Q&A with Michael Shires, URFA Member Mobilization Committee chair

Michael Shires, Col­lec­tion Devel­op­ment and Sub­ject Librar­i­an at the Dr. Archer Library & Archives and chair of URFA’s Mem­ber Mobi­liza­tion Com­mit­tee, shares his inter­est in being involved with URFA, what he enjoys about his work as a librar­i­an, and what he hopes fel­low URFA mem­bers know about the association.

What inter­est­ed you in becom­ing involved with URFA?

I was a mem­ber of that Mem­ber Mobi­liza­tion Com­mit­tee (MMC) in 2015 and was an observ­er dur­ing bar­gain­ing, which was end­ed up being the 2014 – 17 aca­d­e­m­ic col­lec­tive agree­ment. I became more inter­est­ed in the aca­d­e­m­ic unit col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing process and was a mem­ber of the Job Action Com­mit­tee dur­ing the nego­ti­a­tions in 2018 – 2019. I also want­ed to learn more about the inner work­ings of URFA as an orga­ni­za­tion. I was appoint­ed as the Librar­i­ans’ and Archivists’ Con­stituen­cy rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the Coun­cil of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives (COR). I’m in my sec­ond year now, so that’s been great and I’m a mem­ber on a few oth­er com­mit­tees. It’s been a very reward­ing expe­ri­ence over the past five-six years.

A headshot of Michael Shires.

Michael Shires is the Col­lec­tion Devel­op­ment and Sub­ject Librar­i­an at the Archer Library. Pho­to pro­vid­ed by Michael Shires.

What do you enjoy about being the MMC chair?

Quite a bit — my first term as chair began in May 2019 and I’ve let my name stand ever since. I high­ly val­ue the opin­ions and ideas of mem­bers of the com­mit­tee. It’s diverse; you try and have mem­bers from all the dif­fer­ent bar­gain­ing units.

I’ve enjoyed work­ing with URFA’s Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Offi­cers. That’s sort of the con­nec­tion with our group and how we work with the office.

Why is it impor­tant for URFA to have an MMC? What kind of role does this com­mit­tee play and why is it valuable?

Like URFA, MMC rep­re­sents all sev­en bar­gain­ing units. We’d love to have rep­re­sen­ta­tives from all sev­en. The pur­pose [of the MMC] is to encour­age and sup­port an atmos­phere of active, informed par­tic­i­pa­tion of URFA mem­bers in the busi­ness of the asso­ci­a­tion. MMC under­takes some of the pub­lic­i­ty, edu­ca­tion and oth­er activ­i­ties to sup­port many objec­tives that are also in URFA’s strate­gic plan. Obvi­ous­ly, MMC is crit­i­cal when a unit is bar­gain­ing or nego­ti­at­ing with the employ­er, and we want to get sup­port, com­ments and feed­back from the mem­ber­ship. And MMC also works in tan­dem with the Bar­gain­ing Advice & Sup­port Com­mit­tee and in turn sup­ports the Nego­ti­at­ing Committee. 

Has COVID-19 impact­ed the com­mit­tee’s engage­ment with mem­ber­ship? If so, how?

COVID has been impact­ful in gen­er­al due to the lack of in per­son con­nec­tion that has been lost more or less. But there have been pos­i­tive and some neg­a­tive impacts with engag­ing mem­bers. Last fall, we start­ed vir­tu­al tablings and the URFA Pres­i­dent town halls. The MMC helps coor­di­nate those help, work­ing with the pres­i­dent and com­mu­ni­ca­tions offi­cer with draft­ing agen­das and sched­ul­ing, so that’s crit­i­cal. Despite some of the obvi­ous­ly neg­a­tive impacts of COVID, I think we’re reach­ing mem­bers in a dif­fer­ent way online and that’s been successful. 

Shift­ing gears to focus more on your work — what is a Col­lec­tion Devel­op­ment and Sub­ject Librarian?

First, I’ll men­tion that all librar­i­ans and archivists at Archer Library hold fac­ul­ty sta­tus, so there are 14 in-scope librar­i­ans. There are also more than 30 library and archives employ­ees who are in oth­er bar­gain­ing units. Regard­ing col­lec­tions, I coor­di­nate review­ing some fac­ul­ty requests for new phys­i­cal and e‑book pur­chas­es. Deci­sions are based on var­i­ous cri­te­ria: price, if it sup­ports teach­ing, research and cur­ricu­lum development. 

