A Life in Words and Books
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Ruth Hood, who looks back on a long life of editing and library science. I asked her to tell me about some of the highlights of her dual careers.
As with many lovers of language, her attraction to books began at an early age and was nurtured at home. “I was always attracted to books,” Ruth told me. “My father read to me every night.” Of course, there were weekly trips to the library where she was let loose in the Children’s Section.
Editing at U of T Press
Ruth graduated from Trinity College at the University of Toronto in English Language and Literature in the mid-1950s. Looking for a greater challenge than the accepted career path for women at the time—secretary—she found work as an editor at the University of Toronto Press. Her indoctrination into the world of publishing was what some today might call fast track.
“Training consisted of one month proofreading, and then we were given real manuscripts to work on.”
At U of T Press, she worked under the legendary Francess Halpenny, who was editor-in-chief at the time. In those days the editors worked out of an old house on St. George Street that was surrounded by trees. “It was a pretty democratic and collegial outfit,” Ruth says. “The editors met every afternoon for tea.” Naturally, they would invite any authors who were visiting at the time to join them. There were a few difficult authors to deal with, but the atmosphere in the office was defined by Ms. Halpenny, whose calmness and professionalism “modelled tact” for everyone.
Because she wanted to travel, Ruth started looking for a skill that she hoped would be more portable than editing. After briefly considering a return to school to study music, she settled on Library Science. She met her husband Michael while at school and the two of them moved to Edmonton, where Ruth began her life as a librarian at the University of Alberta.
After travelling in Europe, she and her husband returned to Canada, and Ruth worked for a time in the Air Canada Library in Montreal, where she says she experienced the challenge of an organization that was dominated by a male hierarchy. Later they moved to Ottawa, “temporarily.” They stayed for 26 years.
As her career progressed through the 1960s, Ruth had the opportunity to work on four Royal Commission reports, the most important and influential one being The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Working on the studies and reports required special listening skills in order to make sure that everything was correct. “I was working with a committee with strong political opinions,” Ruth notes. Not a time to misquote someone. “The research studies, at least in the beginning, were a challenge because their authors weren't really writing for publication and so they required a whole first level of editing just to get them into a readable state.”
Ruth has been anything but idle since retiring from full-time work. She continued to volunteer on the reference desks of various libraries. When she and her husband returned to Toronto, she began volunteering at the annual Trinity College Book Sale at U of T, now in its fortieth year. Originally she worked the year round sorting books, and during the sale itself she sold cards and greeted the customers. These days she coordinates the drivers, which she enjoys because it offers the chance for continued interaction with other book lovers.
Although she has seen rapid and immersive change in technology during the years she worked and volunteered in libraries, Ruth has found the interaction with people to be the most rewarding part of her career. In terms of what technology offers to literature and publishing, Ruth, like many of us, is of two minds.
“Right now we seem to be in the middle of a transition, the direction of which is uncertain. I see some sloppy publishing, and the popularity of celebrity fads bothers me. On the other hand I like the convenience of being able to carry a personal library on a tablet when travelling.”
From a campus office at U of T Press to a library on a tablet, Ruth can look back on a rich life of words, books, and the people who love them. She has been part of the constant change that drives the world of writing, editing, and reading.