Barbara Jo May

Words by Jessica Woollard

When you pick up the latest James Patterson mystery at the Kelowna library, or borrow last year’s best-foreign-film Oscar pick from the Vernon branch, the items you’re holding in your hand are provided courtesy of Barbara Jo May.

For the last seven years, May has worked as the adult collections librarian for the Okanagan Regional Library (ORL). The sprawling region, which includes 29 branches, spans an area about the size of Ireland—from Golden and Revelstoke in the north to Princeton and Hedley in the south.

The types of material May chooses range from music, movies and documentaries to books in every format—print, large print, ebooks, audiobooks and more. In selecting the material, she makes sure to balance popular titles with interesting works that people “might not find out about, because they’re under the radar.”

As May approaches her retirement, The Professional looks back on her 35-year career as a library professional, the changes she experienced, and the important role libraries play as the “living rooms” of modern society.

Once Upon a Time…

Trout Creek #15. That’s the number on the library card May used while growing up in the small town of Trout Creek, near Summerland, BC. At that time, the “public library” consisted of a book deposit located in a private home. It was open for a few hours only, one day a week.

It wasn’t until May arrived at Simon Fraser University in the 1970s to study politics and anthropology that she discovered all that a library could be. “[The librarians] would fly around finding things for me… I was impressed with that kind of service and help,” she says.

After completing her undergrad, she returned to SFU to pursue a master’s degree in political science. Again, the SFU librarians had an impact, and eventually, May decided to leave SFU and enroll instead in the Master of Library Science program at the University of British Columbia, graduating in 1982.

Living the Dream

May’s career in libraries took her far and wide. Her first job was as a children’s librarian in Kelowna. Following that, she went to the Toronto Public Library, then to the Northwest Territories, where she helped establish public libraries in remote communities. “I used to joke that I had a third of the land mass of Canada as my territory,” she says.

For 10 years, May held positions at the Yellowknife Public Library, including chief librarian (the public library equivalent of CEO). She then worked at libraries in Alberta and British Columbia, holding various managerial positions.

As May neared the end of her career, she decided to return to the Okanagan—the place where her love of libraries began—and accept the adult collections position with ORL. “It’s never failed to amaze me how diverse the interests are,” May says. “I love that we get people who take out books on crazy subjects like raising goats for cheese making … we want to serve the communities we’re in the best we can.”

Witness to change

The library world had changed in the years since May worked at ORL the first time. In the 1980s, the librarians weren’t organized, though there was a lot of interest in the trade union movement, and May remembers marching in a protest. When she returned in 2010, the professional librarians (those with a master’s in library science) were part of the PEA. She got involved right away, first on committees and then on the executive. “There are so few of us in our chapter, I really believe everyone has to play a part, and generally people do … take turns in different roles,” she says. May adds that she attended many conferences and workshops through the PEA and was grateful for the opportunities to learn.

Perhaps the most significant change to libraries over the course of May’s career was the rise of computers and the Internet.

“In BC we were lucky. [Officials in government and library executives] saw that if libraries did not get the Internet into the hands of people who could not afford

it, it was going to disadvantage people hugely,” May remembers.

When May started working as a librarian, library materials were listed on catalogue cards, and librarians were needed to help patrons interpret the cards and find the items. With the advent of online catalogues, patrons could search for their own materials. This freed up the librarians to help patrons with more complex tasks, such as research, learning computer skills and developing the information-literacy skills necessary for evaluating what is or isn’t a reliable source.

Learning for Everyone

Libraries play an important role in protecting people’s right to intellectual freedom, a subject May is particularly passionate about. Throughout her career, she served on the Intellectual Freedom Committee and on the Information Policy Committee of the BC Library Association. May’s belief that people have the right “to choose what they like to read or view or listen to,” so as to make up their own minds about things, is a value upheld by public libraries.

Libraries are also often referred to as the living rooms of the community—gathering places where everyone is welcome to learn. As May notes, they are one of the few places where people come into contact with those who aren’t like them. “There can be someone who’s come in from a fancy car parked outside, and then someone who visits every day because they don’t have a home. Sometimes you see interactions among these people, and most of the time they’re respectful. There are few other places where this happens. That aspect of public libraries is really important—that everyone is there for their own reason, and it’s all equal.”

The Next Chapter

One of the reasons May enjoyed her long career as a librarian is that she sees herself as a bit of a magpie, who enjoys collecting little bits of information from all kinds of places. “As a public librarian, you learn something new every single day,” she says.

In retirement, May will continue to develop her magpie-like ways, gathering knowledge through travel, time with family and friends, and her long reading list.

“I feel blessed that I was able to work for most of my adult life in truly interesting jobs,” she says. “I have stories galore.”