Skip to content

From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

The Librarian

Guy Berthiaume on the shelves

Graham Fraser

Mes grandes bibliothèques: Mes archives, mes mémoires

Guy Berthiaume

Del Busso Éditeur

360 pages, softcover and ebook

If the popular image of the librarian is of a serious woman with glasses and hair pulled into a bun, the archivist is the greying man who is the prickly custodian of dusty files. Guy Berthiaume, who finished his career as the head of Library and Archives Canada, is neither one.

Gregarious and clever, Berthiaume has written Mes grandes bibliothèques: Mes archives, mes mémoires (My great libraries: My archives, my memories), a shrewd management textbook disguised as a memoir. In this candid account, he describes how he learned from bad bosses and good ones; how he developed a sense of when to stay in a job and when to move on; and how he managed to expand the horizons of every institution he served. As he explains in the preface, he decided to write a memoir rather than an autobiography because he believed his professional life was more interesting and more instructive than his private one. And he decided to emphasize the people he worked for, most of whom were larger than life.

Born in 1950, Berthiaume was a brilliant student who began a doctorate in classical antiquity in Paris but found few teaching opportunities when he returned to Montreal in 1975. He discovered that classical studies in North America were primarily dedicated to Latin and Greek and that interest in classical history was fading. As he was finishing his thesis — on food and cooking in ancient Greece — he became involved in the Parti Québécois election campaign of 1976, which put him in touch with a former professor, now an administrator at the Université de Montréal. That led to an interview and a job in university administration.

“In that era, the Université de Montréal, like the other Quebec universities, did not have a development plan,” Berthiaume writes. “To this day, UdeM has remained allergic to all attempts at planning, seeing these exercises, which consist of identifying priorities and making choices, as a threat that could restrain its ability to develop in every direction.”

Cataloguing a successful career with wit and candour.

Raymond Biesinger

When Berthiaume realized that his superiors were in their thirties and forties and that his chances for promotion were therefore slim, he moved to Quebec City to join a new funding agency, where his difficult boss got carried away by his own sense of self-importance — a lesson in the dangers of misunderstanding one’s position in an organization. Nevertheless, Berthiaume’s experience managing publicity campaigns to promote scholarships proved valuable.

As Berthiaume moved from one job to the next, he learned more: to be discreet about difficult bosses, to praise subordinates, and to listen —“which, for an academic, is not at all obvious.” In 1989, he joined the fundraising operation for the Université du Québec à Montréal. “The seven years that I spent at the Fondation de l’UQAM were determinant for the rest of my career, for they allowed me to make my mark in an area where very few Quebec francophones had seriously ventured until then,” he writes. “Professional and systematic fundraising was, until the beginning of the 1980s, absent from francophone universities and was the object of many prejudices in intellectual circles.”

During this time, Berthiaume began to understand the fundamental skills of charitable giving: learning what interests the donors, establishing a link between those interests and the needs of the institution, reaching out to graduates of the university, and, perhaps most important, building relationships that go above and beyond the annual fundraising campaign.

After seven years, he was able to spend a year renewing his knowledge of classical studies before joining UQAM’s history department, where he came to understand “the great paradox of the professorial task”: teaching, theoretically the core of the job, was considered a distraction from time otherwise dedicated to research. While Berthiaume enjoyed the freedom of a scholar, he missed the teamwork of administration. Soon he was back in that world and forging new partnerships, knowing that his predecessor had been an authoritarian who offended his colleagues by treating them like subordinates.

In 1999, Berthiaume became the director of the Maison des étudiants canadiens, the fabled residence and social centre in Paris for Canadian students. As a sideline, he consulted for Ketchum Fund Raising, an international firm expanding into Europe. Two years later, the events of 9/11 forced Robert Lacroix, the rector of the Université de Montréal, to stay with the Berthiaumes in Paris for an extra few days. The upshot was a job offer: vice-rector and chief of staff back in Montreal. In that role, Berthiaume honed his diplomatic skills, becoming convinced that sharing a good meal is the best way to develop a personal relationship. And a network is nothing other than a collection of personal relationships.

