Q&A: Yale Library aims both to serve and preserve, says Gibbons

Susan GibbonsSusan Gibbons began a five-year term as University librarian in July 2011. In that role, she oversees one of the largest university libraries in North America, which includes over 12.5 million volumes housed in 18 different libraries.

Before coming to Yale, Gibbons worked at the University of Rochester, where she began as digital initiatives librarian in 2000. In 2008, she was appointed vice provost and dean of the River Campus Libraries.

Gibbons took time out of her hectic schedule to meet with YaleNews. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

What do you see as the mission of the Yale University Library?

A great academic library such as Yale’s has several missions. We are stewards for the collections we hold, many of which are unique in the world. We have an obligation to take care of these collections and carry that knowledge forward. And we have a mission to support the teaching and research that is taking place at Yale. We support those activities not only through our collections, but also through the expertise of our staff.

We have to deal with immediate needs of the Yale community, as well as with the legacy of the collection. It is a combination that only the really great libraries have — a responsibility to today’s students and faculty, and also to future generations of scholars.

What is unique about the Yale Library system?

I’ve been absolutely blown away by the staff here. The number of employees who are fluent in more than one language is just amazing. Our staff members have language and linguistic skills that span the breadth of our collections. That’s really quite unique.

The facilities themselves are remarkable — such as the Beinecke, Sterling and other buildings. Not only is the Yale Library’s collection one of the largest in the world, it is also extremely in-depth. You can find materials here on almost any topic you can think of, in any language. There aren’t too many other places that can offer that.

What are some of your priorities for the library over the next few years?

We want to establish a high level of service and make sure that all of our libraries meet that standard. Our faculty and students should be able to expect excellent service no matter where they go within the library system. It will take some work, since each location has a unique set of needs.

We also want to make sure that the libraries’ collections and expertise are aligned with the evolving teaching and research priorities of the University. Yale as an institution is changing, and the library needs to adapt accordingly. It is important to examine new programs at Yale and assess whether we are supporting them in the right way, at the right level.

Yale has made its collections in the public domain available to the world online through its “Open Access” initiative. How has this impacted the Yale Library?

We have digitized materials in the past, but we’ve done so only thinking about the immediate needs of our faculty and students. Now we can engage a global audience. It’s an extraordinary generous thing that Yale has done.

By the High Street entrance to Sterling Memorial Library are the words: “The library is the heart of the University.” Is this still the case in the digital age, when students can conduct research online from the comfort of their dorms?

Even in this digital age, the library should be the academic hub of the university. The library is where you go to get serious about your academic studies. In some ways it is symbolic to be able to walk into the library and get into the right mindset: “Now I’m going to really start studying.”

On some campuses, the library is always full of people, and it struck me that that isn’t the case with Sterling Memorial Library. You see gatherings of people in Bass Library, especially later in the day. But there’s something about Sterling that suggests a different ambience. Perhaps because of the church-like atmosphere: When you enter, you think you need to be quiet and respectful. That is important, of course, but the library should also be a place where you feel comfortable working. I’d like to see Sterling become more of a gathering place for the academic community.

You recently published your own book, “The Academic Library and the Net-Gen Student, Making the Connections.” What did you discover about engaging students in the library?

The book is based on extensive research on how students and faculty use library resources in their academic pursuits. I conducted the research at the University of Rochester in collaboration with anthropologist Nancy Foster. She helped us take methodologies from anthropology and ethnography to study questions around the academic work practices of faculty and students.

One of the interesting things we discovered was that parents often play a role in the students’ process of writing a research paper. At some point, many students contact their parents to review their thesis topic or a draft. This caused us, as librarians, to say, “Well, if we know the parents are part of the process, how can we make use of that information?” So at Rochester, we began offering a parent orientation at the library during freshman orientation. We invited the parents for breakfast and told them: “At some point your son or daughter will call you about a research paper they are working on. Here are the many resources our library has that can help them.”

The idea was that the parents would, in turn, convey this message to the students — because trying to tell newly arrived freshman what the library can do for them is not always effective. They have a lot of other things on their mind, like “Which courses should I take?” and “Will I get along with my roommate?” They’re not thinking “What great things can the library do for me right now?”