Best known for its quiet, intimate atmosphere and its no-shoes policy, the Birks Reading Room is one of the smallest libraries on campus. Located on the second floor of the Birks Building, the reading room currently holds approximately 20,000 items from the Religious Studies’ collection including texts on biblical studies, comparative religions, modern theology, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
Although the building itself was built in 1930, the Religious Studies collection started almost two decades before the reading room even existed. The collection dates from 1912, when the Joint Board of Theological Colleges was established in affiliation with McGill. Participants of this foundation made their library resources available to the university, and this trend continued with groups that were later associated with McGill such as the Montreal Diocesan Theological College and the United Theological College. The Birks Reading Room housed the entire collection for the Faculty of Religious Studies until most of its holdings were relocated to McLennan Library in 1996.
In 1994, the Faculty of Religious Studies faced an uncertain future, when then-principal Bernard Shapiro proposed that McGill only support faculties capable of generating the revenues required to sustain themselves. According to Allan Youster, the library clerk who runs Birks Reading Room during opening hours, this tentative situation meant that the library was in poor condition when he was assigned to its care in 2000.
“It was dirty, the floor was coming apart, and it was dark, so people never came,” he said. “I started cleaning just because I had nothing to do, and slowly people started coming. It was quiet, and people like quiet.”
After seeing the renewed interest in the library, Youster said the university refurbished the lighting and power in the library, and also invested $70,000 to redo the floors.
Although Birks isn’t known for its resources, it still offers the essentials. Besides taking out books from the collection, you can use one of three available computers.
With only 40 chairs, however, the library can get quite busy during midterm and exam season. If you’re wondering how likely you are to find a seat, look out for a “library full” sign on the door at the busiest times of year.
For many students, the draw of Birks Reading Room is the atmosphere. From the bay windows with stained glass insets to the high ceilings and wooden furniture, the library feels a world away from the steel bookshelves of McLennan. Altogether, it’s a cozy, intimate atmosphere that is hard to come by at McGill.
“Most universities—especially ones in financial trouble—don’t keep spaces like this,” Youster said. “People come here when they’ve done their research and they need a place to read and write, because it’s quiet and a place to think. A lot of people from other faculties also come here because no one knows them here, so they can write without being bothered.”
Part of this atmosphere is the policy that Birks is perhaps best known for: shoes off at the door. According to Youster, this does more than just protect the expensive hardwood floors from unnecessary wear.
“It also adds to the ambiance because there’s no noise,” he said. “When people walk in [shoes] it makes noise and disturbs the atmosphere; but if people take their shoes off, right off the bat, it’s quiet, it’s clean, it just helps.”
Set off from the main study area, the stacks of books that hold the collection are designed to encourage a comfortable atmosphere conducive to browsing. Chairs scattered throughout these stacks make it possible for students to sit and browse through the collection, rather than just retrieving individual books.
“I’m not keen on things like compact shelving—they’re interesting for storage, but […] the sense of browsing is gone,” Youster said. “Here we encourage that. Have a seat, look around—you have your one call number for one book, but there’s so much beside it. Who knows what you’ll find?”