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Jane Urquhart’s adventures in the library

Urquhart 1

Maria Dubecki
Congress 2012 Correspondent

Anyone who has read Jane Urquhart’s fiction knows she is an expert storyteller. It is with this expert storytelling that Urquhart delivered her Monday morning Big Thinking lecture, Intertextuality or Easter egg hunt: A Canadian writer’s adventures in the library. But the story that Urquhart told was not taken from one of her seven prize-winning novels. Instead, Urquhart treated us to a story in which she was the main character – she recounted her own journey with books, libraries, and archives.

Midway through her lecture, Urquhart noted her fondness for the word “browse” and its definition. As I reflect on her lecture, I find this moment to be significant beyond its glimpse into the author’s charm. Through descriptions of her own most meaningful discoveries, Urquhart’s lecture invited her listeners’ imaginations to browse through the libraries and findings that have made her the author she’s become.

From her childhood introduction to books in “Northern, Northern Ontario,” to her adolescent realization that books did not grow “wildly in meadows” – and in fact that she could be one of the mere mortals who created them – Urquhart’s lecture progressed through the author’s evolving relationship with libraries and archives. This relationship includes time at the University of Waterloo’s library where much of her research for The Underpainter (1997) was done, without which, Urquhart explained, important sections of the novel never would have been written.

Urquhart’s lecture was met with an engaged early-morning audience who laughed at the author’s many jokes and witty comments, but who also appreciated when Urquhart noted that on this very day archivists are marching to Parliament Hill to try to prevent Canada’s libraries and archives from being disregarded.

Urquhart’s story emphasized that these archives and libraries, which are now in a state of uncertainty, continually lead her to discoveries that imagination alone cannot. It is from these discoveries that Urquhart’s imagination is fired up and her novels are created.

With the last post I wrote being “Bibliomania 1812 and Expo 2012,” I was pleased when Urquhart expressed her opinion on the future of books without my asking. The author clarified she is “not against Kindles,” but advocated for the layers of social history that come with material book objects. Urquhart put forth the considerable point that, from tapestries to scrolls, history is enriched by multiple ways of reading. Ultimately, being a literature and professional writing student at the University of Waterloo myself, I couldn’t help but feel enthused when Urquhart asserted, “I’m sure books will survive.”