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Career of a Lifetime

Editor's Note: Paul Thiele is Professor and Director Emeritus at the University of British Columbia's Crane Library and Resource Centre. He is also an AEBC member.

After earning both a Bachelor's and Master's degrees, and three years of doctoral studies, at the University of British Columbia (UBC), I thought I was headed for a career of post-secondary teaching in my subject specialty--Comparative Literature. Instead, I was head-hunted by then Dean of Arts and later President Dr. Walter Gage and University Librarian Basil Stuart-Stubbs to organize a large collection of braille books offered to UBC by the Estate of Charles Allen Crane, a unique and gifted scholar who was both deaf and blind.

My benefactors' reasoning was that UBC had a substantial population of blind and partially sighted students due to its proximity to the Jericho Hill School for the Blind in Vancouver, but there were no organized support services, accessible library materials, or centre where they could use their special equipment. They also suggested that I take this project on for two or three years, and then go back to completing my PhD and pursue my teaching career.

I jumped at the chance. I needed a job, as I was about to get married, and the project sounded like an interesting challenge. My first appointment was a one-year term position, which stretched into two years, with the Dean of Arts Office as "Curator" of the Crane Collection. Two years later, Crane became a branch of the UBC Library, a first for North American academic institutions.

I undertook a series of initiatives some 26 years later to join Student Services and the newly created Disability Resource Centre in order to integrate library services and the production of textbooks and other materials in large print, braille, tactile graphics and on audiocassette, with the disability office's support services including library, research and student assistants, as well as specialized exam arrangements.

I had no idea how daunting the project would become--cataloguing Charles Crane's nearly 10,000 braille volumes, fundraising for specialized equipment like braille writers, electronic magnifiers and tape recorders, and recruiting volunteers to record textbooks, not to mention finding and furnishing an appropriate space for all. With the help of several faculty colleagues and library staff, however, as well as outside financial contributions, we opened the Crane Library in 1970.

My most supportive assistant, who shared my vision of what a library and resource centre for blind, partially sighted and print-disabled university students should be, was my wife, Judy. After graduating with a general arts degree, she volunteered thousands of hours cataloguing the collection. She enrolled in UBC's Master's program in Library Science, earning her graduate degree and becoming Canada's first blind librarian. Judy was also appointed as Crane's Reference and Collections Librarian.

News of the library and support service for blind and partially sighted students spread quickly, and we were asked to share our materials with other colleges and universities, as well as to advise government, library and academic organizations. This led to a lot of travel, including a six month mission to Kenya, sponsored by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), where we established a similar facility at the University of Nairobi, and where we taught courses on services to non-print readers.

Thirty-five years later, I took early retirement, still chuckling about my unfinished doctoral studies (possibly to become a post-retirement project), and the two-year appointment that stretched into a lifetime career. I'm immensely grateful to UBC for giving Judy and me this incredible opportunity to develop something unique, which continues to thrive to this day. When I'm asked what allowed me to accomplish these things, I usually say that my education taught me to envision, research, prioritize and organize tasks and challenges. But I realize I was also blessed with a tremendous amount of luck. Being in the right place at the right time was a big factor in my success.