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“After 35 years, people still talk about how the magazine changed their lives. It’s a great legacy for Sherrill.” | Graphic treatment of an unidentified photo of Sherrill Cheda.

“After 35 years, people still talk about how the magazine changed their lives. It’s a great legacy for Sherrill.” | Graphic treatment of an unidentified photo of Sherrill Cheda.

Reviews

stacked Emergency Librarian celebrating the history of a radical feminist Canadian periodical

by Frances Rooney | September 1, 2008

In 1973, Sherrill Cheda was librarian at Seneca College, a member of the comfortably conservative Canadian Library Association (CLA), and soon to be the single mother of two sons.

She was also a speaker at the CLA conference that year. The gathering’s theme was “Librarians: Beginning, middle and end of career.” A safe enough topic.

Or so it seemed, until the hugely energetic young firebrand gave the keynote address. She called it That Special Little Mechanism. And what gadget did she have in mind? A very handy one, indeed. Today, the speech’s title might be Penis Power. Then, even indirect mention of that little thing at such a respectable event was unheard of.

That Special Little Mechanism focused on library culture, and how – as in so many other places – women did the work, and men had the power. Sherrill Cheda’s talk – and the discussion groups started because of it – helped launch librarians into a time of taking their own power and using it to change the nature of their work, and the places they worked in.

Such change had already been in the air, thanks to feminism and the civil rights movement.

that was then

By organizing knowledge and making it available, librarians had always helped people to take power in their lives. Yet most of these workers – the vast majority of them women – did their jobs in isolation: in small towns, remote areas, or one-person school and public libraries. After the CLA conference, three librarians wanted to keep communication open for this scattered group.

At the same time, “We wanted a radical feminist Canadian periodical,” Barbara Clubb said in a recent interview.

Over Phyllis Yaffe’s kitchen table, Emergency Librarian (EL) was born.

Sherrill Cheda and Phyllis Yaffe edited and produced the magazine in Toronto. Barbara Clubb, then in Winnipeg, edited the occasional issue and dealt with subscriptions. According to Barbara, “The multiple locations actually helped: it gave the impression that the magazine was not in fact Toronto-centred. And it wasn’t. It was located in two of Canada’s many parts.”

None of the three founders had ever worked in publishing.

EL started as a typed, stapled, 3-page, 6-issues-a-year newsletter.

“It was all impossible. It was just silly and we were stupid,” said Phyllis Yaffe. “But the point was to get it out. To get it into people’s hands. And we did it. By the time we finished with it seven years later, it was 28 pages, typeset and professional. We had subscriptions and money in the bank.”

Barbara Clubb added, “If we knew what it involved, we probably wouldn’t have done it.” She also noted that Sherrill had a vast network of people who subscribed, paid attention, and eagerly awaited each issue – some of whom made significant donations.

The magazine dealt with issues like:

  • sexism
  • the glass ceiling
  • promotions based on gender rather than ability
  • libraries in prisons
  • gay rights publications
  • minority rights in libraries

Remember, this was in the 1970s.

Librarians and other feminists hungry to write and read about women’s writing – fiction, nonfiction, poetry – grabbed each new issue as it came out. EL listened to, reviewed and took seriously women who were speaking truths that had never been aired. Lesbians, women with disabilities, and women of colour wrote articles and had their books reviewed.

The Women’s Review of Books states its purpose as to “give writing by and about women the serious attention it deserves.” This is exactly what EL did, 30 years ago.

By 1980, Sherrill and Phyllis were both working outside libraries. All three founders had worked long and hard. They gave EL to the periodical Teacher-Librarian. Its focus shifted to school librarians. Articles and reviews of women’s writing – as well as feminist discussions of libraries and librarianship – now appear in various publications and Websites (see below). However, no publication continues the focused, supportive writing and editing of EL.

Sherrill Cheda went on to lead the Canadian Periodical Publishers’ Association (since renamed Magazines Canada). From there, she became registrar of the Ontario Arts Council, then went to the Ontario Ministry of Culture and Communications. Her influence is part of the reason Canada has a thriving magazine industry. And her work was integral to books and book publishing in Ontario.

On June 7, 2008, she died of complications from acute leukemia.

Said Phyllis Yaffe, who recently retired as CEO of Atlantis Alliance, “After 35 years, people still talk about how the magazine changed their lives. It’s a great legacy for Sherrill.”

this is now

Is there a living legacy? What of the libraries and librarians EL served? The huge changes of the 1970s were one thing. Now the Internet provides many of the services traditional to libraries. Will the Internet kill libraries?

In 1995, Barbara Clubb became librarian of the City of Ottawa – the first woman, she notes, in the system’s 100-year history.

She’s excited about the future: “Librarians know how to organize and disseminate information. Word is what it’s all about – finding words, using words, sharing words, whether in print or electronically. Crafting ideas, comfortable and not so comfortable ones. Expressing ideas that have never been heard before. Linking people. This is what EL was about, this is what libraries are about.

“Librarians work by collaboration, not competition. Clawing your way to the top is not part of how we operate. Libraries partner with all kinds of organizations all over the world to expand services and produce materials we need,” Clubb said.

“Partnerships are messy. They’re not easy and sometimes they’re disastrous, but by partnering with others we can do things we could never do alone. Libraries can teach people how to collaborate, how to partner. That’s invaluable.”

And the Internet? “Libraries can use all kinds of tools – Facebook, YouTube – to broaden what we offer and how we offer it. Even if print circulation goes down – and it’s not going down in Ottawa – activity is not going down. Web use is up. And libraries are social places. People meet in libraries.

“People are getting contact with people they’d never know otherwise. It helps everybody. It helps with the isolation we all experience in such a huge way when we interact just with technology and not with people.

“I see a very bright and strong future for libraries. It’s not clear what that will be, but it’s not clear for anyone what will happen as we move online.”

Special thanks to Barbara Clubb and Phyllis Yaffe.

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