I also over­see phys­i­cal book dona­tions, but we do get the odd dona­tion of music records and items that might be suit­able for place­ment in spe­cial col­lec­tions, like old­er mate­ri­als. We can often be gift­ed with unique titles, or at times we’re rely­ing on fac­ul­ty requests for new items to sup­port cur­ricu­lum and research. When fac­ul­ty retire, they often will think of the library and donate their mate­ri­als. I love dona­tions work. It’s real­ly inter­est­ing — it’s kind of like get­ting gifts, so it’s fun. 

Regard­ing being a sub­ject librar­i­an, I pro­vide library sup­ports, which include instruc­tion and show­ing how to use our online resources and ser­vices, pro­vid­ing research and ref­er­ence assis­tance to stu­dents and fac­ul­ty in dif­fer­ent depart­ments and fac­ul­ties. Part of that library sup­port involves, espe­cial­ly with stu­dents, instill­ing a knowl­edge of infor­ma­tion lit­er­a­cy which involves devel­op­ing crit­i­cal think­ing skills and eval­u­at­ing sources used in the library’s many databases. 

A photo taken from ground level looking up at the Archer Library. Trees are in the foreground and the sky is blue with white clouds.

Archer Library. Pho­to by Jason Cawood.

Part of your work is explor­ing and ful­fill­ing requests for new resources. Do you also seek out new resources or materials?

For col­lec­tions, we have a com­mit­tee called CAT, or the Col­lec­tions Assess­ment Team. CAT includes the Head of Tech­ni­cal Ser­vices and Col­lec­tions, myself, and oth­er sub­ject librar­i­ans. We meet reg­u­lar­ly through­out the year and assess data­base license renewals. Deci­sion-mak­ing is based on var­i­ous cri­te­ria includ­ing usage sta­tis­tics, cost per down­load and how resources sup­port teach­ing, research, and cur­ricu­lum devel­op­ment. When funds are avail­able, offers for one-time pur­chas­es of spe­cial­ized online his­tor­i­cal col­lec­tions are discussed. 

How has your work as a librar­i­an been impact­ed by COVID-19 and what adap­ta­tions have you made?

Like every­body else, we quick­ly and fair­ly suc­cess­ful­ly piv­ot­ed to serv­ing the uni­ver­si­ty com­mu­ni­ty online last March. But it was­n’t much of an issue for the more than 50 librar­i­ans and library staff. One of the main rea­sons is that many of our resources have been online for decades; you can access them from any­where. One chal­lenge was how peo­ple could request to loan mate­ri­als in our phys­i­cal col­lec­tions when those areas in the library build­ing were closed.

For the most part, the library’s main floor has been open by appoint­ment where peo­ple can book a time and come in for books that we can­not pro­vide as an e‑book. We have a dig­i­ti­za­tion ser­vice where we can scan, based on copy­right laws, a cer­tain per­cent­age of a book and then it can be uploaded onto an instructor’s read­ing list in UR Cours­es. This ser­vice was in place before COVID, but knowl­edge of that, and demand, has increased tremendously. 

The library has pro­vid­ed access to many more e‑books tem­porar­i­ly that oth­er libraries have scanned. It’s kind of a con­sor­tium of libraries shar­ing their resources.

In my case, with dona­tions, that’s crawled to a halt. I’ve reviewed one major dona­tion but there are many box­es I need to go through, some­thing I can­not do at home. A lot of my meet­ings with col­leagues and some library instruc­tion ses­sions, I have done online, which has advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages, but it works. Like oth­ers, I miss the hall­way con­ver­sa­tions, the face-to-face.

The com­mon mis­con­cep­tion is that the library closed. We phys­i­cal­ly were closed for a while, but we’re avail­able through Zoom, chat and email every day, sev­en days a week.

Is there a unique or obscure book or item in the col­lec­tion you can highlight?

Our old­est book is in spe­cial col­lec­tions. It’s in Latin and I’ve got the Google trans­la­tion: In the Hebra­ic Ques­tions on Gen­e­sis as well as over the twelve to take the expla­na­tion of the Divine Jerome the younger and the four prophets, by his par­ents, with the priv­i­lege of the new­ly impresse Com­men­taria in the Bible by heart. It was pub­lished around the year 1497 CE. The binding’s been redone but the pages are orig­i­nal so it’s a mas­sive book. There’s only one copy in the world and we own that copy.

Next thing unique to Archer is we have a great col­lec­tion of dif­fer­ent edi­tions of the nov­el Robin­son Cru­soe. The book turned 300 years old in 2019. We have one of the biggest col­lec­tions of Robin­son Cru­soe nov­els in Cana­da, get­ting back to like the 6th edi­tion up to copies in dif­fer­ent lan­guages; we have a copy in Pit­man shorthand. 

