Remembering our mentor and friend, Dr. Catherine Sheldrick Ross
Catherine Sheldrick Ross had a way of loping down hallways, across campuses, striding up to podiums—she cut an unmistakable, instantly recognizable figure, with her bag slung over her shoulder, a relaxed slouch, arms swinging at her sides. For a while, during her stint as Dean of the Faculty of Information & Media Studies she had a scooter – one of those foot-powered kind that folded up and could be carried into meetings. Always graceful, comfortable, and on the move. That is until she saw you and she would stop and move towards you with energy, eagerness, and an openness that would put you into the light of her attention, and you found yourself telling her about your latest adventures, accomplishments, exploits, or about whatever last fresh hell you were dealing with. And she had an enviable gift as a listener, and almost always she would say very little, but somehow always said the perfect thing, the thing you most needed to hear. It is no surprise that Catherine’s key methodologies relied on these same characteristics whether the context was academic leadership, reading and reference research, teaching, sharing research with librarians and library workers, or mentorship of new scholars and students. She always began by understanding context and need from doing careful background research; she paid close attention to what people were saying and doing; she listened carefully and without judgment, and she created opportunities for people to share their ideas and interpretations. And then, mindful of her audiences always, she took responsibility for the stories she told of what she learned—in lucid, lively, and engaging form—whether committee report, strategic plan, scholarly article, children’s illustrated book, LIS textbook, or presentation, guest lecture, keynote speech, and more.
Catherine was a brilliant scholar who made theoretical and empirical advances while always keeping the needs of professional practice at the forefront. In addition to publishing highly-cited and award-winning research articles, she made a difference to generations of reference librarians through her thorough, well-written, sensible evidence-based guides to professional communication, the reference interview, and readers and reading. She was a collaborative researcher and worked with colleagues in Canada, the United States, Japan, and Norway. Her MLIS students remember her as a brilliant instructor whose teaching and research had a positive impact on their professional careers.
Several former doctoral students and colleagues shared how grateful they were to have known Catherine. They remember her as one of their academic heroes and most influential mentors. She was vital and supportive, intellectually generous, and gracious with her time and attention to beginning scholars. She was well-respected, calm and measured during crises, and had a wry sense of humour. She mentored both by what she did and how, teaching us to be clear, audience-focused academic writers and incisive-but-compassionate reviewers of others’ work. She was a mentor, coach, colleague, and inspiration who made an indelible impact on the careers of many leading LIS scholars. As one colleague said, “She clearly left a positive impact on so many of us and what better legacy for an academic is there?”
We each had different relationships with Catherine Ross, however as researchers whose work is a direct result of knowing and learning from Cath, we place ourselves on the privileged branches on her academic family tree. She was a treasured colleague, mentor, and friend, and we will miss her.
All our best advice came from Cath. And while we can’t possibly include everything we learned from her here, we highlight a few of our favourites:
Work with people who care about you and your success. This advice came to us as graduate students and we all learned it by observing how much Cath cared about our projects, our careers, and by her consistent—years long—support. Not only did Cath invite us to collaborate with her throughout our careers, and well past her retirement in 2010, she would send a note of congratulations on new publications, new grants, new positions—and not just to us—but to colleagues and advisees she had known across her career. It meant so much to know that she was still thinking about us.
Travel light, with carry-on luggage. Each of us carries a picture in our mind of Cath disembarking one plane or another, patiently waiting in the airport, her hands free, with her knapsack on her back, while we were clumsily managing our bags, looking for our suitcases on the conveyor belt. Of course, this is excellent travel advice, however, it stands up as career guidance too: set yourself up to be nimble, capable, encumbered with only what you really need, and be ready to respond. You should know that Cath carried a Swiss Army knife too.
Be ready to give more rope. Among doctoral student advisees it was understood that Cath wouldn’t ever really tell you what you should do (or not do) and she would rarely tell you how to do it. She had too much respect for your autonomy as a researcher, and even more respect for the important process of learning how to do research and how to be a researcher. However, she would always find a way to give you more time, more resources, more feedback, more ideas, and more opportunities. What you did with the rope was always up to you.
Invite others to join the party. Cath Ross concludes the introduction to one of her last books, The Pleasures of Reading: A Booklover’s Alphabet (2014, Libraries Unlimited) by writing, “This book is intended as a celebration of readers and the pleasures of reading. I invite readers to join the party.” Reading for pleasure was one of the most defining features of Cath’s scholarly and personal lives. We know her best as a reader, as a champion of people who choose to read for pleasure whether it’s Anna Karenina or Anne of Green Gables, and as an advocate for the value and importance of reading as a social good. We will carry our memories of her animated conversation, whether at dinner parties, at research meetings, or at The Book Club, of the way she leaned in to ask questions, hands and face open, eyes glinting with good humour. Our lives have been changed and made richer by getting that generous invitation, again and again. And it is one of our great pleasures to keep the party going.
-Lynne McKechnie, Paulette Rothbauer, Lucía Cedeira Serantes, and Pam McKenzie, Faculty of Information & Media Studies, Western University, London, ON, Canada