25 years and counting

I published this on my Kelvin Smith Library blog at work last week:

Today (December 1, 2005) is my twenty-fifth anniversary as an employee at Case Western Reserve University. On December 1, 1980, I began as the Librarian for Kulas Music Library in Haydn Hall. I had gone to library school at CWRU (as we then referred to it) in the mid-’70s, but then moved away for several years for my first professional job. Quite honestly, I never expected to come back here to work. If anyone had suggested it during my library school days, I would have said that they were nuts. But I liked Cleveland, and this was an opportunity to get back here. (I am still amazed at the richness of the cultural offerings that Cleveland has.) Over time, I became more involved in more general library matters, first as Acting Head of Cataloging, then as Assistant Director for Technical Services, and finally in my current position as Deputy Director of Kelvin Smith Library.

There have been tremendous changes at this university and in the library system over the past twenty-five years, the most important of which was the planning and construction of the Kelvin Smith Library. It is sometimes easy to forget how wretched the library facilities were before KSL was built. Persons who long for Freiberger or Sears libraries never had to work in them. Any problems we have with our current building pale in comparison to those two inadequate facilities.

Among the many discussions we had in the early ’90s in planning KSL was the idea that any information could be digitized and delivered by network. The university had just spent tens of millions of dollars installing a ubiquitous fibre-optic network, and, no matter how reviled the VPIS at the time was, it was a far-reaching and visionary investment. The capability for digital library content only existed in theory at that time; who could have predicted that only ten years later it would be commonplace, and that one of our primary efforts would be planning for a repository to store the digital research output of our faculty. Our repository is in its infancy; however, even five years down the road, it will be an information resource to be reckoned with. In the future we will be even less restrained by technological limitations. Digital content will be re-purposed to the uses of faculty, students and staff.

The technological innovations that have occurred over the past quarter-century could barely have been imagined when I started, chief among them our online library system that controls the public online catalog, circulation, cataloging, journal check-in, budget control and other mission-critical activities. We had a rather klunky (the state-of-the-art for its time) first-generation system for about seven years before we implemented the current system developed by Innovative Interfaces, Inc., and joined OhioLINK as a founding member. Indeed, OhioLINK is a concept and organization that has revolutionized the way we operate–twenty years ago libraries were lucky to have reciprocal borrowing privileges, let alone the ability to request a book from another institution and have it delivered within a few days.

As an organization, we have changed as well, “constant change” being the key words. Our staff over the years has become smaller, but at the same time more efficient, more willing to try new things, more open to new possibilities. I confess that the library staff when I started in 1980 was very colorful, but we are (for the most part) a much more effective team that we were then. Our staff has far better skills, both technically and interpersonally. (Lest anyone get the wrong idea, there is always room for improvement–including myself.) I am grateful for the efforts of our staff, especially those whom I work with every day. I have worked with many skilled people at Case Western Reserve University over the years; but I think that my staff is now the best I’ve ever had, and I thank them.

The library has only very infrequently found itself the beneficiary of the university’s largess. (My favorite quote was from a now-departed upper university administrator who once said to me, “Well, you have the new library now, what more do you need?” He wasn’t joking. It’s an all-too-frequent case of needing to educate an ever-revolving set of upper university administrators about the complexities of how libraries operate. Libraries don’t lend themselves to simple explanations and “sound bytes.”) There are so many things we could accomplish on behalf of the university if we had more resources–both people and money; we are at the bottom of the ARL rankings for major research libraries. But we can’t be dismayed with what we accomplish incrementally. Each day is a new push to accomplish something more, even something small. Over time, those small accomplishments do add up.

I admire our current library director (now with the title University Librarian) Joanne Eustis for her dogged determination in keeping the library’s goals and plans in front of the university. In my opinion, she is without doubt the best director that we have had in my time at this institution. Not only that, she is a nice person–and not evil and manipulative. She must engage in a constant sales job; keeping the best “product” before the public. It is not so much “give them what they want”, but “anticipate where we need to be in several years and figure out how to pay for it.” I know that she must sometimes find her management team frustrating because our slowness of implementation does not match her speed of vision.

For all of the hassle that may find itself into the day-to-day operation of this library and university (and I don’t want to seem too Pollyanna-ish about it, because I do get pissed off from time to time about some of the shenanigans that go on here), it is still an exciting place. I still do (almost always) enjoy coming to work, and there is a changing landscape of challenges.

I never thought I’d be here this long. What’s the next opportunity that Case will provide? (Preferably not a layoff notice…..)