Latest Faculty of Information News

In Memoriam: Dean and Professor Emerita Ann Schabas (1926 – 2023)

Submitted on Monday, December 18, 2023

Dean, Faculty of Information and Library Science (1984 – 1990) 

When colleagues, friends and family of the late Ann Schabas reflect on her career and scholarship, the picture that emerges is one of a woman who was quietly ahead of her time. 

Before she took up library science, Ann Schabas earned two degrees in physics, an unusual choice for a woman at the time. But after a short stint working in a lab, Schabas left physics behind, married in 1949, and had five children, all born in the 1950s. She returned to university in 1964 as her youngest child was entering nursery school and completed the one-year Bachelor of Library Science program at the University of Toronto. 

When Margaret Schabas, Ann’s middle child and only girl, asked her mother a few years ago if she would have liked to pursue a career in physics, Ann replied that she lacked the talent to do the PhD. But it is also not clear to Margaret why her mother picked library science. “I think there was still a strong assumption that you do the women’s fields because, in her graduating class at U of T in physics, there were two other women she kept in touch with, and one went on to be a professor of nursing and the other went into education.” 

As it turned out, Schabas excelled at library school, placing second in her class. On convocation day, the Toronto Star featured Schabas in a human interest story about the unusual graduate with five children. Schabas first worked for two years in the science division of the Toronto Board of Education before returning to U of T to start her career as an assistant professor. 

Official Dean's portrait of Ann Schabas

Ann Schabas, shown in her official Dean’s portrait, received both her MLS and Doctorate from University College in London

Ann’s husband, Ezra Schabas, a distinguished professor of music at U of T, always supported her career. Margaret recalls, however, that her mother met resistance from other faculty. One well-known professor wasn’t concerned that Schabas lacked the requisite qualifications but expressed concern for her five children and, on these grounds, initially opposed her appointment. It wouldn’t be fair to the children, he told her. 

The professor need not have worried. Nearly every article written about Ann Schabas mentions the accomplishments of her children. Margaret (FRSC) is a philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia. From eldest to youngest, William (OC) is a prominent professor specializing in international criminal and human rights law, Richard is the former Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health, Michael is an urban planner and transportation expert, and Paul is a judge on the Ontario Superior Court. 

At U of T, Schabas put her science training to work, teaching, among other things, an early programming course. Margaret recalls that her mother taught her former partner, André Vellino, how to code. “She was sort of a geek before her time and got really excited about technical things,” said Vellino, who is now – partly due to Ann’s influence – an associate professor at the University of Ottawa School of Information.   

After tenure, Schabas took a sabbatical to do a Master of Library Science at University College in London and then followed it up with a PhD. One of Schabas’s specialties was SNOBOL, a variant of the programming language COBOL, which had specific capabilities for manipulating strings, making it especially useful in bibliographic and library applications for searching substrings and matching content and databases with queries. Schabas’s doctoral thesis compared the results of sample computer searches using the subject classifications of the Library of Congress and British Library, determining that the latter was more effective for these searches. 

During the late seventies, Schabas participated in the development of Telidon, which was billed by its developer, the Canadian Communications Research Centre, as a “second generation videotex system, offering improved performance and a number of different interactivity options supported on various hardware.” Schabas worked on Telidon’s so-called tree structures for information retrieval. 

Professor Emerita Lynne Howarth, who is also a former Dean of the Faculty of Information, describes Schabas as “a visionary” for her recognition of the importance of computer and information technology for the future education of library and information science students. Schabas helped the transition to the newly named Faculty of Library and Information Science, as well as inaugurating a new degree, the Master of Information Science (MIS). 

Another change made by Schabas during her time as Dean was introducing the option to study part-time. As a working single mother, Wendy Newman (BLS, ‘69) took advantage of the new part-time program to earn her MLS over a four-year period. While Newman’s busy schedule didn’t allow for campus socializing, she did make time to attend her convocation ceremony. 

“It was a freezing cold November night and pelting ice cold rain. There were just five of us getting an MLS degree that night, but when they called our names, there on the stage, gowned and beaming at all of us was Dean Schabas. She came to honour her graduates that night. I’ll never forget it.” 

Filed under: