The importance of libraries as a political issue was stressed by Plateau-Mont-Royal Executive Helen Fotopoulos to the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies on Wednesday. Fotopoulos spoke about her experiences trying to bring attention to the state of libraries in the Montreal area.
The event was organized by Diane Mittermeyer, professor of Library and Information Studies, as a supplement to her Public Libraries class. It was also open to members of the public.
Fotopoulos currently serves on the city’s executive committee and is responsible for a variety of dossiers, including green and blue space and the status of women. As head of culture and heritage from 2001-2004, she established the cultural and heritage development policies and supervised the integration of the library system across the boroughs.
In her address, Fotopoulos explained the beginnings of her interest in libraries.
“I started off as the child of immigrants and my parents were from the Soviet Union where libraries were the focal point of any community,” she said. “I spent my childhood and my formative years in the library.”
Fotopoulos went on to explain how municipal politics have impacted the evolution of the Montreal public library system. She also underscored the importance of political involvement on the part of librarians.
“Librarians have a responsibility to be defenders of the library, promoters of the library and educators of the public. The future of Montreal rests on accessing information and the library is the centre of that information.”
Fotopoulos also demonstrated what can happen when libraries have the support of the general public. She recalled a move by the former mayor Pierre Bourque’s administration to consolidate four public libraries. The proposal was changed partly because several communities mobilized to stop it from passing.
Fotopoulos ended her speech with a message for the students.
“Get involved and don’t wait until you have a job at the library. Get involved now.”
Students in attendance were generally impressed to see a politician taking interest in the politically atypical topic of libraries.
“The presentation showed that someone political cares about this, usually it’s the last thing on their list,” said Melissa Tomecz, a graduate student in the School of Libraries and Education.
Krista Woltman, president of the McGill Library and Information Studies Student Association, echoed her sentiments.
“As an emergent librarian I’m glad to see that what we’re interested in isn’t being forgotten.”
Woltman also pointed out that many librarians and library students are already trying to make libraries more visible.
“We are becoming more actively engaged in the socio-political climate because we believe in the work that we do, the contribution that we can make and how valuable we are to society. Once I land my first job as a professional, I fully expect to involve myself in the political process as it affects libraries.”
The day after Fotopoulos’ speech, it was clear that her words had struck a chord with audience members.
David Fontaine, a student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, explained that because of the presentation he had taken a look at the schedule of public meetings for the borough of the library where he works.
“I may or may not go, but regardless, last night’s meeting was an eye opener for me,” he said. “I also looked at the minutes of past meetings and it’s really obvious that if we’re not present, we’re not going to get the money.”