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Recent events


F.R. Scott Lecture with Dr. Bernard Shapiro: Freedom of Speech in the Ivory Tower

Thursday, September 13, 2018 

Watch a video recording of the lecture by clicking here

The Friends of the McGill Library were delighted to welcome Principal Emeritus, Dr. Bernard Shapiro for Freedom of Speech in the Ivory Tower, a timely lecture on freedom of expression in academic institutions.

Universities are often the last organized places to teach millions of adults to doubt authority, to look things up, to weigh ideas and evidence, to argue, to do the hard work of changing their own minds. The topic of freedom of speech on university campuses is coming up with great frequency. Some studies suggest that students and faculty are less willing to engage with anyone with whom they do not agree. Are we truly witnessing shifting attitudes about what is acceptable when it comes to individual expression, protests, and even jokes? Does anyone have the right not to be offended?

The F.R. Scott Lecture is sponsored by the Honourable John Gomery and Honourable Pierrette Rayle.

Image credit: Newtown grafitti.


Born and raised in Montreal, Dr. Bernard Shapiro graduated from McGill's Faculty of Arts at the top of his class. After earning a doctoral degree from Harvard University, he had a distinguished career as an academic, administrator and senior public servant in the United States and Canada. He returned to Montreal to lead McGill from 1994 to 2002 and is currently Principal and Vice-Chancellor Emeritus of the University and Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Education. He is past president of the Canadian Society for the Study of Education and of the Social Science Federation of Canada. He has also served on the executive committee of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) and as Chair of the governing board of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation in Paris.


Hugh MacLennan Lecture | Murder for a Living with Louise Penny

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Watch a video recording of the lecture by clicking here

Event summary by Louise Dery-Goldberg

This year’s Hugh MacLennan Lecture was held on April 19 and was presented in partnership with Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival. The evening got off to a wonderful start with a warm welcome from Cameron Charlebois, Blue Metropolis Chair and a witty, gracious introduction by the Dean of McGill’s Faculty of Law, Robert Leckey.

New York Times bestseller Louise Penny then took to the stage and enchanted an audience of more than 450 people many of whom had read most if not all of her 13 novels. Although her books are murder mysteries, the title of her talk being « Murder for a Living » , there is much beauty, humour, kindness and joie de vivre in all her books. Everyone in attendance left understanding better the reasons why.

Louise Penny talked of her life candidly and shared how she decided to be a writer as a child of 8 years old after reading Charlotte’s Web. She realized the power of the word after losing her fear of spiders because of her love for Charlotte. 

She told a rapt audience how her newly single mother used the earnings of her first salary to buy a painting she saw every day on her way to work so that her children would have beauty in their lives. 

She also spoke of the many challenges she has had to overcome and the many miracles in her life. She considers the success she has come to know as a miracle and recounts how when her first books were published no one would come to see her on her book tours or worse yet once one sole person came. Those days are long behind her now that her books are translated into 35 languages. The  world has come to know and love the fictional town of Three Pines in the Eastern Townships, and its inhabitants. She wanted to create a village that she would want to live in with people she would want to befriend. Detective Gamache who always succeeds in solving the mystery while sharing his wisdom and kindness is based on her late husband, Dr. Michael Whitehead. She spoke of the miracle of meeting him and the tremendous support and encouragement he always gave her. She spoke of the richness of their life together and the love that sustained them  during the illness that eventually took his life. 

In answer to a question from the audience about what advice she would give a would-be writer she said « Be not afraid.  Don’t be concerned about getting published or whether other people like what you are writing. Just write for yourself ». This is what she herself learned from the creative people, poets, playwrights and artists she befriended when she moved to the Townships. She learned that trying and not succeeding was better than not trying at all. This is how she was able to overcome  the  fear of not succeeding that was paralyzing her when she first started out.

