When Alice Moulton went to work at the University of Toronto library in 1942, libraries were forbidding, restricted spaces organized around the near-sacred instrument known as the card catalogue. They were ruled by a chief librarian, always male, whose word was law. Staff usually consisted of prim maiden ladies, dressed in skirts and wearing serious glasses, like the character played by Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life, in the alternate life she would have had without Jimmy Stewart.
The library of the 1940s and 50s had an “inferno,” a locked area that contained banned books. According to the memoirs of chief librarian Robert H. Blackburn, who was hired five years after Moulton, it contained Havelock Ellis’s Psychology of Sex, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Morley Callaghan’s Such Is My Beloved, among other volumes.
Moulton, who died on Jan. 25 at the age of 100, lived through enormous changes in her profession. She was head of circulation for the UofT library system, the largest in Canada, now with 12 million volumes housed in 32 campus sites.
By the time she retired, books were beginning to be bar-coded like so many cans of soup. Electronic catalogues and computer-generated shelf lists were sounding the death knell of the card catalogue, whose precise composition, sequence of information and typographical rules had long prevailed. Librarians could wear pants to work (though Moulton never did), and the chief librarian could make almost no decision without consulting a myriad of internal committees. The works of Joyce, Callaghan and Ellis were freely available.
Moulton helped implement these changes, but she was also an upholder of standards. “She was always known as Missmoulton – all one word,” recalls Barry Griffith, who worked in the circulation department at the university for 26 years. “She was very proper, quiet, but she meant business. This is the way she wanted it done, and that’s how it was done.”
Superbly organized, she orchestrated in 1973, after the Robarts Library was completed, the transfer of more than 1 million books from the old Sigmund Samuel undergraduate library to the mammoth modern building on Toronto’s St. George Street.
Jane Cooper, who succeeded Moulton as head of circulation, having started as her assistant, says: “That was a considerable feat, which involved measuring, layout, assembling, reshelving and took several weeks during which the library stayed open.”
The major challenge of the circulation department was dealing with simultaneous demand for the same books from large number of students, since entire classes had to complete the same assignments at the same time. “We eventually ended up doing three-day loans, one-day loans, overnight loans, and we created a short-term loan even shorter than that – just hours – enough time just to afford a chance to go to the photocopier and copy a portion of the book,” Griffith says.
Students who failed to return books on time were another challenge for Moulton. “We kept a blacklist, though we couldn’t call it that,” Griffith recalls.
Moulton worked out an arrangement with the registrars of the colleges not to award degrees unless late fines were paid in full. She never forgot the names of the most flagrant book hogs, among them such illustrious alumni as John Tory and Bob Rae. “Her memory was incredible,” Griffith says.
Cooper recalls her old boss as “a modest and unassuming woman, but extremely intelligent, perceptive. As a manager, she always showed good judgment. Her loyalty and contribution to the institution was recognized in 1977 when she was awarded one of the sesquicentennial medals struck at the time of the university’s 150th anniversary.”
Alice Moulton was born in September, 1911, in Carbonear on the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland. Her mother, Gertrude Moulton (née Furneaux), died giving birth to her. Her Furneaux grandparents, already raising another grandchild, took her to live with them in the outport of Rose Blanche. As a child, Alice walked to the local telegraph office for news of the Great War, since there was no radio and no newspapers in Rose Blanche.
Her father, George Moulton, who worked in the fishing industry, cared for her deaf-mute elder brother, and when Alice was about 8, father and son set out for Nova Scotia so that her brother could attend a special school there. Tragically, both drowned when their ship capsized.
Later, the Furneauxs moved their grandchildren to Sidney, N.S., so they could attend high school. Upon graduation, Alice, an excellent student, assumed she would go to teachers college in Truro, but her school principal told her she had the brains for university and recommended the University of Toronto. The intrepid 18-year-old made her way to Toronto where she boarded with her Moulton grandparents and her Uncle Clarence, an Anglican clergyman.
She obtained her BA from UofT’s University College in English literature in 1933, the depths of the Depression, with no clear idea of a career. When Uncle Clarence got a parish in Barrie, Ont., she went to live with him there and did clerical work for the local hydro company.
She always remembered standing on the sidewalk in Barrie in December, 1936, and hearing a radio announcement of the abdication of Edward VIII, the way members of a later generation would remember where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot.
When Rev. Moulton, by then married, was reassigned to a Toronto parish, she moved back to Toronto and, hearing about a job at the university library, applied for it. At that time the library staff consisted of about 40 people, only a handful of them trained librarians; by 1970, with every lecture hall overflowing with baby boomers, library staff had reached 493, supplemented with 100 student assistants.
Moulton was over 50 and had worked at the university for 22 years when she finally obtained a degree in library science, at the insistence of the chief librarian, who believed he could not promote her without formal qualifications.
Her last decade at the library was tumultuous. Before the move to the Robarts Library, students rebelled at the administration’s decision to restrict stack access there to graduate students and occupied the chambers of the university’s senate and the president’s office. The administration backed down.
In 1974, there was a revolt by the reference department, which wanted to participate in decision-making. In 1975, after CUPE organized the library’s technical and clerical staff, a bitter three-week strike briefly shut down the library.
“Alice had about 100 employees under her, and the strike leader was one of them. It was very hard on her,” recalls Jane Cooper. “The strikers on the picket line were aggressive, trying to stop people from entering, but they let Alice go in by the back door. After the strike there was a lot of bad feeling (the union got almost none of its demands) and it was a challenge to reestablish relationships with her staff. She had been the motherly type, and called them in for individual meetings and said, ‘Let’s put this behind us.’ “
She never married, and after years of living in her uncle’s household, moved into a large apartment with her unmarried Moulton cousins, Gertrude and Catherine.
After retirement, she continued to read Canadian literature, peruse the paper and do the crossword puzzle daily, travel to Europe occasionally, work for her church, and keep in touch with scores of friends. Until macular degeneration began to rob her of her sight at the age of 90, she drove a car and often visited shut-ins.
“She was a jewel,” recalls her second cousin, Hugh Furneaux. “When we were planning her 100th birthday last year, I asked her for a list of friends to invite and she gave me a list of 75 people!”
In the Sigmund Samuel Library where she once worked (now the Gerstein Science Information Centre) the Alice Moulton Reading Room is a reminder of her contribution.
Special to The Globe and Mail