Laila El Mugammar is a Sudanese-Canadian writer and University of Guelph student.
The first time I thumbed through an illuminated medieval manuscript, a special collections librarian, Melissa McAfee, cautioned me not to touch the text itself. It was printed on vellum made from the skin of an unborn calf, which made the gold-embellished pages slippery and the lettering vulnerable to the oils on my fingertips. I was a fumbling, anxious, third-year student, holding a Vulgate Bible that predated the printing press. These manuscripts were on loan to our library from France, and it was my job as a student assistant to prepare them for their debut in our exhibit room. I nestled them into acid-free book cradles that would support their fragile spines, and held open their delicate pages with “book snakes”—weighted strings used for precious materials. These manuscripts would sit in the same glass display cases that I admired for hours on the day I first entered the library.
Between Romanesque halls and residences on the University of Guelph’s central campus stands a six-storey brutalist building with a stern but kind face. Floor-to-ceiling windows swaddle its entrance: enough to let light in, but not enough light to weather the books. Shelves holding free resources, citation guides and writing-help sheets flank the soft, worn pleather armchairs on the first floor. Colourful wall decals wind around concrete pillars and climb to the ceiling like vines, chanting the phrase, “This is your library.” Past the Starbucks line that twists around the first floor, a giant U-shaped desk sits emblazoned with the words, “ASK US.” This is where your library journey begins.
The first thing you must know before entering is that every librarian is a superhero: one you deserve and one you need right now. Librarians teach you to find reliable and credible academic sources. They help you find peer-reviewed sources for your papers, perfect your bibliography and connect you with faculty. They illuminate the dark jungle of post-secondary education. In the first week of my first year, a professor tasked our class with finding a physical copy of Plato’s Republic and made us photograph ourselves with the book as proof. I resented this paternalistic request until I realized it was his way of getting us acquainted with our library. Within one minute of conversing with a librarian, I’d learned which floor, hallway and shelf the book was on. I’ve never forgotten that day.
Working in my library has allowed me to see magic unfold behind the scenes. I work in the archives under Melissa’s mentorship, scanning and digitizing material to meet professional librarian standards. I have seen the worn grout on our cultural mosaic: scribbled notes from Order of Canada members; Anishinaabe community cookbooks; memoirs of a London, Ont., artist who fell victim to the AIDS epidemic. I have laughed at my desk late at night at a decades-old resumé from a seventh-grade boy auditioning for a musical at London’s Grand Theatre written entirely in Comic Sans font and embellished with stickers. I wept with joy for him when I found his name on a house program, with the fluorescence and monotonous sound of the scanner humming beside me.
I wanted to be a mouthpiece for stories I read in the archives. With Melissa’s support, I published my own book examining anti-Blackness in Canadian food history. Its pages contain minstrel advertisements and mammy caricatures pulled from Canadian cookbooks in our archives. Melissa mentored me on how to safely and responsibly digitize images from books that were a century old. She introduced me to Ali Versluis, our open education librarian, who taught me about copyright laws so that I could license my own work. After its publication with the Guelph Black Heritage Society, Melissa proudly displayed it on our website’s front page, where it resides to this day. I realize now that she was my mouthpiece.
All librarians become mouthpieces. They speak for those who have been lost to time and advocate for those who struggle to find their voices now. I only hope that if I am lucky enough to become a librarian myself, I can supervise a nervous undergrad as she discovers the magic of her first medieval manuscript, and watch as the light spreads across her face like gold.
Libraries have your back during a crisis
I hesitate to call the library the beating heart of our campus at the University of Guelph. It is our cerebellum, driving every paper, project, dissertation or defence. It is one of the few remaining places a student can exist, in warmth (or in air conditioning), without having to spend any money. Printers, computers, stationary and course textbooks are available for use for free.
And while they may not be physically available now, libraries at universities across Canada remain integral resources. The University of Toronto Library has over one million digitized texts in their collection and recently made an anti-Black racism reading list available to its community. The University of Ottawa Library has been providing online “care packages,” which include podcasts, art, films and even virtual pet therapy. The University of Waterloo set up a library-themed virtual escape room. The Dalhousie University Library offers curbside pickup for all its materials and a “research bootcamp” workshop for all its eager learners. University of Saskatchewan students can contact a librarian who specializes in their area of study with the click of a button. The University of British Columbia Library offers its students free workshops on how to understand local government. Yukon University empowers its students with collections on frontier life as well as a bibliography of the Nunavik and Inuvialuit settlement regions. These are just a few examples of the meaningful work libraries do to illuminate their communities.
This article appears in print in the 2021 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Where everything is illuminated.”