Industrialist gives B.C. university $20M for 24-hour library

Worth A Look, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

Friday, October 04, 2002

VANCOUVER – Irving Barber is a former UBC student. A wealthy industrialist who humbly identifies himself as just a citizen has given $20-million to the University of British Columbia to build a high-tech library that will be the first of its kind in Canada, and
perhaps in the world.

“I have created some disposable income and I wanted to find a responsible way to inject this income back into the roots of British Columbia, so that it remains available, on a productive basis, to the widest range of people,” Irving K. (Ike) Barber said as he made the largest capital gift UBC has ever received.

Unlike most university libraries, the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre will serve anyone, anytime, not just students and faculty, officials said at a gala announcement yesterday.

The centre will also have fibreoptic links, loanable laptops, open computer labs, smart classrooms, video conferencing and wireless technology throughout. It will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He said his donation is “an excellent way of putting money back to work through education.”

The donation by Mr. Barber is being enhanced by matching grants of $30-million from UBC and $10-million from the provincial government-creating a $60-million fund that will turn the 77-year-old campus library into a technological wonder.

Martha Piper, the president and vice-chancellor of UBC, was stunned by Mr. Barber’s generosity.

“This kind of takes my breath away,” she said. “I can think of no adequate way to say thank you, Ike.”

Mrs. Piper said the fund will allow UBC to turn the old library into one of the most modern in the world.

“This facility will be nothing short of revolutionary,” she said. The Irving K. Barber Learning Centre will store 1.25-million volumes, using an automated, computer-driven retrieval system that, with a few strokes of a keyboard, will deliver a book to the checkout counter in 90 seconds or less.

Mr. Barber announced his contribution in the main hall of the old UBC library, which he had first entered 57 years earlier as a young student. “I first came to UBC in 1945, standing in this hall, on these steps, almost at this time of the year … a very bewildered and confused young man, struggling with my thoughts as to what to do with the rest of my life,” said Mr. Barber, who graduated in 1950 and went on to make a fortune running Slocan Forest Products.

“I spent many hours in the nooks and crannies and the stacks of this building, muddling through what to do,” he said. “This building had a significant mothering effect on me. It helped me through a process-and I think that has been the impact on many other people that have flowed through the university.”

Mr. Barber built his forest industry empire in small towns throughout British Columbia and he said a strong part of his motivation for the library project was the desire to establish a learning facility that could be accessed by people in remote areas.

He said he envisioned native people turning on generators to power their laptops, before going online to connect with the centre, and school students in small towns such as Slocan learning to draw on the centre’s resources. “What will make this centre stand out … will be the way that this centre will be available to, and used by not only the students and faculty members here, at UBC, but people throughout B.C. and beyond its borders. That’s the reason I want to do this,” he said.

Mr. Barber said that by making its resources available to people throughout the province, the centre can help spread learning to places that might otherwise remain isolated.

“As I have worked and travelled in this province, it is obvious that people are very proud and protective of their local community. This is very right and proper and it’s human nature at work. However, in protecting our own turf we need to be careful that we do not unconsciously build psychological walls around us.

“We intend this building to be something of an icon [for learning],” he said. “This learning centre will be a centre without [psychological] walls.” Gordon Campbell, the Premier of British Columbia, described Mr. Barber as “a man of vision, a man of commitment, a man of tenacity.”

Mr. Campbell praised Mr. Barber for the scope of his vision, saying the new learning centre would have “a huge and positive impact” on the province. “Ike’s vision is beyond the boundaries of what we normally think of,” he said.

A statement of purpose and charter of principles pledges that the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre will not only be a technologically advanced facility when it is built, but that it will keep pace with the evolution in information resources in the 21st century and beyond.

It promises to provide “immediate access” to information and to be both
“revolutionary and evolutionary.”

Mr. Barber, 79, was born in Edmonton. He graduated from UBC in 1945 with a Bachelor of Science degree in forestry and worked in the forest industry for 57 years. In 1978, he bought a small mill and founded Slocan Forest Products Ltd., which he built into one of the leading lumber producers in North America, before retiring last February.