Listening to the library – from a distance

What does it mean to listen to the library – now? 

In March 2020 when I sent in my application to the researcher-in-residence position at Concordia’s Library, I imagined listening to the library from inside the library: How does the library welcome you with sound while walking up the stairs? What does it sound like to study in one of the workspaces? Where can one access the audio-visual materials? Where, in the library, is one most aware of one’s senses (such as when looking at the Living Wall)? Which spaces have the most impact on our experience of the library? And, among other questions, how do spaces like the Friends of the Library Room, The Technology Sandbox, and the Visualization Studio become sonic spaces of making? 

But, due to the understandable safety precautions as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, I am now listening to the library from outside the library. 

I don’t mean that I am literally listening to the building from outside it, though sometimes I imagine what it would sound like to stand with a microphone outside of the Webster Library on Maisonneuve and McKay – and to press record. In fact, the sounds of that corner would reveal a great deal about the goings on (and lack thereof) on Concordia’s downtown campus, usually a busy corner filled with students and it is a corner where 4th SPACE used to broadcast the sound of its events over the outdoor speakers. But those sounds have fallen silent. Now the cars and the construction on the opposing corner are the predominant sounds. When you enter the library to pick up an item on hold, especially when you have to go up to the second floor for an interlibrary loan, you are even more aware of the silence. The stairway speakers are silent. The screen that used to show what you are listening to is turned off. 


That is what the stairway looks with its blank screen – silence – when I made a trip to the library in October for an interlibrary loan. But, of course, even amid the silence there was still noise. As I entered the library on the second floor, I overheard someone on their cell phone speaking in a hushed and anxious voice. What were the other sounds? I spoke with the security guard briefly, the sound of my shoes on the carpet, and I still heard the familiar noise, once, of the elevator (or did I imagine it?). I was only there briefly but I was listening to the library, and I could hear the impact of the pandemic on its sonic space. Hearing that impact stayed with me as I left the physical space of the library and as I continue to listen to the library from a distance. 

What I do mean by listening to the library from a distance is that I am listening to the library as a concept, as a repository of sonic materials, and as a source of knowledge. 

During the pandemic, I would argue that there is no time like the present to explore audiovisual materials available through the library from home and to cultivate a strong understanding of what the library can offer us, now. We still need to use the resources of the library and, in fact, the library’s resources can stimulate an otherwise difficult period of research and learning. 

We need to remember that we are missing the spark, the inspiration, that can come from a chance discovery on the library shelves, or from opening up the pages of a new book. For that most of all, we need the library now – for it to be in our lives, even from a distance. Libraries, local and university libraries, have been busy adapting to the changed conditions and public health protocols. We continue to access library materials and what better moment than the present than to think about this access – and to find ways to make this screen, this page, more multi-sensory, still inspired by the physical space and experiences of the library even at a distance.

Dr. Katherine McLeod is the 2020-2021 Researcher-in-Residence at the Concordia University Library. She has published on archives, performance, and Canadian poetry and, most recently, she has co-edited the collection CanLit Across Media: Unarchiving the Literary Event (with Jason Camlot, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019). She is an affiliated researcher with SpokenWeb and she produces the monthly audio content for ShortCuts as part of The SpokenWeb Podcast feed.