Notes on the life of James Galbraith

by Scott A. Smith (Alibris) scott.alan.smith@comcast.net

In April of this year it was my sad duty to report the death of a dear and longtime friend and colleague, James Galbraith.  At the time I agreed to post news of this in several places, but given time constraints did so with some brevity.  I also agreed to write a more substantive account of his life for subsequent publication; it is with a profound mixture of sadness at his passing and thankfulness to have been counted among his many, many friends that I offer the following.

Jamie was born in the village of Brevig on the Isle of Barra, in the Western Isles of Scotland, on 12. May 1942.  His family later moved to the town of Castlebay on Barra.  He graduated from Strathclyde University, and began his library career at the Dunfermline Public Library.  While there he also taught Gaelic at Lauder College.  He served at Newcastle-under-Lyme as well, and taught in the library program at Stoke.

He moved to Canada in 1968, and served as Chief Librarian in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.  In later life he recalled his time in Newfoundland and on the prairie with great fondness.

In 1972 Jamie joined the staff of Blackwell’s and worked for the firm in a variety of capacities for the next thirty years, both in the UK and in North America.

Jamie retired initially to Barra in the 1990s, but returned to Canada and spent his last years in Nova Scotia.  He died on the 31. March, 2010 in Liverpool.

Jamie was deservedly known as a bookman extraordinaire; he well knew the location of every independent and secondhand bookshop worth noting in the UK, Canada, and the USA.  (He was one of very few to be excused Otto Penzler’s ban on drink in the shop.)  His collection of crime novels and sea stories was likely unsurpassed in Canada.

There’s the danger of being regarded as trite to say that Jamie was an icon in the library world, but he was indeed just that. Generations of librarians regarded him with affection, and Jamie stories abound. The late R. Miles Blackwell often remarked that Jamie was one of the best librarians and booksellers he ever knew, and that James was happiest “when he surveyed (or caused) utter disaster”.

In November 1995 I embarked on an oral history project of Blackwell staff, both from the UK side of the house and from Blackwell North AmericaJamie was the first to be interviewed for the Blackwell Oral History Project;  we have four hours of his marvelous voice recalling his remarkable life.

He leaves to mourn friends without number; his children Ewen and Stephanie (both librarians); his daughter-in-law Thomasina;  a wee granddaughter Quinn; and his companion of many years, Eileen Heaslip.  He will not be soon forgotten.

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3 thoughts on “Notes on the life of James Galbraith

  1. Bill Birdsall June 15, 2010 at 5:19 pm -

    I only just now learned of Jamie’s death. I am one of those many librarians who has very nice memories of Jamie. Living in Halifax, I wished you had called Jamie when you retired to NS. It would have been fun.

  2. I was notified of Jamie’s death while riding a train to Chicago and used that free time to reflect on Jamie’s worth as a friend and human being, not to mention book seller. I shared my share of Guinness and other libations with him but remember his dedication to excellent service and his willingness to share with his superiors and colleagues some concerns that I wrote to him about back in the 1980s. That impressed me.
    Sadly, I have no recordings of his wonderful and wonderfully told stories. Happily, his friends have plenty of Jamie stories to share in his loving memory.

  3. Tis is a message from james galbraith’s former friend and collegue from Blackwell’s Peter Jeavons, I was deeply upset to learn of jame’s death. I have been living in Paris for the same period that jamie lived in Candada. I knew his wife Sheila, his brother Donald and his Parents I had the opportunity to stay a couple of times with fis family in Barra.I send my condolences to all his family who are still living, in particular Sheila and his children.i sent a message to Scott Smith but I don’ know whether he received the message. I have been unsuccesful in getting into contact with his son Ewen I would like to get into contact with both Scott Smith and Ewen Galbraith for personnel reasons In spite of my age 60. I am still studying Musicology,Literatre(poetics)and Linguistics. I’m looking for a publisher?