‘He knew everyone doing anything interesting in the library world and in many other circles of activity’

When I think of Brian Campbell, I see a whirlwind of energy and determination. I first met him through an exchange of letters after he posted a brief notice in the Canadian Library Association’s newsletter, Feliciter, sometime in the late 1980s. He asked librarians to contact him if they shared his concerns about the federal government’s plans for new technologies and communication capabilities. (This was the era of burgeoning companies and the now quaint concept of “The Electronic Highway.”)

Brian was concerned that not all of these initiatives were in the public interest, and would roll out without benefitting all Canadians. I sent him some comments from my perspective of living and working in small communities in the Northwest Territories. I then received a long reply from Brian with many questions, requests for more information and other contacts in the North, permission to quote me, etc. I should have known then that I would end up in Brian’s orbit!

Brian Campbell, pre-2007. Photo provided by Vancouver Public Library.

Brian Campbell. Photo provided by Vancouver Public Library.

In late 1994, I moved to the Lower Mainland and attended a BCLA Information Policy Conference. It was an interesting mix of people: librarians, Vancouver FreeNet folks, advocates for freedom of information and privacy, students and scholars from Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, government officials, and activists of all sorts. It was an amazing event. Brian always snagged some of the best people writing critically about the new technologies (e.g., Vincent Mosco, Dan Schiller) as keynote speakers.

After that conference, I volunteered for the Information Policy Committee (IPC). I worked with Brian and many other fine people on conferences, campaigns, salons, resolutions, policy analyses, public events, workshops for library staff, letters to government, and much more. Brian was the founder, motivator, and lynch-pin for this committee. He had worked on political and social justice issues in BC for many years, indeed for all of his adult life—and likely even before that! He knew everyone doing anything interesting in the library world and in many other circles of activity. BCLA’s longstanding and fruitful relationships with organizations like the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (BC FIPA), BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), OpenMedia, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Media Democracy Day Committee, and Vancouver Community Network (VCN) exist largely thanks to Brian’s work.

Brian was an activist but he was also a policy wonk. I laugh remembering the ribbing he took when the Committee planned conferences. He couldn’t come up with a title for an event, however interesting, that didn’t sound like a very serious sociology student’s M.A. thesis title. We got to the point where we would tell him, “Don’t even try to think of a title!” He also believed that everyone around him, including those who attended IPC events, had the same amount of energy and stamina as he did. If you ever used a washroom, had a coffee, or chatted to someone at an IPC event—thank me. My role was to argue with Brian that we couldn’t squish in yet another speaker or discussion. I would stop him in his tracks by saying, “Remember, Brian, sometimes people have to pee!”

Brian had a keen intelligence and razor-sharp analytical abilities when discussing politics and government policies. He was always generous with his time and knowledge, and would help you with things that you found nerve-wracking. For me, this included help with preparing for presentations in front of government committees and task forces. Brian and I were political allies (e.g., we both considered Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Retreat from Class the most important political writing of our time).

What I admired most about Brian was that he was optimistic, and he never hesitated to pitch in. He was devoted to his family and circle of friends, had a very busy job, and volunteered for many organizations; yet he always showed up at rallies and meetings, wrote letters, and much more. Recently I re-read Tony Kushner’s “Despair Is a Lie We Tell Ourselves,” a short piece written in the scary post-9/11 time with the enactment of the USA PATRIOT Act. I thought about Brian, and these present-day troubling times.

Kushner writes:

”I do not believe the wicked always win. I believe our despair is a lie we are telling ourselves. In many other periods of history, people, ordinary citizens, routinely set aside hours, days, time in their lives for doing the work of politics, some of which is glam and revolutionary and some of which is dull and electoral and tedious and not especially pure – and the world changed because of the work they did…It requires setting aside the time to do it, and then doing it. Not any single one of us has to or possibly can save the world, but together in some sort of concert, in even not-especially-coordinated concert, with all of us working where we see work to be done, the world will change. And we have to do it by showing up places, our bodies in places – turn off the fucking computers, leave the Web and the Net – and show up, our bodies at meetings and demos and rallies and leafleting corners.”

Brian never forgot to do this work, and he never tired of it. He also believed the public library—collections, services, meeting rooms, kind staff, a place where you could meet and interact with people like you and people different from you—was a bedrock of democratic practice. I think the BC and Canadian library landscapes would look very different, with less attention paid to social justice, if Brian hadn’t rolled up his sleeves and done all his work. He inspired others to do the same. I will miss Brian, but am so very grateful and happy that our paths crossed.

Barbara Jo May is the Adult Collections Librarian at Okanagan Regional Library in Kelowna, BC. She is a member and former Chair of the BCLA Information Policy Committee.