Building a sense of one Yale Library: Q&A with Susan Gibbons

August 1, 2016
By Mike Cummings

When Yale President Peter Salovey and Provost Ben Polak last month announced the reappointment of Susan Gibbons as university librarian and deputy provost, they called her a “consummate university citizen” whose leadership has elevated the university’s reputation on the national and international stages.

Gibbons — who began as university librarian on July 1, 2011 and was named a deputy provost on Jan. 1, 2015 — oversees a library system that houses nearly 15 million print and electronic volumes in 15 separate libraries.

As part of her reappointment, Gibbons is taking on new responsibilities as deputy provost for collections and scholarly communication to support the university’s museums, galleries, and other collections.

She spoke with YaleNews about her new responsibilities and her plans for the library over the next five years.

Looking back, what are you most proud of over your first term as university librarian?

I worked on several areas simultaneously over my first term. I’ve tried to build a sense that there is one Yale Library. Within the library system, there was great strength among the individual libraries, but there wasn’t a sense that there was in fact one library. Therefore, it was a mixed experience for our faculty and students who were using the library. We wanted to create consistency. A lot of work has taken place to unite us as an organization. I can see a lot of collaboration happening across the library system in a way that it didn’t five years ago.

I’ve also been particularly focused on the library’s facilities. I was fortunate to have arrived just after we received the gift from Richard Gilder ’54 and Lois Chiles for the nave restoration in Sterling Memorial Library, which we completed in August 2014. We’ve been really fortunate in the support we’ve received from the university and our donors to allow us to tackle a number of other projects. We demolished two libraries — the Seeley G. Mudd Library and the social science library in Urban Hall — and created the Center for Social Science Information. The Beinecke Library’s full-building renovation is on schedule to be completed in early September. We’ve also opened state-of-the-art conservation and preservation facilities in New Haven’s Science Park.

The other piece I’ve focused on is reengaging the library with the rest of the university. There was a sense when I first arrived that the world of scholarly communication was changing, and it wasn’t clear how the library was staying aligned with that and whether it was as, in fact, still as relevant as it once had been. Over these past five years, the staff has worked very hard to understand where the university is going, what its mission has become, and what new initiatives have arisen and how the library is aligned with them. I point to the support we now provide for data management because that has become absolutely essential to the sciences and social sciences. Another example is our support for digital humanities, including the establishment of the Digital Humanities Lab in Sterling Library where all sorts of exciting work is supported. Our focus on digital preservation, including the digitization of the entire Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, is another example.   

The library is in fact as relevant as it always has been, but it fell to us to articulate that and demonstrate it by launching new services that align us with where the university is headed, where higher education is going, and where teaching and learning is going.

Does keeping up with ever-changing technology present a challenge?

It is something that will always be a focus for us. What we’re seeing amongst our users — students and faculty — is a proliferation of technologies that they use and are comfortable with. Providing them the data and information they need to do their work requires having a deep understanding of the technologies they’re relying on. For example, the use of geographic information systems, GIS, has become ubiquitous for analyzing and manipulating geographic data, and yet the campus lacked a broad-based approach to providing GIS services. The library is now partnering with others on campus to provide those services. Statistical analysis and data visualization is another technology and skillset that increasingly our students are expected to know, and we provide them consulting services to help them reach the level expected in their classes.

You mentioned your work to build a sense of one library. What steps have you taken to achieve that goal?

We’ve taken several steps. One was through communication and branding. We have been providing the university with a plethora of wonderful exhibits, programs, and lecture series, but in the past they would be publicized through the individual libraries, such as the medical library or the Beinecke Library. Now we announce programming and events with consistent messaging under an established library visual identity. We’ve had crisp and attractive templates designed for our publications and our email messages, which help foster the idea that we are a single institution.

We’ve also worked with staff to create more opportunities for staff members to work across the organization. For example, we began holding monthly meetings for managers across the system where we discuss the budget. This has added transparency to the budget process. We describe our constraints and invite managers to discuss potential solutions moving forward. We’re much more deliberate how we create committees to handle various tasks, making sure that appointments reflect the broad library structure. Going one step further, we try to go beyond the library and think about who else is working on similar problems across campus and bring them into the conversation.

We’ve also taken steps to build a sense of community across the library. I send regular email updates to the staff. We’ve introduced orientation sessions as one library and host social events, like our ice cream social, as one library. We’re making sure to highlight what individuals are doing across the library so people realize that there are connection between what they’re doing and what others are doing in different parts of the system.

