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Oak Bay library loses a familiar face

Longtime branch head retires during a changing, but popular time
Librarian Neil McAllister takes some time at the beginning of his last shift before retirement to read from one of his favourite books

It’s been many years since Neil McAllister has ordered books relating to cats, cars or the Kennedys.

While it’s unclear if any underlying penchant for the three changed during the newly retired librarian’s 14 years with the Greater Victoria Public Library – his dapper navy sport coat and khakis could well have been pulled straight from the closet of America’s royal family – his ordering patterns certainly did.

One of the handful of changes the former Oak Bay branch head has seen since he began his library career at the Fraser Valley Regional Library in 1995, is the loss of choice over which books a branch brings in through the centralization of ordering of literary materials. McAllister, who retired from the Oak Bay branch after eight years at the post on May 31, isn’t negative about the switch, as it’s just one facet to a digital content evolution – one which includes the largely uncharted landscape of electronic licensing for a growing collection of e-books.

“It’s been a real challenge for us, between the publishers and the libraries and the software,” said McAllister, cozied up to a fireplace in a wingback chair at the branch. “It’s really changing quickly.”

McAllister, a budding writer himself, studied English and worked in publishing, before later returning to the University of British Columbia for a master’s in library science. He was then poised to enter the system at a pivotal moment in worldwide information-sharing: the advent of the Internet.

“When I started, the Internet was just in its infancy and I think it cost about $20 a minute to search,” he said. “The impact of that was that a library like this can bring in a world of information, far more information than they ever could in the past.”

Offering online help and computer basics, from resumé writing to email troubleshooting, now accounts for about half of all work done at the Oak Bay branch.

McAllister proudly explains that the library – adjacent to the Monterey Recreation Centre, which was expanded into the neighbouring Tonkin heritage home, hence the gas fireplaces – has consistently ranked among the busiest libraries per capita in Canada. More than 60,000 items are circulated in an average month and about 1,500 people walk through the doors on a typical busy day.

The numbers reflect a cross-section of the community, from Victoria families in Fairfield and Fernwood who may be intimidated by the downtown branch, to seniors whose only social contact for the day is at the library. McAllister’s favourite aspect of the job, he says with a glint in his eye, is exchanging recommendations with some of those faces. His top recommendation: the equine epic, Seabiscuit.

“The rumour of libraries dwindling away just isn’t true. We seem to be getting more popular. To a degree one of our other challenges is just keeping up with demand.”

Patricia Eaton, GVPL manager of public services, wished McAllister well on his retirement after working with the 55-year-old in several capacities over the years. His active presence in the GVPL and the municipality of Oak Bay and will be missed, she said.

“The response from both staff and public to the pride he takes in the quality of service that he provides is really glowing,” she said, soon praising McAllister’s humour and affable nature. “He’s well liked by staff and well respected by the public. People felt comfortable and welcomed in that branch.”

McAllister plans to spend his retirement with his wife, Ruth, also a retired librarian, and his 10-year-old son, Jack. On his to-do list: restoring a classic BMW, learning to play the ukulele and returning to the Oak Bay library for the long list of book recommendations the public has given him over the years.