Spotlight on University Library: Top librarian is an open book
As Dean of Libraries and the Charles Deering McCormick University Librarian, Sarah Pritchard oversees one of the University’s most critical academic assets. We sat down with her to discuss the importance of Northwestern University Library, the collections she hopes to expand, and how often she’s said “shhh!”
NULC: Northwestern University Library is currently 10th in holdings among U.S. private universities. How much does that contribute to the overall excellence of the University?
Sarah Pritchard: Having a truly excellent library— in both traditional and digital resources, in research collections as well as professional services—is a fundamental asset in a university’s ability to generate the highest quality of academic work. Indirectly, it becomes part of the general reputation for excellence; but more directly, a great library itself attracts faculty and graduate students and becomes a center for innovative projects, all of which yields new research and publications using those resources.
The sheer size of all of these top libraries allows us to maintain great breadth and flexibility so that, as academic programs evolve, we can meet the demands of an ever-widening academic program.
NULC: Generally speaking, how important are the contributions of alumni and friends to maintaining a world-class collection?
Sarah Pritchard: Such contributions are critical to a major research library, and not just to build distinctive collections but also to support services and programs and to ensure the top caliber of technology and facilities. Alumni and friends help in several ways: through donations of rare or important materials; through philanthropy that helps us in turn go out and buy those things; and, significantly, through acting as “connections” and putting us in touch with other collectors or funders or companies that want to partner with us.
NULC: What do Library Annual Fund contributions support?
Sarah Pritchard: This fund is wonderful to have! There are many items that are of great research value but just a bit optional, and too expensive to buy routinely since our first priority has to be the immediate teaching and research needs of the campus. Each year the librarians compile a list of “desiderata:” rare books, large sets, and databases that fit our subject interests. We review the list with faculty and our Board of Governors, and buy as much as we can with the Annual Fund.
Usually we can get 20 or 30 titles a year—the kinds of things that cost $10,000 to $40,000 apiece. Last year, for example, the Fund allowed us to buy several very large databases that covered hundreds of years of the full text of British literary manuscripts, African American periodicals, and early European books; as well as specialty print and digital collections in classics, Tibetan Buddhism, French philosophy, chemistry, and art history.
NULC: The Library is known for its special collections—the areas of Africana, Music, and Transportation garner international renown. How valuable are these collections to the University as a whole?
Sarah Pritchard: These collections complement areas of major academic strength and have both led and supported the growth of those programs. What is impressive is how they benefit interdisciplinary teaching and research at Northwestern. These resources are used by faculty and students in many departments and colleges other than those for which they were originally established.
The Africana Library, for example, has materials used heavily for world politics, public health, religious studies, and art. The Transportation Library supports environmental policy, urban planning, demographics, multinational business development, and energy generation. The Music Library is full of students from theater, neuroscience, audiology, and cultural studies. The distinction of these libraries contributes enormously across the Evanston, Chicago, and Qatar campuses.
NULC: What other special collections are you looking to expand upon?
Sarah Pritchard: We have strong holdings in theater and performance and are actively seeking to expand those as much as possible, including current writings as well as manuscripts, imagery, and multimedia works. We have one of the top collections in the world on aspects of 19th century French history and literature and continue to acquire rare editions and ephemera and to seek support for digitizing this collection. Something less recognized is our rather extensive collection of comic books and underground publications, and we are trying to build this through reaching out to collectors as well as writers in the industry.
NULC: The Library is seeking to preserve an important slice of Northwestern and Counterculture history with the Amazingrace Project. How did this initiative come about?
Sarah Pritchard: We’ve had a large collection of posters and related material in the archives for some time, and our staff had stayed in touch with some members of the Amazingrace collective over the years. As the 40th anniversary neared, the original group was thinking about doing some commemorative events, and we wanted to do an exhibit and possibly a publication to be timed with that anniversary.
Even to protect the material for these current uses let alone into the future, we needed to do physical conservation, and to gain the maximum awareness and benefit, digitization is ideal. So the anniversary has catalyzed our own desire to preserve and be able to share these resources. It’s a collection that’s especially exciting for me since I was in college during that era and went to similar venues to hear many of the musicians and bands represented.
NULC: How is the Library adjusting to the demands of the digital age? What are the biggest funding needs related to this?
Sarah Pritchard: Northwestern was an early leader in what we used to call “library automation,” and we have been moving in these directions for more than 30 years. Library databases and computer systems started out first in the “back room” for cataloging and acquisitions and circulation; the expansion of digital information has moved to the front and transformed every aspect of our collections and services.
Even where we still do seemingly traditional work, like rare books and archives, we are digitizing, cataloging online, mounting elaborate web sites and now collecting born-digital materials. The funding implications are significant: We have to constantly upgrade equipment, rewire and rearrange facilities, provide ongoing training for students and faculty and our own staff, fund the labor for digital conversions, and of course purchase new resources that only come in digital form.
NULC: What are other top priorities that you hope leadership giving will support?
Sarah Pritchard: Our two top needs are collections (of all kinds) and, especially, funding for building renovation. Many of our “book” funds are endowed but we hope for more, to ensure we can keep level with the rapid growth in publishing all over the world. The price of scholarly materials rises far faster than the cost of living. Even with so much digital information that can be accessed anytime from any place, library physical space is heavily used and those uses are evolving.
We’re a real intellectual crossroads, a place where students and faculty consult and create, and we support both print and electronic research. We need specialized facilities and our buildings suffer from decaying infrastructure and inflexible interiors. We have a long-term space plan that has already started with the construction of a secondary shelving depository off-campus; and now we urgently seek to renovate Deering and Main Libraries.
NULC: So how did you first develop a passion for libraries?
Sarah Pritchard: Everyone has a story like this, but it’s true; my earliest memories include being taken to the local library by my mother and growing up in a house surrounded by books. No matter where I moved subsequently, I was patronizing the local library and living with shelves and shelves of books. But perhaps more telling is the “urge to organize” and the quest to systematize the universe; by the age of 10 I was already fascinated by setting up little personal filing systems, by things like codes and hierarchies, and by the encompassing nature of encyclopedias.
NULC: Few professions are confronted with as many stereotypes as yours. Care to dispel any myths?
Sarah Pritchard: More library users have told me to “shhhh” than the other way around! And we’re far more likely to have short hair than buns. But one of the biggest stereotypes is that we want to lock books away; in fact we want people to use everything we have—even the rare books and archives and expensive technologies. The reason we do all that preservation and security, and have sign-ups and due dates and recalls, is so that the materials will last as long as possible and be able to be used by as many people as need that help or want that subject.