In Conversation with Education and Indigenous Studies Librarian Pia Russell

 Pia Russell

Interview conducted and edited by: Zehra Abrar, work study student


You recently graduated with your third master’s degree. People may ask why one more? What do you want to reply to those people?

A lot of people wondered why I would do a third master's degree, but all along it felt like the right thing to do and now I am so glad I did.  It is far less about the diploma at the end and far more about the mentorship of curiosity.  Graduate study as a life-long learning option really works for me.  When I’m curious about something, I’m all-in and the structure of an academic program gives me the space and support to do that.  I treat it like any project—there’s a beginning, middle, and end and then I’m happy to move on to the next task.  I reckon that if one is going to commit to a research project, why not get a degree out of it and some great help along the way?  UVic’s history program is superb; I had a phenomenal experience. My supervisor, Lynne Marks, was patient and inspiring. And while the expectations were very high in terms of the amount of reading and calibre of writing required, I now feel so well prepared. The MA in public history gave me the knowledge and confidence to be an authoritative historian of the textbook collection; and of all my degrees, this is certainly my favourite one.

During your graduate work, you were living the triple life of a librarian, student and a mother of two. How were you able to maintain a balance in your life?

In my experience, balance in life and “doing it all” are unattainable myths.  My house is not as clean as I might like, but frankly, I’d rather be researching and writing.  I am blessed with a lot of support at school, at work, and at home.  In addition to Prof. Marks being a phenomenal supervisor, my work supervisors were supportive in terms of time.  Librarian study leaves also make a big difference.  At home, my partner is also an academic, and gets the lifestyle that our work does not end at 5 pm every Friday.  Also, my parents are very involved with childcare and I have great kids.  Timing does not always make pursuing research an option, but at the moment, the timing is right.

What excites you most about your work?

Librarianship is a true vocation for me and I have worked in the field for over 20 years.  During this time, lots of trends have come and gone, but no matter the changes in technology, what remains the same is connecting a person’s curiosity with the information they need to create knowledge.  Whether this information is digital, in print, or intuitive is less relevant—it is all about making a human connection.  Through my daily work with patrons, I meet the most interesting people working on highly consequential research questions and I’m constantly reassured that the world will be a better place because of the questions they ask and the wisdom they develop.  One of the most exciting aspects of my work in recent years is the inclusion of Indigenous voices and ways of being and knowing into librarianship.  There is still a lot to be done in terms of decolonizing libraries and the information they preserve and share; but including these perspectives is fundamentally changing my identity as a librarian in ways no other issue in librarianship has before.    

You are scaling up your research on historical textbook project. How will your research bring about reconciliation while studying these historical textbooks?

The University Librarian and Associate University Librarians have been really supportive of the textbook project in terms of my time, my colleague’s time, and hiring student researchers and curators.  We continue to seek funding, particularly through apply grant applications, to scale up the project to include more in-depth analysis, value-added learning tools, and expand the project beyond textbook titles published between 1871–1921.  Fingers crossed we get more funding!

In one of your videos, you said “historical textbooks are the identity of our province (i.e. BC)”. So my question is what do they depict about the identity of BC?

Good question!  This was the topic of my thesis, which was a liberal order framework analysis of the first 50 years of BC’s textbooks.  When we read the entire corpus of BC’s school textbooks used between 1871 and 1921, there is a lot going on politically and socially.  During this time period, the “identity of BC” as portrayed in the textbooks, was among many other issues still firmly based in Imperial Britain—the gaze was still very much towards the metropole in London, England. 

What is your message for the people who think that libraries have become archaic?

This seemed a more common refrain in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the internet was becoming integrated into people’s lives for the first time.  Nowadays, I do not hear it as much.  For those who do feel libraries are archaic, I’d suggest they visit a library to see all they have to offer.  Lots of folks with this idea have not been to a library in a long time.  Libraries, and particularly public libraries, are firmly situated as important third spaces for diverse, multi-age communities to feel safe.  Everyone can find a place to belong in a library. 

According to you, what will the academic library look like in 2025?

In 2025 the academic library will probably look quite similar to how it does now.  However, in 2050 I hope they look much different.  I believe that academic libraries will always serve their patrons in comprehensive ways just as the Library of Alexandria did as a comprehensive research forum two thousand years ago.  When I look around the world to see what productive libraries are doing, I notice that those libraries which have celebrated their local uniqueness seem to have the greatest success.  In the future I hope the Canadian academic libraries I may work at are principally inclusive of Indigenous knowledges in their architecture, programs, collections, and services.    

Read more about Pia and her library work.