Nahum Gelber Law Library


It was stuffy, gloomy and overcrowded -- the skeleton in the closet of one of the country's most fabled law faculties.

McGill's Faculty of Law could take considerable pride in the fact that it has trained future prime ministers and Supreme Court judges. Its professors have helped shape the law in Quebec and have influenced lawmakers in Russia, China, Vietnam and Eastern Europe. But for all those accomplishments, once a new law student took stock of the faculty's old library, the pleasure of studying law at McGill took an immediate blow to the belly.

"You only spent time there because you absolutely had to," recalls Deana Matzanke, a recent law graduate. Remembering the awful ventilation system and the lack of adequate seating, Matzanke declares, "Our library was easily the worst in Canada." "It was pretty grim," concedes head law librarian Robert Clarke.

But things have changed. "The new library might be the best one in the country now," says Matzanke. "From the worst to the best -- that's a huge leap."

The Nahum Gelber Law Library officially opened last week. Premier Lucien Bouchard and Lieutenant-Governor Lise Thibault were both on hand for the event, along with representatives of the city's biggest law firms.

For his part, Bouchard seemed genuinely impressed by the support the faculty received from donors for the project -- more than $13 million, used to build the library and to enhance its collections, came entirely from gifts made by graduates, law firms, foundations and other donors. The Gelber initiative stands as the most successful fund-raising campaign ever conducted by a Canadian law faculty.

"I want to highlight the generosity of McGill's alumni," Bouchard said, paying special tribute to Nahum Gelber, who contributed the largest donation for the project. McGill's graduates display "a concrete commitment to the quality of education," said the premier, adding that the amazing support shown by donors for the Gelber Library, "should inspire more and more former students of Quebec universities."

At the ceremony, Gelber and Dean of Law Stephen Toope drew the longest and warmest applause. Gelber said that Toope's commitment to building the new library was "inspiring and contagious."

Matzanke chaired the student committee that advised the faculty on what students wanted from the new library. They were listened to. At one point, architects were sent back to their drawing boards when students, after seeing the plans, complained that the library needed space for more big tables for group projects.

Ready to receive -- both students and their laptops. The work tables in the Alan Aylesworth MacNaughton Reading Room are fully configured for access to the campus electronic network. The library's architect, Dan Hanganu, designed this third floor mammoth window in the form of a triangle as a clin d'oeil to the garrets of the Victorian houses in the area.

"Often, students aren't given an equal voice when it comes to planning new buildings, even if those facilities are going to affect student life a great deal. Fortunately our dean is very student oriented. Law students certainly felt that their voices were heard."

"This library is almost completely wired. We have 300 seating spaces that all have power outlets and connections to the Internet," says Clarke. The building also boasts a faculty reading room, cubicles for graduate students and an atrium that connects to the Chancellor Day Hall Building and which will serve as a focal point for social events.

The Gelber Library also includes 10 new rooms where students can either practice their mooting skills or study as groups. There is considerably more seating and table space than there was before.

"In the old library, table space was prime property," says Matzanke. "Law students use more than a couple of books at a time, so a table can fill up in a hurry. There used to be a rush in the morning to see who could get the tables first."

The library includes the state-of-the art Dobrin-Steinberg Computer Training Classroom that gives law students access to 30 more computers than they previously had at their disposal.

Thanks to a $525,000 gift from the John Dobson Foundation, made to honour the memory of attorney Jacques Tetrault, students and faculty are trained to make full use of these facilities. "It will ensure that the human resources and expertise to exploit the technologies are developed among professors, students and staff," says librarian Stephen Park, director of the Law Information Management Centre. The gift will also bolster the library's electronic collections and support improvements for its web site.

The Dancing Hare pirouettes before the law library's spiral staircase which leads from the McCarthy Tetrault Circulation and Information area to the Stikeman Elliot Reference area. The sculpture, by Barry Flanagan, was previously housed in the Musée de beaux arts de Montréal, and is a gift from Nahum Gelber.

The library will offer after-hours access to the computer facilities -- students will be able to get in by using their student cards to open the security doors.

Architect Dan Hanganu, one of Canada's most influential designers, was in charge of the Gelber project. "We wanted an environment where it would be a pleasure to meet and share ideas. That's been achieved," says Clarke.

Noting that some faculty weren't initially sold on Hanganu's design -- they thought the earth tones used for the walls were too dark and the windows in most areas were too small -- Clarke says the library is drawing raves now that it's operating. "They can see how user spaces are flooded in natural light."

Clarke and his library colleagues have been heavily involved in the planning and building of the new facility. Clarke assigned associate law librarian Louise Robertson the task of organizing the move -- no easy job. Hundreds of library materials were carefully transported.

Towards the end, to meet the deadline for the Gelber Library's opening, the staff worked round-the clock in shifts. They stacked the new shelves in the dead of night, with no functioning electricity and armed with flashlights and a determination to get the job done on time. "We got to know each other a lot better," says Clarke.

Perhaps taking inspiration from the inscription engraved on the stone exterior of the new library -- "To leave no stone unturned" -- Clarke says the job of building the country's finest law library isn't done yet.

"Now that we have a world-class library, we need to build up our collections. We need to do some work on that front. We should have a world-class collection to match."