Canadian Culture at the Library

Lately, I’ve been reading Imagining Canadian Literature, the Selected Letters of Jack McClelland. Edited by Sam Solecki, the book is a fine collection of epistles, sometimes sweet, sometimes acerbic, written to friends and colleagues of the long-time president of McLelland and Stewart. (M&S was the dominant publisher of Canadian literature throughout the 20th century.  Solecki’s text reminds us that for over a half-century Jack McLelland played a vital role in the development of CanLit as a style, genre, and industry.)

Of particular interest to Canadian LIS professionals, aside from McClelland’s insight on the book trade, is his 1957 letter to Angus Mowat that expresses his displeasure about the establishment of a National Book Week by the Canadian Library Association in conjunction with the ALA.  Ever the patriot, McClelland was concerned that Canadian culture might be overwhelmed by a dominant American promotional campaign if a Canadian book week was to be celebrated at the same time as its American counterpart.  Although McLelland’s criticism is focused on the CLA, the cultural subtext is familiar to any Canadian who has ever discussed national (and cultural) identity:

I think the CLA should recognize that we are Canadian, that we want to continue being Canadian, and that if we want to continue to be Canadian for very long we can’t follow a course of passive acceptance of everything American and everything that seems easy.  Because of the proximity of the United States, Canada, I think, stands less chance of surviving as an independent entity, politically or culturally, than almost any nation in the world . . . I think the whole thing is appalling.  I hope those in the CLA that are responsible come to their senses, and I am prepared to be quoted in the strongest possible terms on the subject. (p. 30)

The passage of time allows us to reply that Canadian literature has become strong and vibrant, of course.  Although our publishing industry isn’t in the best shape it could be, the Canadian public is still discovering fine authors with incredible literary talent.  And our National Book Week has since morphed into a Canadian Library Month, with no one less that the Governor-General herself as its patron, so we should hardly fear an American dominance in our literary scene anymore.  Nonetheless, McLelland’s 52-year-old letter reminds us that Canadian identity, even though it is not as fragile as he thought it to be, remains something worth fighting for.  Although “Canadian Culture” (or just culture in the raw) is not something that most librarians think about in our day-to-day work lives, every now and again things occur –  an author’s reading for instance, or a Canada Council grant, or even just reading a few publisher’s letters as I am doing now – which remind us that our profession is in fact part of the culture industry.  Librarians don’t necessarily create Canadian Culture, but we definitely nurture it and promote it.  Libraries stopped being mere reading rooms decades ago and are now cultural hubs in the communities they serve. Like publishers, librarians are on the ground pushing and promoting Canadian culture to the wider public.

In short, what I’m drawing from McLelland’s letter are the concerns that still resonate in Canada about identity, culture, and nationhood, and how librarians affect and are affected by them.  We may spend the brunt of our day negotiating contracts, sitting in meetings, weeding materials or developing policies, but to our patrons we often stand as cultural agents, as the people who develop cultural collections that are representative of the community and then help these communitiy members locate themselves in it.

Are these platitudes?  Perhaps.  But on the other hand, CanLit and CanCon is as strong as ever, and Canadian public libraries play an active role in the development of a Canadian cultural identity.  Librarians should remain attuned to the cultural makeup of the communities they serve so that the collection and the institution reminds representative and vibrant.

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