What we all learned from her that evening is that the « miracle » of her success has a lot to do with her talent, her intellect, her sense of humour, her generosity of spirit, her honesty and her strength. Louise Penny is a truly extraordinary woman who we hope to be reading for many years to come.

The event ended with a heartfelt and amusing thank you from Friends of the Library board member, Kate Williams, who hails from Three Pines’ neighbouring village of Sutton.

This memorable lecture was made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of Friends board member, Donald Walcot.


Lecture | Marriage: Is it All or Nothing? with Professor John Lydon

February 5, 2018 

Event summary by Jewel Lowenstein

In anticipation of Valentine’s Day, Professor Lydon, Chair of the McGill Psychology Department, presented a lecture based on the 2017 book by Eli J. Finkel entitled The All or Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work.

Ann Vroom, Chair of The Friends of the Library, welcomed the audience which consisted mostly of young women. Did this subject scare off the men?

Given that Professor Lydon’s research focuses on intimate social bonds, he was a well chosen speaker for this topic. He began by saying that working at McGill is most rewarding in terms of the level of student academic curiosity. He then turned to the subject of the talk and zeroed in on “commitment” and “intimate social bonds” from a 2018 perspective. He reminded the audience that U.S. studies do not reflect the unique “cohabitation” category so popular in Quebec versus formal marriage. He also pointed out that studies now need to include same-sex marriages.

Finkel, Professor of Psychology and Management at Northwestern University, states that marriage today is about self-expression, not so much about love. John Lydon pointed out that locally, certain factors may have contributed to that. Namely the pill and significant changes to divorce law in Canada in the 1970s. He gave examples of studies where the “expectations” of individuals differ in how much happiness they experience and the fact that they choose their partner, rather than have an arranged relationship, should reflect more happiness.

Lydon went on to define the difference between “love” – e.g. for a sibling and “being in love” with a partner. Nowadays, falling in love results in self-expansion. One’s sense of self grows and one’s ideal self is expanded. Lydon said formerly, meaning and purpose came from religion, whereas now this has been replaced by a relationship. One’s partner helps one to discover who one is. Personal growth comes from a secure attachment figure where there is a safe haven.  All relationships face difficulties but the good must outweigh the bad. If there is trust, each partner can feel secure admitting their weaknesses.

Is marriage about self-actualization? This lecture demonstrated that much research is being done which helps to find answers to the question of what makes a successful marriage.

Cecil Rabinovitch former Chair, Friends of the Library, formally thanked Professor Lydon. She welcomed his positive approach in light of so much negativity surrounding sexual harassment prevalent in the news currently.

Chris Lyons, Head, Rare Books and Special Collections, then briefly described the Pop Up exhibits complimenting this lecture. For the month of February, the displays feature items relating to love. Included are a 1900 cookbook with cocoa recipes, a John Ramsbottom 1939 stunning work with exquisite colored plates of pink roses after Redouté’s “ Les Roses “,  an early Descartes volume showing the physiology of the ventricles of the heart, as well as traditional Valentine cards collected over the years.


Annual General Meeting

December 6, 2017

Event summary by Cecily Lawson

The Friends 17th Annual General Meeting was held in the Colgate Room of the McLennan Library Building presided over by Friends Chair Ann Vroom. Following a review of the year’s activities and an explanation of the group’s expanding role in fundraising as well as advocacy, the Treasurer’s Report was presented by Don Walcot. This was followed by the slate of directors for 2018, which was approved by those in attendance.

The highlight of the evening was the presentation of the Friend of the Year Award to Cecil Rabinovitch, past Chair of the Friends of the McGill Library. In conferring the award, Honorary Board Member John Gomery remarked on Cecil’s outstanding leadership abilities, her longtime devotion to building cultural institutions in Canada, her passionate championship of the role of the modern library, and her deep appreciation of books and learning. Describing her as loyal, direct, honest, smart, witty and not afraid of a challenge, he noted her critical importance in making the Friends the vibrant organization that it is today and in attracting so many of the outstanding speakers to the Friends lecture series.

