Not Just Another Library in Ottawa: Discover an Evolving Cultural Institution

The Jean-Léon Allie Library at Saint Paul University in Ottawa is often overlooked by passers-by. Tucked in the back of Guigues Hall at 223 Main Street, the library has six floors of books, journals, videos and microfilms.  It boasts the largest theological collection in the country, with over half a million items. Although steeped in rich history, the library is continuously evolving to meet the needs and expectations of today’s students and faculty.

When it opened in 1937, the library owned only a handful of volumes. Father Jean-Léon Allie, the first chief librarian, was tasked with building a complete library. This was no easy undertaking, but over the years, thanks to a few visits to Europe and donations from various religious communities, he built an impressive collection. Today, the collection boasts many treasures, including over 10,000 rare books, most of them printed before 1800; some are among the last remaining copies in the world, or the only copies in North America.

The rare books collection includes 12 incunabula (books published between 1450 and 1500); the oldest dates back to 1472. It also contains a complete collection of the Roman Rota, published between 1639 and 1870, as well as recent reproductions of original texts, such as the documents relating to the Templar trials, which were produced in limited quantities in collaboration with the Vatican Secret Archives. Also from the Vatican Secret Archives, the library has reproductions of the Bull of Indiction of Vatican II, and of documents written by Saint Francis of Assisi. Also within the collection are interesting examples of environmental impacts, decay, and human and insect damage to books, such as bookworm tunnels through the pages of a book.

In our digital age, libraries everywhere are evolving and expanding their electronic resources. Here at Saint Paul University, students and professors can access the library’s resources not only at the library itself but from anywhere on campus, and indeed anywhere in the world. While this development has many benefits, it also presents some challenges. Our print collections are seeing a decline in usage, while our electronic holdings are seeing a steady increase due to their ease of access and 24/7 availability. Inevitably, library users must adapt to this trend. Not everyone wants to use electronic resources; some still prefer print. The library is helping users adapt to new ways of acquiring information.

open-book-1428428_1920We are also seeing many changes in the physical design of libraries. Historically, libraries have been seen as safe places to explore and expand one’s knowledge, primarily by consulting print resources. However, no longer are they just places to find books: they are also spaces for learning, creativity, exploration and freedom of expression. Today’s libraries are often equipped with laboratories, 3D printers and maker spaces; they have become innovation hubs that foster creativity and allow people to develop new types of content. These are things we see coming to our library at Saint Paul University.

Libraries are also living entities. The traditional image of the library as a silent environment where one can be shushed for making noise is becoming a thing of the past. At the Jean-Léon Allie Library, we provide quiet areas for those seeking that environment, but there are also areas where students can have conversations and work together.

In the near future, I can see the library evolving even more. In particular, our library has the potential to be more involved with the community and to function as a cultural space used for small concerts, art exhibits, guest lectures, etc. Some may wonder why the library would have these, but others can see the library’s potential as a source of inspiration for activities that complement the library’s collections.

The library’s role and environment will continue to change over time. For Saint Paul, evolving the library also means that it will remain current and relevant, while maintaining its character and history, and its commitment to a high level of academic integrity and freedom.

img_0047-1Jérémie LeBlanc
is the chief librarian
at Saint-Paul University.