Reliable Sources: Helena Merriam

By Sarah Simpkin

In this column we’ll be featuring interviews with local library, archives and museum staff and students. Our fourth interviewee is Helena Merriam.

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 Who are you?

I am Helena Merriam, Coordinator of the Library and Information Technician program at Algonquin College. I’m also a member of the board of Twice Upon a Time, an organization in the Ottawa area that gives free books to kids who need them. Finally, I’m also the founder of Algonquin Reads.

What’s Algonquin Reads?

Algonquin Reads is a college-run initiative. Each year, we choose to focus on a different book by a Canadian author. We come together to read the book and engage in activities — we have a student writing contest, author visits, performance art, and workshops. This past year, we hosted a genealogy workshop as it connected with our chosen book, The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro.

That sounds like so much fun. What’s it like working at Algonquin College?

I love going to work every day. Being part of students’ lives is very rewarding, inspiring, and a privilege. The program is small, no more than forty students in one class, and each year there’s a cohort that will move through the program within two years. Each year I get to teach first and second year students, and really get to know them as individuals.

What kind of classes do you teach?

I teach reference, marketing, web design, and technology courses. I also oversee the fieldwork placement component of the diploma.

It sounds like students are getting a real hands-on experience. Could you speak more about the fieldwork component?

Students are eligible for field work after three terms of coursework. It’s a mandatory part of the diploma, so I make sure that each student is matched with an organization and position that fits their interests.  Students complete two three-week placements each.

I feel very fortunate being in Ottawa—we have a wealth of libraries and organizations that provide placement opportunities for our students, whether in information management, traditional library settings, and archives. I’m very appreciative and grateful of the support this community gives our students. They benefit from each student’s contributions, and recognize their own role in that student’s growth and development.

What are some other highlights of the Library and Information Technician program?

We have small classes sizes, hands-on applied learning, and real-life and simulated real-life projects. For example, we pair our students with the BScN (nursing) students to teach them how to search medical databases. Both groups of students benefit from this experience.

How did you get into teaching and program coordination?

I was working full-time in Toronto and teaching part-time library technician courses at night. When I later moved to Ottawa, I was able to start teaching part-time at Algonquin. This eventually led to a full-time position, and now the coordinator role.

You mentioned Twice Upon a Time. Could you tell me more about that organization and your involvement?

I’ve been involved from the beginning. I was invited by a colleague, now the current President, Alexandra Yarrow, to join in because of my interest in literacy and work with Algonquin Reads. We solicit donations of new or gently-used books, books that you’d be proud to give as a gift to a child. We operate out of an organization called Heartwood House, which is an umbrella organization for a number of not-for-profit groups. When families visit, we give out one book for free per person. We encourage the children to pick out a book that they want to own, and the parent or guardian can also select a book that they’d like to read with the child. We feel book ownership is a key part of supporting the child’s development as a reader. We also strive to be barrier-free, there’s no membership or sign-in required.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on developing a joint Bachelor’s degree program between Algonquin College and Carleton University, targeted to start in fall 2016. It’s a Bachelor in Information Technology – Information Resource Management. It will include courses in programming, web design, database design, and network technology, in addition to library and information management skills. I’m also Chair of the Local Planning Committee for the upcoming CLA conference in June, in Ottawa.

Wow, I’ll be watching this closely! In the meantime, who should I interview next?

I think you should interview Esenia Jubea, one of my former students who is currently on contract with the National Capital Commission in their Corporate Information Services department.

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