On March 11, an over-capacity crowd of 300+ people gathered together to celebrate and remember the extraordinary life of Brian Campbell.
People came from all facets of Brian’s extensive network of communities: family, friends, work colleagues, and social activist comrades. Wonderful musicians hailed from a couple of those categories: the extended family and social activists. While those of us in the library field had glimpses of Brian’s activities in other realms, It was remarkable to see the full extent, the depth and breadth of his life. As a wise friend said to me afterwards, you can’t know a whole person until you come to an event like this – this is where it all comes together.
Memories were shared, contradictions were revealed. Brian could be profound yet irritating, frugal yet generous, brutally honest yet strangely motivating. His great personal strength carried a heavy public load. He ran a tight ship, demanded accountability and could be fierce. But for all that, he had a great sense of humour and the most wonderful laugh!
The “tight ship” mention reminded me of all those years of committee work. When we would decide to do a potluck, Brian would even try to organize that! When we explained to him that the word “potluck” implied not organizing what people bring, Brian exclaimed in frustration, “But what if everyone brings dessert?”. The rest of us just laughed and said “So what? How is that a problem?!”. (I note that Brian’s family and friends made sure his favourite snack foods and baked goods were provided in abundance at the memorial!)
He had energy, vitality and persistence beyond human measure. And he also had indisputable warmth and humanity. That came out in so many of the speeches.
I think he would have enjoyed the sense of community, the way people from various parts of his life came together and had conversations. Remembering that while one couldn’t always agree with everything Brian said, there was always so much that one couldn’t help but agree with.
A few months before he died, he asked me to deliver a eulogy, should there be a memorial for him. As it turned out, he was curating a final panel of speakers for a possible event that, as he saw it, would honour and continue to inspire the work of all the people he had worked with.
True to his nature, he provided clear direction to me on what needed to be covered. He wanted to know that his efforts with libraries hadn’t been in vain, that his life had counted for something, that the values he fought for would endure. And that the people he influenced would continue the social justice work.
During that conversation, Brian lamented the diminished activity of the BCLA Information Policy and Intellectual Freedom Committees. He was worried that the structures he had established were unraveling, that his efforts had already evaporated. He was concerned that he’d had no lasting impact on the library world.
It’s true the BCLA committees are much less active these days. And public libraries are struggling to retain their autonomy as champions of equal access, intellectual freedom, democratic ideals, and safe neutral public spaces.
But I personally believe Brian’s biggest legacy is his impact on hundreds of individuals. And that’s exactly what I told him during that conversation a few short months ago. I told him that he shaped me, the person I am, the librarian I am, and by extension, all the people I have worked with. And that he did the same for many many others over his lifetime. Putting aside all of his other numerous and significant accomplishments, his impact through individuals is profound and enduring.
Brian’s daughter, Lara Campbell, expressed it so well in her remarks at the end of the memorial. She said “Be to someone else what Brian was to you”. That truly is the best tribute that one can make to Brian.
Many folks in the library community shared their memories of Brian through the BCLA newsletter, Perspectives, in February. Here is the text of my eulogy, my attempt to pay tribute to an extraordinary librarian.