Trenholme Dean of Libraries Colleen Cook and Principal and Vice- Chancellor Suzanne Fortier added their plaudits on Cecil’s accomplishments and thanked her for her support of the Library. The evening finished with a lively reception to honour our award winner, celebrate a successful year for the Friends and welcome in the holiday season.


Lecture | Christmas Ain't What it Used to Be with Judith Flanders

November 15, 2017

Event summary by Frances Groen

The venerable Colgate Room of Rare Books and Special Collections was aglow in anticipation of the arrival of author Judith Flanders. A Londoner by choice, Flanders established her career as a journalist and editor, but then chose to ignore the cautious advice of a publisher not to quit her day job. Instead she launched a career as a writer of popular, scholarly histories on Victorian England. Creative fiction has not been ignored by Flanders who has also written a series of murder mysteries with Sam Clair as her sleuth. Flanders is well known for her knowledge of both violent crime and sanitation, or lack thereof, in nineteenth century London, so the audience was not certain how this special knowledge might fit into a talk on a Victorian Christmas.

The speaker did not disappoint!  We were treated to an original examination of Christmas traditions that supported the speaker’s view that Christmas has very little to do with Christianity or the Middle East. Christmas, as we know it, probably began as a Northern European tradition that developed over the centuries into feelings of nostalgia for a Christmas that never existed. Flanders offered ample evidence of this view by detailed examination of the many conventions that surround Christmas celebrations. She looked at food, drink, music, gifts and gift wrapping that began in nineteenth century. Drawing on her broad knowledge, she explained the development of gift wrapping as the result of the increased availability of commercially available gifts. When gifts were no longer hand made, at least the wrapping was done by hand!

The enthusiastic audience that filled the Colgate Room concurred with Chris Lyons, Head of Rare Books and Special Collections when he thanked the speaker for a fascinating evening. Guests moved to the reception and were enthusiastic to buy the Ms Flanders's book Christmas, A Biography, that is just released. 


​Annual Shakespeare Lecture | "Julius Caesar" Before The Rehearsal Room with Scott Wentworth

November 7, 2017

Watch a video recording of the lecture by clicking here

Event summary by Alyssa Hamilton

Theatre artist Scott Wentworth gave the Friends of the McGill Library audience a glimpse into the life of a director on November 7 with his lecture “Julius Caesar: Before the Rehearsal Room.” The Stratford Festival production of Julius Caesar goes into rehearsal in June of next season.

Wentworth has had an enviable career as a Tony and Olivier-nominated actor, director, and playwright, and a 30-year veteran of the Stratford Festival with. As a director, his work is a balancing act. To coordinate a large production, he needs to provide answers to practical questions early on. At the same time, he wants to ask questions, and to never stop asking questions.

Among other things, Wentworth asks what the play has to say about men and women. The Stratford theatre has experimented with gender in recent years, but this year’s cast for Julius Caesar will be split evenly between men and women. With gender parity, Wentworth disputes the idea that Shakespeare’s work can only be understood within the tradition of Realism. After all, it is well-known that all early performances had actors in the roles of female characters. “Jonathan Goad recently played Hamlet,” he added. “He’s not Danish.”

Wentworth reads and rereads the text to ask what is really there, and what we assume is there. A four-hundred-year old text comes with a lot of baggage. At the same time, putting tradition aside to see the play with fresh eyes is itself traditional. Orson Welles’s 1937 adaptation saw Caesar in the context of fascism. This summer’s controversial New York production drew inspiration from the recent U.S. election.

“That, to me, is how poetry continues to speak to us, and to gather meaning that in many cases the original writer, poet, playwright couldn’t foresee,” Wentworth explained. “We have to listen to it with the ears of our time without necessarily imposing the values of our time on it.”

His balancing act extends to set design. Elizabethan theatres allowed a story to be told both as a linear narrative and as a metaphorical one. Stratford’s Festival stage, minimal and intimate, is designed to access both stories. “In the presence of acting, the space gets populated with the scenery that Shakespeare creates with his language, and that we create mutually between actor and audience.”

He makes sure that costumes don’t get in the way of this interaction. Functional clothing, with buttons that work and sleeves that can be pushed up, reminds the audience that the characters are real people. The audience meets the characters as nuanced individuals rather than broad types, and hears the play anew.

Tradition has asked whether Caesar was a monster or a saviour, and whether Brutus was an assassin or a hero. Wentworth asks how masculine and feminine voices are balanced in modern public discourse. As for Shakespeare’s own answer to the questions of power, democracy and tyranny raised in Julius Caesar, “Typically,” said Wentworth, “he just chooses to keep asking both sides of the question.”

The McGill Library system has a wealth of material on Shakespeare. This includes some of the earliest editions of Shakespeare’s plays: a copy of the second folio from 1632 and two copies of the fourth folio from 1685. Ann Vroom, Chair of the Friends of the McGill Library, welcomed the audience, Tomlinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies Paul Yachnin introduced the speaker and Joel Goldberg offered the concluding remarks. With the generosity of sponsors Hilary Pearson and Michael Sabia, the Shakespeare Lecture is one of three lectures hosted annually by the Friends of the McGill Library. It continues to benefit from a partnership with the Stratford Festival.

The Shakespeare Lecture is presented in partnership with the Stratford Festival and generously supported by Hilary Pearson and Michael Sabia.


Lecture | Foodways & fisticuffs: the larger than life personalities who shaped Quebec cuisine with Julian Armstrong & Nathalie Cooke

Wednesday, October 4 & 11, 2017

Event summary by Alyssa Hamilton 

Bear Pits, Nuns and Tortière: Julian Armstrong and Nathalie Cooke in Conversation about Montreal Foodways and Fisticuffs

The event “Foodways and fisticuffs: the larger than life personalities who shaped Quebec cuisine” was an evening of storytelling. Speakers Nathalie Cooke and Julian Armstrong led an intimate, informative, and above all entertaining talk in the first of this year’s series of presentations organized by the Friends of the McGill Library on October 4, with an encore presentation on October 11.

The lecture explored the cultural significance of food, sitting at the intersection of history, geography, and function. It also highlighted the passionate defense of regional food varieties, whether tortière, pea soup, or maple pie, as local heritage.

Julian Armstrong and Nathalie Cooke told tales of larger than life Quebec characters, such as Joe Beef, known both for his generosity and for the bears he kept in the pit of his house.

The 19th century Montreal tavern owner welcomed customers of all backgrounds, and kept couches for those who overindulged or who didn’t have a bed for the night. He also helped deescalate the 1878 conflict on the Lachine canal by breaking bread with both strikers and soldiers.

Amy the cow figured in another story, as the modern, quite photogenic descendent of a herd shipped from France to Quebec 1608. Known for their hardiness in the Canadian winter and the cheese made from their milk, La vache canadienne is now making a comeback after its displacement by British Holsteins.

The speakers discussed the heritage of many of today’s foods, recipes, producers and culinary ground breakers, many of which the audience members could recognize as a community. The convent on Sherbrooke Street, for instance, had a cooking school run by nuns, where many Montreal women learned to cook early in their married lives.

These included Julian, known for her cookbooks and 50 years spent writing about food for the Montreal Gazette and the Montreal Star. Nathalie is also prominent as both a McGill Professor and the Associate Dean of the Library’s ROAAr unit (Rare and Special Collections, Osler, Art and Archives).

Fittingly, the event was held in the historic Colgate Room of McGill’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library. The venue was newly opened following renovation, thanks to a generous donation by the Joan and Clifford Hatch Family Foundation. Further renovation is planned for the McLennan/Redpath Library Complex. McGill’s Canada150/Montreal 375 hosted a wine and cheese to end the evening.


See also: Past events