A display of various books and items related to the novel "Adventures of Robinson Crusoe".

Pho­to pro­vid­ed by Michael Shires.

There are so many books. How does a library decide which nov­el to collect?

That’s real­ly part of col­lec­tion devel­op­ment and donat­ing. When I was giv­en this assign­ment of spe­cial col­lec­tions, it was deter­mined that Dr. John Archer, who was the head of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Regi­na Library at the time back in the ear­ly 70s, pur­chased many old books on dif­fer­ent sub­jects. He pur­chased this col­lec­tion from a book­seller in Mon­tréal in the ear­ly 70s and it includ­ed all of these Robin­son Cru­soe titles.

What do you find the best part of being a librarian?

I real­ly enjoy the one-on-one ses­sions with stu­dents — you can real­ly spend a lot of time and answer the ques­tions and do some search­ing with them. And then there is that moment where they begin to under­stand, it’s a cycli­cal process of defin­ing your research top­ic, nar­row­ing it down, choos­ing a data­base, devel­op­ing a search strat­e­gy, find­ing rel­e­vant arti­cles, maybe going back and revis­ing. It’s a cir­cu­lar, cycli­cal process. And if stu­dents can under­stand that, then I’ve been successful.

A fountain in front of the Archer Library. There are benches and trees surrounding the fountain.

Archer Library. Pho­to by Jason Cawood.

What inter­est­ed you in this career?

Going back to when I was a nerdy teenag­er in high school, I used to read almanacs. I liked read­ing his­tor­i­cal facts and things about peo­ple and soci­ety and plan­ets and sci­ence. I’ve liked going to libraries ever since I was a lit­tle kid, children’s pro­gram­ming and I had a great-grand­moth­er who was a chil­dren’s librar­i­an, which was rare. She grad­u­at­ed like 100 years ago.

My first job was actu­al­ly a vol­un­teer in the library when I was 17, but to be a library work­er I went to grad­u­ate school in late 90s. But it’s more about under­stand­ing how infor­ma­tion in the West­ern con­text is orga­nized and there’s a whole issue of the pub­lic ser­vices side, which is the teach­ing and work­ing with instruc­tors, fac­ul­ty and stu­dents. There’s the col­lec­tions man­age­ment side which involves work­ing with peo­ple and then also tech­ni­cal ser­vices, cat­a­loging and infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy. I want­ed to get a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the big­ger pic­ture of how libraries oper­ate on the cat­a­loging side, how the clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem works, how libraries acquire mate­ri­als, spe­cial collections.

What changed is that I real­ly did­n’t have much knowl­edge before grad­u­ate school about infor­ma­tion lit­er­a­cy and the val­ue of fact check­ing and find­ing infor­ma­tion that’s rel­e­vant to what you’re look­ing for. And that’s the key and that takes time and it’s part of life-long learn­ing. I want to try and instill in stu­dents that we have lots of infor­ma­tion to help you. I’m here to help you nav­i­gate a path­way through using those mate­ri­als and it’s a chal­lenge, but I enjoy it.

Anoth­er rea­son why I’ve liked libraries and led me to become a librar­i­an, was see­ing oth­er libraries around the world and how they dif­fer with the col­lec­tions. Libraries are so inter­est­ing and with pub­lic libraries, it’s one of the few places that you can enter and you’re not being told to buy some­thing. They’re more than just a place to hold books — libraries have real­ly expand­ed their roles in communities.

Is there any­thing that you’d like URFA mem­bers to know?

URFA is there for mem­bers year-round and there are many vol­un­teers; there are many degrees of involve­ment. The grass­roots lev­el would be attend­ing a town hall or a table in per­son or vir­tu­al. If you want a bit more involve­ment, join a com­mit­tee. To get your feet wet, learn more about what some of these com­mit­tees do. If you want more involve­ment, join the Coun­cil of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, then you get more involve­ment with the oper­a­tions of the orga­ni­za­tion, how the com­mit­tees work. If you have even more inter­est, you could become a mem­ber of the Exec­u­tive. There are dif­fer­ent ways for peo­ple to get involved with dif­fer­ent lev­els and dif­fer­ent time com­mit­ments, so I hope peo­ple under­stand that. There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes that peo­ple don’t real­ize, and I think that’s impor­tant to be recognized.

This inter­view has been con­densed and edited.