Margaret Beckman’s Fur Coat

Margaret BeckmanWe all know clothing tells stories; there are secrets too. This is the story of Margaret Beckman’s fur coat.

Margaret was the Chief Librarian at the University of Guelph from 1971 to 1984. She hired me into my first professional job and was an important mentor to me. But all this has nothing to do with her coat.

Before Guelph, Margaret worked at the University of Waterloo Library in the Technical Services area. This was the time before automation in libraries; before computers were used in any way. Think card catalogues, typewriters,  and mimeograph machines (some of you will have to Google that last one).

Margaret saw the possibilities of computers in libraries and began to advocate for them at Waterloo. Now “advocate” in Margaret’s terms really meant an all-out campaign to convince people. The word “assertive” doesn’t even come close to describe her. To know her was to know her opinions on just about everything.

Apparently Waterloo wasn’t so enamoured and fired her.

After a bit of negotiation, Margaret received a severance cheque from UW. And she immediately spent the entire sum on a flashy, quite ostentatious, fur coat. It was an act of defiance and rebellion. That coat was the symbol of her independence and the clarity of her vision.

Margaret was hired at Guelph in the Technical Services area and eventually became Chief Librarian. At every opportunity she wore that coat when she visited UW or was at meetings with the UW Chief Librarian.

Her coat became a fixture at the Guelph Library too. It was hard to miss (and in current terms, very politically incorrect). She continued to wear it proudly. And, of course, that’s why some ne’re-do-wells in the Library had to do something about it.

As you know, libraries put “detect” strips in all their books which are “desensitized” when you check the book out (it’s a security feature; an alarm rings if this is not done). The books that aren’t allowed to circulate have strips in them that are permanently sensitized; you can’t turn them off.

Some people (names hidden to protect the guilty) put one of these permanently sensitized strips in the lining of Margaret’s fur coat. Every time, and I mean every time, she left the Library wearing that coat, the alarm would go off.  We thought it was hilarious; Margaret was pissed.

She thought the detection system was broken, and those responsible were never able to confess to the crime. The alarms went off until she finally retired the coat. She never knew.

I know it bothered Margaret but I’ve always felt that in one way the coat and the alarm were reminders of how significant a force she was in the field of librarianship. Her presence was larger than life,  her voice a ringing bell among her colleagues and those she mentored. The coat was the story of her impact on the profession.

…Mike

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4 Responses to Margaret Beckman’s Fur Coat

  1. Julie McKenna says:

    Thanks so much for this post Michael. I studied library architecture with Margaret at UWO during my MLIS (1992). I learned so much from her that was well beyond the limit of that subject during my studies. A commitment to critical appraisal and the necessity for clarity of vision were two of my most significant learnings from her and they have fuelled my passion for library design and architecture. I am working on my fifth major design/build project now and her voice is still in my head. She was a giant in our profession and I am ever grateful for the time she took to both mentor and challenge me.

  2. Janet Kaufman says:

    Like you, I was hired by Margaret and she was definitely a force to be reckoned with. Her imprint on Guelph and far beyond can be seen to this day if you knew her. She certainly had a big influence on me and my career. I occasionally wonder what she would think about “her” library today – the physical and the service changes. I hope she would approve. I remember her fur coat but I don’t recall every hearing the story about it and the detect system.

  3. Kae Elgie says:

    What a great Margaret story! Strangely enough, she never told us that one when she lectured us about Library Building Planning!

    She did tell us the Hardy Boys story however.
    Some time before she became Chief Librarian at Guelph, she was on the Waterloo Public Library Board. A discussion about children’s collections arose, and Margaret spoke strongly against putting trash like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in the library collection. In those days, library board meetings were regularly covered by the press, and her comments made headlines the next day in the local paper, and in papers all across Canada (e.g. Ottawa Journal, January 25, 1964, p. 5)
    A few days later, Max Ferguson did a Rawhide sketch on CBC Radio. In it, the Hardy Boys were digging a hole outside the Waterloo Public Library. They then covered it over with sticks and leaves, and stood behind it, calling, “Mrs. Beckman! Oh, Mrs. Beckman! Come over here, Mrs. Beckman.”
    She laughed at that story.

    If she had ever figured out the fur coat story, she might have told us that one too.
    (But I don’t think she ever changed her mind about the evils of those popular Stratemeyer Syndicate publications. cf. Beckman, M. (1964). Why not the Bobbsey Twins? Library Journal, 89(20), 4612–4613, 4627.)

  4. Ellen says:

    I too remember the coat. The tattletape strip story is new to me. Thanks.

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