In 2003, Berthiaume moved to public affairs and development, essentially promotion and fundraising for the university. He learned what so many had discovered before him: “lawyers, doctors, administrators, and, above all, professors” believe themselves to be communications specialists and blame communications for all the failures of their organizations. “The most striking example of this syndrome comes from the Parti Québécois, which, for more than fifty years, has blamed its failure to achieve Quebec independence on communications,” he writes. “The option itself is never questioned: the problem is that ‘we explained it badly,’ as if, once the political project had been well explained, it would be impossible for a reasonable person not to agree!”

Berthiaume’s knowledge of fundraising deepened as he learned the importance of building genuine connections with major donors, many of whom complained that the university contacted them only to ask for money. Similarly, the university had neglected to establish relationships with its more recent graduates.

By watching successful and unsuccessful rectors alike, Berthiaume concluded that brains were not enough: those who are “too clever for their own good” (he uses the English expression) tend to fail. “Leading 7,000 employees, among the best educated in our society, requires simplicity, clarity, and stability of messaging,” he writes, pointing out that this was beyond the capacity of one of the rectors he worked for.

A year after he returned to UQAM in 2008, he was named the president and director general of Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, succeeding Lise Bissonnette, with whom he had a “cordial but not warm” professional relationship. This is the period, which comes some 230 pages into the book, that’s signalled by Berthiaume’s title: his years as a librarian and archivist. When he arrived on the job, he set out his vision for the organization: a crossroads, a memory institution, a knowledge institution committed to future technologies. And this would be a place that communicates its mission, its resources, its activities, and its achievements.

The BAnQ’s Grande Bibliothèque had already proven itself a huge success, attracting three million visitors a year — more than Montreal’s Bell Centre or any other cultural institution in Canada. Berthiaume built on this feat by, among other things, inviting well-known Quebecers who had donated their papers to speak in front of large crowds. But, as he mordantly observes, the brain trust in Quebec City didn’t like to come to Montreal. It also preferred funding the avant‑garde: “The ministry showed itself to be allergic to success.”

Berthiaume, for his part, believed “the core business of libraries and archives is not so much acquisition and conservation, but access.” Without that, “what is the point in acquiring, treating, and conserving?” Budgetary constraints pushed Berthiaume to use the skill he had acquired over decades: fundraising.

In 2012, his situation changed with the election of the Parti Québécois. It became clear that, because he had stayed politically neutral, his mandate would not be renewed — and that he would be replaced by a PQ supporter. His involvement in 1976 did not count: “My past as an apparatchik was far behind me and my present neutrality corresponded unfortunately with a death sentence for my future at the head of a Quebec state institution.” Berthiaume began applying for jobs, all kinds of jobs: with universities, the Canada Council, and many other organizations, including Library and Archives Canada.

So it was that Berthiaume headed to Ottawa in 2014 as the new librarian and archivist of Canada. Once again, he laid out his commitments: LAC would be dedicated to serving all of its users, would be an avant-garde institution, would be proactive and involved in national and international networks, and would build its profile. But his boss, the heritage minister, Mélanie Joly, had little interest in museums or archives, being obsessed with technology. To develop support for a new building, Berthiaume worked around her, developing relationships with local members of Parliament, the environment minister, Catherine McKenna, and Steve MacKinnon, in whose Gatineau riding the head office and preservation centre would be relocated.

“I don’t recommend to anyone to bend the rules the way I did,” he writes. He would never have done so himself earlier in his career: “At the time I was playing Deep Throat with the members of the Trudeau cabinet, I was sixty-five.” If the worst came to the worst, he told his staff, he would be fired with a separation bonus. “So I was ready, for files I believed in, to take risks I never would have allowed myself even ten years earlier.”

Despite this high-wire act, Berthiaume enjoyed his time in the capital and was impressed by the professionalism of the federal public service and its resolutely non-partisan character. “Needless to say, fresh from the shock of the PQ loyalty test that characterized the reign of the Marois government, I appreciated my rediscovered neutrality,” he explains. “What’s more, everything was wrapped in mutual respect and a spirit of mutual assistance between mandarins that I had not known, the opposite in fact, during my time at the heart of the Quebec government apparatus, whether under the Liberals or the PQ.”

With wit and candour, Guy Berthiaume tells a story of a successful career, peppered with vivid portraits, kind and critical sketches of his various supervisors, and lessons learned along the way. He concludes by saying he was lucky. Maybe so — but he was also very smart, he worked hard, and he was willing to share his insights.

Graham Fraser is the author of Sorry, I Don’t Speak French and other books.