Strange and serendipitous turns
Setbacks can shape our lives in significant and positive ways. Madeleine Lefebvre, Chief Librarian Emerita at Ryerson University in Toronto, shares her story.
You might not associate the word ‘failure’ with someone who managed to reach the pinnacle of their profession. But alumna Madeleine Lefebvre doesn’t want it cut from the narrative. Here the 1972 MA graduate recounts anecdotes from her journey to becoming a leading librarian in Canada.
I chose Edinburgh because I loved the city and had visited many times (my grandmother had lived there during my childhood). Also my father, uncle and grandfather were all Edinburgh graduates. My first mistake, though, was to board for the first year with a friend of my parents, which turned out to be very isolating when most of my classmates were in Pollock Halls. There was a program where freshers were invited by senior students to small social gatherings in their flats to meet others. Mine was with very senior students (I was in awe); for reasons I forget we ended up pushing a bed up Lauriston Place among the traffic. I’d led a pretty sheltered life and for some reason that made me feel I belonged!
In my first year I was in a Latin course given by Professor Kenneth Wellesley. A direct descendant of the Duke of Wellington, he was an imposing man with a booming voice (I was terrified of him). I remember Professor Wellesley telling us some story that ended with “...and the precise reason for which is beyond our ken”, and then laughing loudly at his own joke.
I was in the Honours Classics programme for my first two years. We were a small group and I quickly made friends. So it was very hard when I failed an optional course offered by the Law School, and my Education Authority refused to fund another two years. I was devastated when I had to switch to a General MA. In my third year I worked hard, picking courses that were in tune with my Classics background. The optional course was clearly designed for law students in that much was assumed and I was quickly out of my depth. I have always regretted making a very poor choice of optional course, with no advice to steer me away from it.
There were Classics faculty who were kind to me. Roy Pinkerton comes to mind. Also Keith Rutter. He arrived after I had switched to the General MA and told me he couldn’t understand why I wasn’t still in the Honours programme. The students in the Classics department were still my group of friends and I continued to make the David Hume Tower (DHT) reading room my study home. When Dr Rutter and Dr Pinkerton took the Honours Classics students to The Burn for a few days’ symposium, they included me, for which I was very touched and grateful. Similarly Dr Snodgrass (I took Classical Art in my third year) always made me feel part of the Honours Classics group.
I was a member of the Classical Society and thanks to fellow student Arthur McKeown we put on plays. I was in the chorus of The Trachiniae, which was reviewed in The Times Higher Education Supplement (“…a slightly ragged chorus”). One year we got involved in Rag Week and had our own float. We were all dressed in togas, carrying buckets for the crowd to throw coins at us. Unfortunately one hit me and I had a cut on my nose and a lovely black eye for a while.
In second year a few of us moved into flats. Mine was in Churchill Place. I loved the walk to the DHT across the Links and the Meadows. Another classmate, Jeremy Rossiter, was in a flat off the Meadows. There was a party one warm evening and a few of us ended up sitting on the grass waiting for dawn, while Jeremy played the guitar. I can still picture that.
We had a visiting lecturer from Canada, whose name I can’t remember. He was fanatical about Star Trek, and used plotlines from episodes to illustrate Greek philosophy and mythology. He certainly kept our attention.
In my third year I became a volunteer with a campus group who sent us out to visit elderly people. Another Classics friend and I would visit a couple down in New Town. Their flat was always stiflingly hot. Their world revolved around their budgerigar. It was hard to make conversation for more than an hour but they were always hospitable. One time we visited only to find that the wife was in hospital. We saw her there and it was very distressing. A couple of weeks later we returned to the flat. The husband was there – now a widower - but he was just a shell with nothing to say. The budgerigar was once again the centre of attention. We said our condolences and left: it was obvious he didn’t want to see us again.
In my third year I also joined the Film Society. I enjoyed it so much that in later life I took a course in Film Studies as part of my library degree.
I contemplated applying to Moray House for a DipEd and a chance to remain in Edinburgh for another year. But a professor told me about a SCONUL (Standing Conference of National and University Libraries) scheme which placed a graduate in a trainee librarian position for a year before going to library school. I wanted to prove myself after my perceived failure so I applied and found myself going off to London after graduation.
Thus my first year after Edinburgh was at the Institute of Classical Studies in London. That year changed my life. While working there in the library I met Professor Richard Smith, from the University of Alberta’s Classics Department. Unknown to me he wrote to his Chair and recommended me for a place on their MA programme. I received a telegram: “Place on MA course with Graduate Assistantship. Accommodation and fare paid. Please expedite application.” I was so stunned I went home to my parents for the weekend. I showed them the telegram and asked my father what ‘expedite’ meant. He asked me what I was going to do with it.
“Frame it for my wall”, I laughed. “Somebody in Canada thinks I should do graduate work.”
“No you’re not,” my father replied. “You’re going to go, or you’ll always wonder what you missed.”
I did go, and thanks to the University of Alberta and Professor Smith I gained an MA in Classics, by coursework and thesis. That led me to an MLS, my Library Science degree. Since then I’ve had library positions in the government, college and university sectors in Canada.
I retired in January after being Chief Librarian for over 31 years in three progressively larger academic institutions. My final position was at Ryerson University in Toronto, where my main focus was on planning the award-winning Student Learning Centre (pictured).
In my final year I received the Errol Aspevig Award for Outstanding Academic Leadership, and was declared Chief Librarian Emerita. Along the way I was appointed an Associate of the Australian Library and Information Association, and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. In 2003 I was elected President of the Canadian Library Association. Since 2016 I have been on the Board of Trustees of OCLC, a global library cooperative responsible for WorldCat.org.
My grandmother was a successful author and held key positions in PEN Scotland. I have always enjoyed writing and in 2005 my book, The Romance of Libraries, was published by Scarecrow Press. I included a story about the DHT reading room in it.
Along the way I never lost my passion for performance and became a professional actress. Although there hasn’t been much time to pursue that passion in recent years I am already picking up the threads in my new home on Vancouver Island.
As I reflect on all of this it’s clear to me what an important role my time at Edinburgh played. I learned that failure can be a hard lesson but it isn’t always a barrier. Friends you make at University can be friends for life. And life can take strange and serendipitous turns, even after a major setback, that work out well in the end.
My message to students
Take advantage of any professional advice on offer. My uninformed and disastrous choice of a course option changed the path of my degree and deeply affected the rest of my time at university.
Madeleine would love to hear from former classmates and friends. If you know Madeleine, please reconnect via the alumni team using the link below. Please include any contact details that you are happy for us to pass on to Madeleine.
Ryerson University Library (external link)