Professional Profile: Leslie McGrath – The Osborne Collection

On the fourth floor of Lillian H. Smith Library (on College Street, a short walk south of FIS headquarters), is a softly-lit room full of beautiful objects. Long, glass display cases hold eye-popping antique picture books and toys, there for all comers to admire. This is the home of Toronto Public Libraries’ Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books.

Founded in 1949 with a donation of 2,000 volumes from Edgar Osborne, a British children’s librarian, the Osborne Collection’s holdings have continued to grow in years since, as has the Collection’s reputation. Some of this is due to Leslie McGrath, the Collection’s head.

I visited Leslie in her office early one morning towards the end of May. The Collection hadn’t yet opened its doors for the day, and so the place was virtually silent. The only noises were occasional footsteps and keystrokes from the Collection’s three other full-time employees (there’s also one part-timer). Even these small sounds were muffled by the space’s stacks of books, with their gilded, multicolored bindings visible through a long, curved window facing the building’s central atrium.

I asked my first question, and that was the end of silence. Leslie McGrath, I found out, isn’t just an administrator; she’s also an advocate for her library, its history, and its mission.

Q: Describe your job.

Leslie’s official title at the Osborne Collection is “Department Head.” Her responsibilities include building and caring for the entire Collection (though she cites Canadiana as an area of particular interest); receiving donations; performing reference work; as well as presenting the Collection’s holdings to the public via talks and exhibits.

When I asked her for her favorite job function, Leslie didn’t hesitate to single out the public talks. “They can help explain the context and significance of the books, and get people interested,” she said.

I pressed her for more information about what these talks consist of. What followed was a long discussion on the topic of the role of children’s literature in society. It was too much to write down, but the sense of it was that children’s books are repositories of formative information. Their contents help shape the inner-lives of their readers, who then, as adults, go on to influence the world. This means children’s books can be a particularly revealing record of the rise and eventual demise of once-popular ideas.

Leslie had a few favorite examples of books which embody this principle, including “Dear Garbage Man” (pictured), a mid-twentieth century picture book which, she says, “though advanced in its representations of a multicultural community,” reads like an anti-recycling parable. Darker, more disturbing examples from the past are also kept in the collection, many dealing with subjects of race, disability, and gender roles. Leslie was quick to mention that these latter books are not shown to children, though they are sometimes used for research. “Anti-revisionism is one of our main objectives,” Leslie said, “and this is where books that would not meet current selection standards, but are important historical artifacts, are made accessible to everyone.”

Q: What was your first job in libraries?

Leslie laughed and said: “When haven’t I been in libraries!”

In her grade school library, she worked as a page. Later, she studied at FIS, where she did a significant amount of coursework in special libraries administration. During this time, she worked at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. After FIS, she did a stint at a corporate library. “But it was missing something,” she said.

She left the business sector in 1985 for Toronto Public Libraries. She assumed her current role as head of the Osborne Collection in 1995.

Once settled at Osborne, she was able to finish a PhD in Book History and Print Culture at FIS on her own time.

I asked Leslie what specifically about her work in the world of special collections was more appealing to her than her job in the business sector. She thought for a moment. “I find it more meaningful,” she said, “because the historical context makes the books fascinating. Children’s book history has a romance all its own, and people of all ages and interests are quick to appreciate this.”

Q: What helpful lessons did you learn early in your career? Do any of them still apply today?

At this, Leslie paused for a moment. “You have to be involved in all of it,” she said. Not just collection, but reference, cataloguing, and outreach.

She also recommended following one’s heart during the inevitable job search. “Look at your own interests,” she said. The world of special libraries encompasses a wide enough variety of positions that almost any inclination can find a home.

Finally, she advised always maintaining a close relationship with management. She says: “Special libraries, particularly in public library systems, need to prove their performance and fit in with the library’s strategic goals in an environment where demands are many, resources limited.”

Q: If you could know one thing about the state of your library (or the state of libraries in general) ten years from now, what would it be?

Leslie wondered if there will ever be a portable e-book specifically for children, and, if so, will it be “as satisfying as a printed book-and as much fun?”

More information about the collection’s history and its holdings can be found at its website (http://www.tpl.toronto.on.ca/uni_spe_osb_collection.jsp) and in a comprehensive article published by Leslie McGrath in issue 33.2 of Canadian Children’s Literature (2007).

-Steve Kupferman

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