Reflections of a Student Library Assistant

Submitted by shawreb on
Ness Wong, Student Library Assistant

On my first day on the job, I was invited to a pizza party with all the staff at the Music Library. It was a quiet and cozy place. Classical music filtered through the back room through someone’s speaker; on the shelf near the large communal table, three pizza boxes sat wide open. Quiet and easy chatter floated through the air. I remember being surprised at the atmosphere- having just finished my first year in university at that time (2019), I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it was nice. Comfortable. Friendly.

The same atmosphere permeated everything in the library as I worked there. Pizza parties were not uncommon; in my experience at the library, my interactions with my coworkers were always friendly and supportive. Muffin Mondays were a regular occurrence, as was the annual all-staff birthday party. When the pandemic hit, we unfortunately couldn’t hold any pizza parties, but social meetings still happened over Microsoft Teams.

Working at the Music Library is a rather straightforward job, especially when you’re a fan of both books and music. All Student Library Assistants (SLAs) help with shelving. Though it can get dusty, there’s no shortage of new music or literature that you discover when you’re working through a cart of returned books.  Topics such as the impact of Shostakovich at the Siege of Leningrad or the current cultural impact of Hamilton never fail to pop up every so often. There’s a lot that you’ve never even thought to look for in this library.

Most student workers also get a chance to work at the front circulation desk. While I never did this myself—the pandemic came in before I had my chance—I did spend well over a year working with Karen Wiseman in the Performance Collection. For me, personally, it was incredibly fun. My shifts there were spent looking at (well, sorting through) the sheet music all the major ensembles would be playing. More than once, I came across a piece I played in high school that I remembered fondly. On top of that, more than half my shifts were spent stamping the music so that we could keep it organized. (When I was five, I was obsessed with stamps. That part of me never really went away. It’s just so satisfying.)

To be completely honest, I think my favorite parts of the in-person library work are my shifts in the Performance Collection. There’s just so much that you get to see first-hand. It’s one thing to go through a bunch of solo music with blank covers while shelving; it’s another to see the hundreds and hundreds of individual ensemble or choir parts while going through the Performance Collection. I can guarantee you that if you work here, you’ll never run out of pieces or songs for your next Spotify playlist.

Working through the pandemic, was a completely different experience. It’s impossible to shelve books while you’re in lockdown (unless you have telekinesis… which I don’t). I spent the first few months of the pandemic working through the Faculty of Music concert archives, which date from the 1960s until 2020. It’s one thing to read the programs of early concerts; it’s another to hear the voices and music of people who have long graduated and grown up, forever frozen in the tiny time capsule of an .mp3 file.

Other work kept us busy during the pandemic. My co-workers and I did research in order to compile a database and guide of BIPOC creators in music. Later, I helped in the transcription of sheet music from the Canadian Sheet Music collection. Like the concert recordings, it’s both incredibly interesting and slightly eerie seeing these snapshots of the past. You can imagine the words and music coming from the pen of a Canadian civilian in the midst of the First World War or the Spanish Flu; occasionally, you also come across some extremely questionable lyrics. It’s incredibly intriguing.

Working in the library isn’t just shelving dusty books and combing through sheet music. It’s many other things: it’s a window to the past. It’s the chance to discover new topics you’ve never thought of before. It’s the chance to frequently look through the largest collection of music in Canada. It’s the pizza parties and Muffin Mondays and more.

I’m sure you know this by now, but I’ll tell you this: I love it here.