Boom & Bust at the U.

One thing about Alberta is that it tends to go through cycles of boom and bust, lately tied to the price of oil. I've seen two booms now and may be on the way into another 'downturn'. This, obviously, has some affect on post-secondary funding and, therefore, university libraries.1 In the Legacy of Empire catalogue, Franz A. J. Szabo alludes to this and it's had me thinking about how the boom - bust cycle affects libraries, especially when the boom ends.

My experience in Arts at the U of A was mixed: the classes were, for the most part, exceptional, taught by committed, often, inspiring profs. One once lamented not being allowed to use a cigarette as a lecture tool and burned incense while covering the Moghul Empire. I had a lecture on 'The Great Masturbation Scare of 1901' and an ancient Latin prof once read an even more ancient poem that sounded like galloping horses. A (very) few would come for a beer at The Plant. Outside of class, things changed quite a bit while I was there. Grad students dried up, classes were bigger, when available, and library hours were 'curtailed'. By my 'fourth year', corporate branding and smaller budgets were de rigueur and it was time to get out (a.k.a. graduate). I think it was the 400-level course without enough chairs, where we did group poster-projects, that cinched it.

I can't really comment on how this has affected acquisitions at the U of A libraries over the years. Szabo comments obliquely on the subject I believe, though from the more positive perspective of past purchases. Describing the Central European Library Collection's growth, he notes that it continued, "[a]s long as library budgets remained relatively generous..." I think the implication is pretty obvious - the acquisition of the Salzburg (c. 1965) and the Leseverin (1969) Collections, each at $55,000, occurred while those budgets were generous.

Unfortunately, they haven't always been and I think I have some small indication of what we've lost as a result. A couple of years ago, flipping through the Cameron copy of Tooley's Dictionary, a hand-written note slipped out which makes me groan every time I look at it. In the unique hand of the late Ron Whinstance-Smith, former map curator of the RWS notesRWS notesWilliam C. Wonders Map Collection, are notes of advice to someone seeking map images. He writes that "Blaeu maps are generally most suitable" for the 17th century, but regrets he cannot supply them. "Due to student activism of the late 70s the map collection / library was prevented from spending $50,000 to acquire the 12 volume French language edition of Bleau's Atlas Maior."

Ron has passed, much to everyone's loss, and I've yet to find anyone who remembers that student protest. I can't help thinking that, referring to a period where budgets didn't allow, this little note candidly highlights the nature of library acquisitions. What did the students want the money for and what would they say today? What else was beyond the reach of the libraries during the 90s, when I was there? How many hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase that 12 volume set today? Groan.

There should be a link here to the September edition of Alberta Views magazine and Harry Vandervlist's far more general article, but I can't find anything that specific. See: "Will that be Truth or Profit?" Alberta Views. Vol. 11, no. 7 (Sept. 2008) pp. 28 - 34. It, and the Legacy exhibit, came across my horizon at about the same time.

Quotes from:
Szabo, Franz A. J. Legacy of Empire: Treasures of the University of Alberta's Central European Library Collection. (Edmonton: U. of Alberta P., 2008) Soft cover. 8 x 10 1/2" 60p. 35+ colour illus. + colour folding map on inner front cover. ISBN 978-1-55195-235-2 $25 Available through