What are your primary goals for the next five years?

We still have some more facility projects to tackle. A portion of Sterling Memorial Library is currently being renovated to house Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Once that is completed, we will start a renovation of Manuscripts & Archives and that will transform the department’s historical space into a state-of-the-art study center. We’ll add a classroom in what was the Gutenberg Room — a space built in 1930 specifically to house Yale’s Gutenberg Bible. When the Gutenberg moved across the street to the Beinecke, the room was repurposed and has been a storage/staff area. That will become a special collections classroom.

When that project is finished, we’ll start work on transforming the Franke Family Reading Room into a Digital Humanities Laboratory. We have a startup location for the DH Lab, but the Franke Family Reading Room will be its final destination.  After that happens, we hope to renovate the Linonia and Brothers Reading Room, which doesn’t have air conditioning and needs more power outlets so that students with laptops can be productive there.

Organizationally, we’re seeing some areas where we’ve become a national leader — in some cases an international leader — such as in digital preservation and the systems for accessing and using Yale’s many special collections.

We’re engaged in an exciting collaboration with the Ivy Plus group. Most people are familiar with the Borrow Direct System where we collaborate with the libraries of 11 other institutions — soon to be 12 when Stanford soon comes on board — to freely lend our books back and forth across the consortium. Our patrons not only have access to the 14 million books at Yale but also the 50 million books of the entire consortium. The success of this collaboration has allowed us to start to think about how else this group of libraries might collaborate at a deeper level. Recently we hired a director for collection initiatives for Ivy Plus. She is based here at Yale, and her job is to help the 13 libraries think of themselves as an ecosystem of collections — to find the best way to leverage our buying power or to ensure that we have the broadest collections possible across that consortium and be much more strategic in our investments. That’s pretty radical for us to be doing. I think, over the next five years, it will emerge as the hallmark of what Yale and the Ivy Plus group have accomplished.     

Your portfolio as deputy provost now includes providing support for all of Yale’s collections. How will you approach this new role?

Yale has many more collections than most people realize. In addition to the libraries and museums, there are smaller collections spread across the university. The Film Studies Center is a good example. There are all these great collections, so my role is not just about thinking about the libraries and museums but thinking about all Yale collections writ large and how we can best leverage them for teaching, learning, and research at Yale. If you don’t know that they exist, then that’s a problem. How do we make sure we’re aware of what’s there and then think about how best we can use them for study and education in ways that are appropriate to the nature of the collection. Some of our collections are quite fragile and require specific environmental conditions, so we can’t just invite people to use them.

It’s really focused on discovery of our collections, providing appropriate access to them, and then considering what we can do collaboratively that will help all of Yale’s collections become a more apparent resource. I believe that Yale’s collections are what distinguish an education here from just about any other university in the world. A lot of universities have the pieces we have but I don’t know of anybody who really has the breadth of collections that we have here. Since that is one of the things that distinguish Yale, how can we make sure that we’re helping the university leverage it that and really change what an education here means as a result?

Have you ever found yourself marveling at material in Yale’s Collections?

Every day. No one person can ever know the depth of the collections here. They are too large. Every day is astonishing. It’s not only the objects themselves that are fascinating but also the stories of how they arrived here.  Someday I wish to retire and just come back and engage with the collections. My job doesn’t really allow me to go deep on anything, but man, what amazing resources we have here.

What excites you about your job?

When I first was sort of forced into being a manager and an administrator, I wasn’t very good at it and I didn’t enjoy it. I had no training for it, so I just had this weird sense that you’re the boss and therefore you just tell people what to do and that’s what leadership is, and I hated it. I pulled away from it and I even refused to let a student report to me because I didn’t want to be anybody’s boss. Then, after a while, opportunities arose and I came to think about leadership very differently: that it is actually about service.  It’s about serving your staff, serving the mission of the institution, serving the students and faculty. If the job is presented in the ethos of service, then that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I want to be helpful. I want to help others achieve their goals. That seems to be what has helped me to become comfortable with the idea of being a leader.  

What makes me excited to come here is that we have an amazing mission. The students and faculty we serve are so inspiring. The library staff is just extraordinary. It’s so great to see them achieve their goals. And that’s what makes me excited about the job.

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