Canadian Consulting Engineer

Book Lover

Dr. Owen L. White comes through the cavernous warehouse in Toronto's east end with a smile on his face. Short and stocky with silver hair, he looks every bit the rumpled professor. He walks with a sli...

August 1, 2003  By Bronwen Parsons

Dr. Owen L. White comes through the cavernous warehouse in Toronto’s east end with a smile on his face. Short and stocky with silver hair, he looks every bit the rumpled professor. He walks with a slightly leaning gait. He’s going for knee surgery in the fall, and so will have to give up the volunteer work he’s done for the last 10 years, collecting and shipping used geology books to developing countries.

Dr. White is “thrilled to bits” today because he’s just been talking to the manager at Canadian Feed the Children, the charity that gives him free space in their warehouse as well as lots of other help. They are sending a container to Uganda next week and there will be space for 20 or 30 boxes of White’s books.

The books are everywhere. They fill a 3,000 square foot area, stretched out on tables, crammed into bookcases, piled on wooden pallets to the ceiling. Yellow notepapers lie on the piles, with destinations like “Fiji,” “Latvia,” or “Niquero project” written on them. The bookcases around the sides carry esoteric labels like “Coastal Engineering,” “Ternary systems, phase equilibria,” and “Petrography.” Sometimes an odd pile of half-empty boxes has the name of a donor — often professors at the University of Toronto who parted with their collections when they ran out of space or fell ill.

Over the past decade, with help from his wife Elizabeth and with Graham Wilson, another volunteer, Dr. White has recovered, sorted and shipped the equivalent of about a quarter of a million books and journals. They send them to universities and to geological survey and mining departments in countries desperately short of educational materials. The operation was begun by Anthony Berger of Newfoundland and grew into an international operation known as the Association of Geoscientists for International Development. White took over AGID Canada in 1994, just as he retired from 14 years with the Ontario Geological Survey.

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A native of Melbourne, Australia, he came to Toronto to do his master’s degree, and taught at the University of Waterloo from the mid-1970s. In between his archival activities, he recently co-edited the Urban Geology of Canadian Cities and he co-authored a paper on tectonic plates published last year.

White confesses that he’s always been a “bit of a bibliophile.” He can hardly keep back from wandering around the crowded tables, picking up an 1870s volume of Lyle’s Principles of Geology, pointing to a copy of J. Tuzo Wilson’s Continents Adrift or to the Proceedings of the Apollo 11 Lunar Science Conference. Above his desk he shows off two large atlases, and there’s a black plastic bag that holds a map of the world at 1:2,500,000 scale made in 90 sheets by the Soviets.

While dictionaries and recent geology editions are the most popular items requested by people overseas, White often hears from universities who say: “We’ve got nothing; just send us anything you can.” That was the plea recently from the University of Ghana at Acra. The University of Sierra Leone was in the same predicament. They told White: “During the war the rebels went through and stripped the university of everything. They just left the four walls. We have nothing.”

Aside from tackling the frightening logistics of getting the material out to these faraway places, evading corrupt customs officials and finding funds for the shipping (mining companies and airlines have been helpful), White has come up against more unyielding obstacles here at home. Lugging boxes of books around is heavy work, and it does not get easier as White gets older. There’s no-one to carry on, so White and the others are working hard to ship out as many books as they can and empty the shelves by October. He doesn’t like to think about what will be the fate of the remaining works — “It will make me weep,” he says.

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