcame them. If you can read, you can find help and assistance.

N/N: Is enough importance placed on libraries by government and society as a whole?

SM: No. It's a constant struggle throughout not only Canada but North America and Europe, the effort to keep libraries viable and keep them running. It's difficult, because it's very difficult for governments to show an outcome. If you look at a rink, you can show so many boys and girls played hockey. It's very easy to quantify some of these things. In the library, it's difficult to quantify what the benefit was for the people of the community. That's not to say they haven't over the years. We're fortunate that, from the GNWT in the last few years, we've had nice, steady support. It would be wonderful if we had more, but there are a lot of agencies that would say the same thing.

N/N: Do you get a lot of satisfaction out of your work?

SM: Yes. I have found that this particular job is very satisfying. First of all, I've been fortunate enough to visit a great many communities, not just the nine where we have public libraries but also the ones where we've been putting virtual libraries. So I have the opportunity to travel and see these libraries and see how communities are using the library. People tell you how great it is to use it. So it is a very satisfying job. It is a good working atmosphere here in the Northwest Territories for libraries, although everybody would like more funds. Libraries are treated very well by the Department of Education, Culture and Employment.

N/N: What are your goals as territorial librarian?

SM: I had two when I arrived. One was to increase the number of people who had access to our holdings. One that went along with that was to make sure that the new technology was made available and was a help to the people of the NWT.... More people know about borrow-by-mail and we are able to purchase more items. I think we have reached a great many more people than we had five years ago. And the technology is making a difference for them.