Karen McGrath: ‘exceptional’ librarian wins OCULA lifetime achievement award

Karen McGrath, Director of Library and Bookstore Services at Niagara College, was awarded the 2016 OCULA Lifetime Achievement Award at January’s Ontario Library Association Super Conference. The award was presented by Karen’s colleague Tanis Fink, Director of Seneca College’s Libraries and Learning Services. Tanis’ comments paint a clear picture of just why Karen was chosen for the award:

“I have worked with Karen McGrath in several different roles in my career. First, Karen and I both were involved with the Ontario Library Association in the role of President. During our time on the OLA board,  I experienced Karen’s amazing strength in leading several significant professional advocacy issues. Karen’s leadership style is based on respect and inclusiveness and ensuring that everyone’s opinion is being listened to and valued. In addition to my OLA experience with Karen, I also work closely with Karen on the Ontario Colleges Heads of Libraries and Learning Resources committee as members of the executive. Karen’s work this year again exemplified her strong leadership, advocacy and mentoring skills. Her leadership in championing several college library issues demonstrates Karen’s strong professional expertise and also her love of supporting college students and faculty. 

Karen McGrath Tanis Fink

Tanis Fink presents Karen McGrath with the 2016 OCULA Lifetime Achievement Award at the OLA SuperConference.

I contacted Gordana Vitez, who works with Karen at Niagara College, and she said, “Karen is a thoughtful, empowering and intelligent manager with a wicked sense of humour and who never shies away from a challenge. The phrase ‘we’ll figure it out’ never scares Karen off.  She trusts her staff’s intelligence and abilities. It is that trust that empowers each and every one of us to challenge ourselves and deliver outstanding service to our users.”

Karen texted me one night when she was applying for her Executive Coach program at Royal Woods University and said, “Tanis — I need to send the school one word that describes me. Can you please send me one word.” Well the words great dresser, intelligent, inclusive, funny and tall all came to mind, but I now feel that there is one word that describes my friend Karen and that word is exceptional.

Since I am lucky enough to be Karen’s Niagara neighbour, I took the opportunity to sit down for a chat to learn more about her career and insights into librarianship.

 Congratulations on receiving the 2016 OCULA Lifetime Achievement Award! The award recognizes your outstanding contribution to academic librarianship – and you certainly have had an outstanding and varied career. Some highlights include working as an executive advisor to the National Librarian of Canada and serving as CEO of public libraries in Lincoln and Niagara-on-the-Lake before joining Niagara College in 2008 as Director of Library and Bookstore Services.

Do you see common threads of librarianship and leadership weaving through those diverse positions?

KM: Connecting with our communities and understanding their needs: that is key to what librarianship is all about. That connection allows us to develop programs and services to meet our communities’ needs and increase our value. It is critical to understand who it is you are serving: everything starts from there. Before offering a service or a resource, we have to ask: is this what is needed? And that’s in our DNA, whether we are in a school library, college library, public library or corporate library. We are a service profession and that’s where we stand out.

Staff development is another common thread: getting your team to a place where they have the tools to do their jobs and standing back and letting them do it – that’s the same no matter what kind of position you’re in.

Lifelong learning is another common theme.

 What are some of the distinct qualities you notice about academic librarianship?

KM: In the academic world, it’s all about student success. Our primary client is the student: but we realize more and more that faculty are a huge client base as well. So we have really focused on connecting with faculty – because that’s the best way to connect with students. Getting faculty to champion what we do is key to getting the students to come in here.

And you realize you need to be so connected with what faculty need for curriculum development.

What do enjoy the most about your current position at Niagara College?

Many of Karen's Niagara College Library colleagues were on hand for the award presentation: Bianca Parisi, Jaclyn Chambers-Page (OCULA councillor-at-large), Karen McGrath, Ralph Laird and Gordana Vitez.

Many of Karen’s Niagara College Library colleagues were on hand for the award presentation: Bianca Parisi, Jaclyn Chambers-Page (OCULA councillor-at-large), Karen McGrath, Ralph Laird and Gordana Vitez.

KM: It’s totally the team! Because we’re small (13 people), it’s wonderful to be in the position to have immediate conversations with staff. It’s really cool when they come to me with an idea and I say, ‘How can we make that happen?’ – and I stand back and watch them go.

I also enjoy the collaboration across 24 college libraries. [Karen chairs the Heads of Libraries and Learning Resources group for Colleges Ontario] There is a great willingness to collaborate on province-wide initiatives such as information literacy – so we’re not all doing the same thing individually. There is a great spirit of collaboration and it’s really, really rewarding.

 What are your biggest challenges?

KM: Constant advocacy. It never ceases to amaze me how we constantly have to explain what we do. That never changes – in any sector. But that just points out how transferable our skills are: we are serving a community and we need to connect with them and understand their needs.

You have a strong record of service, including working with local historical and leadership organizations, and serving as president of the Ontario Public Library Association before becoming president of the Ontario Library Association in 2012. What do you enjoy about volunteerism?

KM: It’s an opportunity to give back to a profession that has given so much to me. It’s gratifying. Also, you may take your own experience for granted, but you don’t know what you can offer to others until you actually put yourself out there.

 What was a highlight of your term as OLA president?

KM: The privilege of serving as OLA president was fantastic! Two highlights were leading OLA advocacy against cuts at Libraries and Archives Canada, and helping to grow ABO-Franco, the OLA division for libraries which provide services to Franco-Ontarians.

Being involved in your association is so important: the friendships that you make and the trust that comes with that is so critical to me. And career development is critical – I wouldn’t have this job if I hadn’t done volunteer work at OLA.

And I have enjoyed working with OLA staff – they’re great.

I’m fascinated to see that you are continuing to evolve professionally and are involved in executive coaching [Karen completed the graduate certificate in executive coaching at Royal Roads University in November 2015].  What drove your interest in that direction and where do you hope to go with coaching?

KM: I was approached by the International department at Niagara College to do some leadership capacity building. I thought ‘I’d love to do that’ and starting to wonder about credentials. Then I enrolled in the program – and thought ‘What have I done!’. Now I wish I’d taken this years ago. I love it!

As a coach, you are a sounding board: you help your coachee think through their challenges and help them move into action. I want to do this for aspiring library leaders. Many of us to take our own skills for granted; we’re so wrapped up in our work that we don’t stop to become aware of our own style. Coaching helps you become more aware of how you are being viewed: and half the battle in advancing your career is understanding who you are and how you are presenting yourself.

Personally, [coaching] gives me great satisfaction.

 Now it’s time for something a little lighter. Tell us about what you do for fun. Or maybe share something silly about yourself.

KM: Well, I was in the Burlington Teen Tour Band – we performed at the Rose Bowl and the Orange Bowl in the 60s and 70s. At age eight, I lived in Iran for two years. And I’m a huge Bowie fan.

I love to travel – I was in Belize recently and did some volunteer work helping set up a library. I brought down some supplies including watches and sports equipment. After I packed my suitcase, I could hear all the watches ticking away inside – so I had to take out all the batteries, just in case the ticking seemed suspicious to airport security.

Elizabeth Yates is Acting Head, Liaison Services/Scholarly Communication Librarian at James A. Gibson’s Brock University Library and Editor-in-Chief of InsideOCULA. She can be reached at eyates[at]brocku.ca