President's Report 2006 |

CNS marks 40 years of preserving province's past

From left, back row: Kristina Walters, student assistant; Joan Ritcey, head; Glenda Dawe, library assistant; Debbie Edgecombe, library assistant; and Jackie Hillier, library assistant. From left, front row: Sue Hadley, library assistant and Jane Deal, library assistant. (Photo by Chris Hammond)

Tucked away in her office on the third floor of Memorial's Queen Elizabeth II Library, Joan Ritcey admires the faded pages of a small antique book. But this is no ordinary old volume gleaned from a flea market. In fact, it's a rarity for any serious book collector in the world and was actually salvaged from a house fire a decade ago in St. John's. It's so rare, it's the only copy in the entire country.

“This is Robert Hayman's Quodlibets which was saved from the fire at Chief Justice Robert Furlong's house on Winter Avenue in 1996,” said Ms. Ritcey, the head of Memorial's Centre for Newfoundland Studies (CNS). The pungent smell of smoke still clings to the volume. “Because this book dates to 1628 and was written by a regional governor, it is important to researchers of Newfoundland's early colonial history.”

Quodlibets is not only a treasured item for book lovers, it's also one of the prized volumes found in the CNS. Here, thousands of interesting items documenting this province's story are nestled in scores of book stacks, filing cabinets and fire-proof safes.

“Hayman's book is a call for English men - and women - to colonize Newfoundland,” said Ms. Ritcey, who marks her 20th anniversary with the CNS this year. “It is a book of poems considered by some to be the first piece of [English] literature written in the New World.”

The book isn't the only thing CNS staff are proud of these days. The centre recently marked its own milestone - 40 years of collecting material relating to Newfoundland and Labrador. Since 1965, the facility has become the primary research centre for anybody - including authors and scholars; students and family genealogists - investigating anything about this province. The CNS is home to an amazing 75,000 volumes and holds the largest collection of Newfoundland material in the world.

“The centre has breadth and depth. It holds the latest magazines and government reports,” explained Ms. Ritcey. “It holds light material such as joke books and novels as well as treatises, exhaustive research on many topics, the best literature the country has produced and reference tools such the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, phonebooks and the census.”

Patrons can find books, periodicals, microfilm, maps, pamphlets and electronic materials in the centre covering a huge range of topics including literary works, histories and folklore collections, as well as documents on applied sciences, the fishery, mining, pulp and paper and oil and gas.

There are file folders packed with newspaper clippings on every community in the province, old school yearbooks as well as more contemporary items such as yesterday's newspaper and politicians' speeches. The CNS attempts to collect everything about this province. It purchases newly published material from bookstores as well as out-of-print and rare items from the antiquarian market.

Humble beginnings

Memorial University has always had a vested interest in documenting and collecting material about this province's history. “When the late Agnes O'Dea came to work at the Memorial University College library in the 1950s, she noticed that the collection was very small compared to the faculty members' and students' interest in Newfoundland history, geography, language and folklore,” said Ms. Ritcey.

Armed with a Carnegie grant, Ms. O'Dea began to identify and purchase documents about the province. With great foresight, the university administration gave her permission to create a regional library collection on Newfoundland which, in 1965, became the CNS.

Starting with about 40 books on a few shelves, Ms. O'Dea began the extensive task of collecting every known published work about Newfoundland and Labrador, from its earliest times. By the time she retired in 1976, the collection had grown to 20,000 volumes. The next head, Anne Hart, further built the collection to approximately 65,000 between 1976 and 1998.

Variety of services

The current CNS relocated from the Henrietta Harvey Building to the massive QE II Library in 1982 and today welcomes hundreds of patrons, including faculty, staff, students, members of the community and out-of-province visitors, each month. They come looking for an array of information ranging from the Terms of Union or the history of the automotive industry in this province to finding obituaries in local newspapers or purchasing copies of old photographs.

The CNS operates like a regular library but instead of patrons searching the shelves for particular books, they are required to fill out a form and staff members retrieve the items for them.

“The stacks are kept closed so that the material here today will still be here 100 years from now,” said Ms. Ritcey.

The CNS also offers other services including telephone assistance for researchers; an e-mail reference service; a detailed Web site which provides a list of Newfoundland and Labrador Web sites by subject; electronic books and the Periodical Article Bibliography, which is an index to 75,000 articles on this province and is now on the Web.

These online tools come in handy for Jim Miller, a graduate of Memorial's History Department who is now project co-ordinator and archivist with the Trinity Historical Society Office and Archives.

“I have recently used the resources at the CNS to do some research on shipwrecks in Trinity Bay to complete a virtual exhibit on this topic,” said Mr. Miller. He said being able to search some of the CNS's material online makes his job much easier and in turn makes the CNS more accessible. “I can check and see what is available online before I visit,” he said. “I have also referred researchers to the CNS when they are looking for specific information.”

Living collection

Back in the CNS, Ms. Ritcey is busy researching the answer to a reference question by browsing through clippings culled from last week's online Telegram. Many new items are discovered through electronic databases and Web sites and new paper-based materials are added to the collection daily. “The CNS is a treasure trove of historically-important material,” she said with a wide smile. “It's a delight for those interested in a wide range of out-of-print material on Newfoundland and Labrador and an essential source for the researcher.”

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, a wine and cheese reception will be held Friday, Jan. 20 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. in the CNS. Special items from the collection will be on display. The event is open to faculty, staff and students. As well, the CNS hopes to encourage members of the campus to use its research facilities. Patrons who use material in the centre during the month of January will be entered into a draw for a framed coloured reproduction of an 18th century map of Newfoundland. The drawing will take place on Feb 1.

Related articles from the Jan. 12, 2006 issue of the Gazette:

(Originally posted on on Jan 13, 2006)