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Monday June 25, 2012

He made books and writers a priority

Chief librarian at UBC was quiet presence who got results when it came to promoting Canadian publishing

Special to The Globe and Mail

In his death notice, Basil Stuart-Stubbs requested that in lieu of flowers friends could purchase a book by a Canadian author or donate to a library in his memory. One of the last great scholar librarians, his life was about books and he imagined no worthier a tribute.

A soft-spoken, Old-World gentleman hidden behind thick lenses, a finely clipped beard and a whisper, Stuart-Stubbs preferred to step back from the spotlight, modestly making suggestions and backroom decisions. His commitment to Canadian publishing added a richness and breadth rarely realized.

"He just went about in a quiet and unassuming way, and put in things that were surprising in their effectiveness and really quite revolutionary in their impact," said Roland Lorimer, director of the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing at Simon Fraser University.

"He didn't assume, like many did of his age and his generation, that books are created elsewhere, but rather that books are created everywhere they are given the opportunity to be created."

Another colleague, Paul Whitney, former chief librarian of Burnaby and Vancouver public libraries, said Stuart-Stubbs understood the broader ecosystem of publishing and reading. "He was able to move beyond parochial interests of the institution and really contribute to the broader good."

As the head librarian at the University of British Columbia, Stuart-Stubbs helped found two UBC-based magazines, Canadian Literature and PRISM International, and was the founding chair of UBC Press, where he led the board for 10 years.

In 1967, along with Toronto publisher Harald Bohne and Vancouver bookseller Bill Duthie, he helped produce the first issue of Canadian Books in Print. He was the first president of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries and was instrumental in establishing the Association of B.C. Book Publishers, the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions, the SFU Centre for Canadian Publishing and the Alcuin Society.

A highlight of Stuart-Stubbs's career was going on a book-buying spree through Europe in the mid-1960s, with a $3-million donation from industrialist H.R. MacMillan. He brought back precious manuscripts and books to stock the UBC library, for a time making it the envy of North American academic libraries.

He was also a leading advocate for the establishment of the Public Lending Right for Canadian authors, controversial legislation that came into effect in 1986 compensating Canadian authors for having their works in Canadian public libraries.

In 1974, he co-wrote a groundbreaking article on this issue in Saturday Night magazine titled: "When you read a library book, should the author be paid? The case for the public lending right."

"As performance is to music, reading is to the book," he wrote, arguing that while libraries help writers to reach a larger community, the authors must also be recompensed for their creative work.

"Basil was many fine things, a scholar, a lover of literature, a friend," said Andreas Schroeder, the Public Lending Rights founding chair. "[But] his memory will always be backlit by his courage to be a librarian who understood that without writers, libraries wouldn't exist."

Stuart-Stubbs died in Vancouver on May 29 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 82.

Born in Moncton in 1930 to Thomas and Amy Stuart-Stubbs, Basil was cursed with a weirdly hyphenated name and an emotionally absent mother. The moniker mystery was later solved: His father had added the name of a bricklayer to whom he was apprenticed at 13, shortly after arriving in Canada from Britain. He cared more for Danny Stuart than he did for his own father and appropriated the name as a mark of respect.

Basil's parents had him late in life and his mother suffered a long bout of postpartum depression that made her unavailable to him. Instead, he was raised by his three sisters and a series of Acadian maids, from whom he learned French.

As a boy, Basil helped his father, who then worked as a salesman, stock grocery store shelves with a range of domestic products including birdseed, antiseptic, laundry bluing and stove polish.

"In a short time [my father] had all but cornered the market for such products as shoe polish and brass polish," wrote Stuart-Stubbs in an unpublished memoir. "The end result was that the family never experienced hardship during the Great Depression and the Second World War."

Still, he contributed to the war effort by foraging for scrap metal with the local boys; a highpoint came when they were given an entire car to demolish.

When Stuart-Stubbs was 16, the family moved to Vancouver and he became devastatingly lonely, turning to books to fill the void. He never turned away.

After finishing high school at Vancouver's Lord Byng Secondary in 1949, he travelled up the hill to UBC, graduating with a degree in philosophy in 1952. Then he was off to Montreal, where he received his bachelor of library science from McGill University in 1954. He spent the next couple of years working as a reference librarian on campus.

In 1955, Stuart-Stubbs married Nancy Ballard, whom he had met at McGill, and they eventually had two daughters, Kathleen and Megan.

He and his wife left Montreal for Vancouver in 1956, where he took a position at the UBC Library, first as a cataloguer, then in the Special Collections Division, and finally as the university librarian in 1964.

One of his greatest achievements was creating the Malcolm Lowry collection with Earle Birney, who taught in the English Department. This remains the world's foremost reference source for Lowry scholars.

In 1965, he joined up with six other Vancouver bibliophiles to found the Alcuin Society. The organization describes itself on its website as being "for lovers of books, the book arts, fine printing and reading." Today, among other initiatives, it provides awards for excellence in book design.

B.C. publishing took a great leap forward in 1972, during the UNESCO Year of the Book, thanks to Stuart-Stubbs's foresight. He organized the first-ever conference on Western regional publishing, bringing together disparate pockets of publishing and even succeeding, as B.C. publisher Howard White admitted, in getting him to park his bulldozer and head over to check out the conference: "It was the first time I realized we were not involved in something solitary and quixotic, but were part of a larger cultural movement with common interests and the potential for growth that might even provide an opportunity to permanently park one's bulldozer."

As a result of this gathering, the Association of Book Publishers of B.C. was founded in 1974.

"It's typical Basil," said White, when presenting Stuart-Stubbs with the Association's Gray Campbell Distinguished Service Award for outstanding contributions to the B.C. literary community in 2004, "that when he was notified of this award, he was sure we must be looking for some other Basil and couldn't imagine what he had done to deserve such a thing. The short answer is everything."

Stuart-Stubbs co-founded and served as president of the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions (now ) in 1978, an organization that transfers Canadian documents onto microfiche and online, thus making them more accessible to the public.

Also in 1978, years after his marriage to Nancy ended, he fell in love with fellow librarian Brenda Peterson, who ultimately replaced him at Special Collections. They were married 10 years later, but always pegged their anniversary to the first day they spied each other over a trolley of books.

Stuart-Stubbs retired as UBC librarian in 1981 and became a professor and the director of the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies. During his tenure he implemented the first postgraduate degree program in North America in the field of archival studies.

In 1987, he served on the founding board of the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing at Simon Fraser University, retiring from this position in 1992. He went on to become an adviser for both the federal and provincial governments, working with the National Library Advisory Board, the Canada Council and the B.C. Arts Council Board.

After he retired, he and Brenda "rescued" a Vancouver house from an estate sale, establishing it as an award-winning heritage building. They stocked their library with books published in 1912, the year the house was built.

An amateur pianist, he spent years collecting sheet music, recordings and books by and about pianists.

"Revered and loved for his gentlemanliness," wrote Alan Twigg in the online website ABC Book World, "Basil Stuart-Stubbs refrained from playing the piano for others, including his piano instructor."

Stuart-Stubbs leaves his wife, Brenda, daughter Megan and grandson Alexander. He was predeceased by his daughter Kathleen.

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