In 1980, as an undergrad at the University of Toronto, I managed to get a part-time job at the famed Robarts Library on Harbord Street. I instantly took to the work – the summer before, I had been a waitress at Ontario Place. Let’s just say the atmosphere at the library was a little different from Kelly’s Keg & Jester. I loved the hush, and being surrounded by vast troves of books and scholarly people seriously reading them. I also enjoyed no longer having to wear a shamrock-green serving-wench uniform.
Working in the Periodicals Reading Room, I discovered that many academic journals have the word Annals in the title. Eventually, I learned how to pronounce the word correctly, but only after being shooshed by the librarian training me, when I mispronounced it, in full hearing of several patrons. Small-town born and bred, I aspired to be Susan Sontag, but was more Ellie May Clampett.
It was at Robarts that I met Kathleen, one of my best friends forever. She and I were routinely stationed at what was then known as the Charge File, where clerks sat in a circle of desks, somewhat like at a quilting bee, and alphabetized the slips of paper on which borrowers’ names and due dates had been stamped. We also took calls for renewing books. I picked up the phone and said “Robarts Renewals” so many times the phrase seared into my brain. One evening at home, when I went outside to call my cat, I shouted “ROBARTS RENEWALS” – which was not my cat’s name.
Kathleen and I bonded big time at that table, and whiled away the mechanical task by making each other laugh, loudly and often. This led to being told off by the head librarian, who could hear our gales of inappropriate mirth from her office. We were cruelly separated and assigned other fascinating jobs, such as stuffing book request slips into pneumatic tubes and listening to them whoosh up to the floor where the book was shelved. I always thought that if I ever started a punk band, I would call it The Pneumatic Tubes.
It is fabulous to discover that University of Toronto students are still having some fun while they study at Robarts. Here is GEAK, performing “Robarts Mansion,” a hip-hop ode to the place. “Ain’t no place I’d rather be, hiding from students and family…” That’s how I felt too. Rock on, awesome GEAK dudes.