‘His politics were complex and passionate, not rigid and dogmatic’

Brian Campbell and I spent a lot of time together in airport departure lounges. Coming home once from a Working Together meeting in Regina, Saskatchewan, and delayed by weather, I was particularly antsy. My partner Mark and I were buying an apartment and I had a litany of “purchasing problems” that I couldn’t stop talking about. Brian was ignoring me, reading the newspaper.

Brian Campbell. Photo provided by Vancouver Public Library.

Brian Campbell. Photo provided by Vancouver Public Library.

Finally he said, “Gillian was out of town when we bought the Trinity Street house. She only asked one thing, that I buy a house with hardwood floors. I had had a couple of beers before I saw the house, and the lighting was less than ideal, but the house was solid, had hardwood floors, and I bought it. When Gillian and I saw the house in the cold, sober light of day, it was clear that the floors were red linoleum… So don’t talk to me about ‘purchasing problems.'”

Another time, in another departure lounge, I was sitting a few rows away from Brian, but could clearly see him reading the newspaper. Mike Harcourt, former Vancouver mayor and provincial premier, entered the lounge, scanned the space, honed in on Brian, and sat himself next to him.

Mr. Harcourt began to talk to Brian, who ignored him until he finished his article! This was not arrogance. It was an example of Brian’s belief in equality among all people, including social, cultural, and professional equality that demanded equality of responsibility. Many of us admired Brian for this, and many of us learned never to interrupt him while he read the newspaper.

Brian surprised me the first time I saw him change his mind. I had worked for Brian for a month and had been an auxiliary librarian at Vancouver Public Library for about a year, but in that short time Brian’s reputation for being a doctrinaire hard-ass had preceded him. Over the next two and a half years I learned that Brian was both more than, and not at all, what his reputation claimed.

Brian was even more political than his reputation suggested, but his politics were complex and passionate, not rigid and dogmatic. He fought hard for the issues that mattered to him and defined him, but his fights weren’t personal. At heart Brian was a street fighter who used his intellect to defend and support intellectual freedom, open access, and vulnerable communities. These issues in the library environment were representative of Brian’s larger view of our society. It wasn’t just that these issues are important for libraries—they are important principles on which to build a better and just society. And Brian always fought for big principles.

“As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day

A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray

Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses

For the people hear us singing, bread and roses, bread and roses.”

Annette DeFaveri is Executive Director of the British Columbia Library Association.