Jun 27, 2023 Eight Things to Know About the New Dean of Libraries
Sarah Shreeves comes to us from the University of Arizona, where she served as vice dean of libraries. Here are eight things you need to know about Sarah!
1. Tell us about your background – in what part of the world you were raised, your education, where did you started out professionally?
I am a third-generation librarian – my father was an academic librarian and my grandmother was a children’s librarian (and my aunt, my father’s sister, also worked in a public library!). I moved around quite a bit as a child and spent time in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia before my family moved to Los Angeles when I was about ten. I headed back to the east coast for college. I got my BA in Medieval Studies from Bryn Mawr College and then headed up to Boston where I got my first job in an academic library.
I worked in the MIT Libraries for about nine years; I started there as a journals assistant, which meant checking in the paper journals on something called a Kardex, typing claim letters when an issue went missing, and managing binding. I feel old just saying that – libraries have changed so much since I started!
By the time I had left to go to library school in Illinois in 2001, I had worked my way up to a role as project manager for the implementation of a new library management system. Along the way in Boston, I also got a Masters in Children’s Literature from Simmons College; I’d always felt this literature was undervalued in the academic sphere and this was a unique opportunity to study it more closely.
I got my Masters of Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2002 and ended up working in that university library for about 12 years in a variety of faculty librarian positions. My time at Illinois really shaped my vision and aspirations for the role of libraries in the university.
2. At what point did you realize that academic libraries were where you wanted to focus your professional life?
I grew up in libraries – both public and academic – so they have always felt very much like home to me. I spent some time working in a public library during college – starting as a page and working my way up to doing a lot of different types of support work in the children’s library. I have an enormous amount of respect for public librarians – they have a very, very challenging job in the current environment. But my heart was always in academic libraries. I love the fact that life-changing research is happening all around me, that students are pursuing their dreams and that the library is an active partner in both of those endeavors.
3. What do you feel are the biggest challenges – and opportunities – facing academic libraries today?
It is easy to say the biggest challenge is constrained resources. And it is true that academic libraries – like all libraries – are facing budgetary challenges. However, academic libraries, as well as higher education more generally, face a fundamental challenge— the increasing privatization of and constraints on the research (and other knowledge) that comes out of our universities.
I am a long-time advocate for openness: open access, open data, open science, open educational resources, the list goes on. While there are some national policies moving us in the right direction, I continue to be concerned by an environment where we give away control over our research products only to buy it back at very high prices.
This also is – as is so often the case – a time for real opportunity. I believe strongly that libraries can and should be essential partners to the research enterprise. Beyond providing easy and ready access to information resources, we are bringing our expertise and knowledge in areas like data management and access and publishing to our research community early in the research process.
How can we help fill in gaps for our students and early career faculty around data science? I’m excited about leading the library on this course. I am also watching carefully emerging technologies like AI. Libraries have an important role to play in how emerging technologies are integrated into the work of the university. Our professional ethics demand that we pay close, critical attention to issues such as privacy and bias, areas that others may not perceive as challenges.
4. If you had a magic wand and money was no object, what would the ideal library look like in terms of collections, staffing, and services/programs?
Well, first I would want to be sure that all libraries – especially our public and school libraries – had access to the same magic wand!
I would want the U libraries to have the resources to proactively meet any need on campus. I would want to ensure that we had enough functional and subject expertise to meet the huge variety of needs around campus. I would want to continue to build out those programs and services that make the Marriott Library a special place – the Book Arts Program, the University of Utah Press, our ProtoSpace Services, to name just a few. I would want to ensure that our spaces were welcoming and accessible to all our students, faculty and staff. For collections, I’d want to be able to provide instant, easy access to any information resources needed, and I would want to be sure the curators of our unique and distinctive collections could continue to add to these. We would have the cataloging staff needed to ensure that all of our collections had excellent descriptive information and that we had the best possible and most user-friendly systems in place for the community as well. Finally, I would like to have funds to allow our employees to continue their own professional development in order to pilot and implement new services and programs to meet emerging needs on campus.
5. What role do you see an academic library playing in its local community?
There are so many ways that academic libraries can contribute to the local community. For one, just being a place where our community members can go to do research and get access to information is incredibly valuable. Our exhibits and events can be important ways for the community to connect with art, history, and culture. Special Collections often collect and preserve materials from the local community and can highlight marginalized voices in partnership with those communities. In my previous institution, our Special Collections departments helped communities to develop and maintain their own archives. Many of our staff have expertise to share with the local community – whether that’s how to preserve their own family histories or how to design a 3-D object to be printed. There are potential partnerships with public libraries and other higher education institutions as well.
6. What are the top three things you plan to undertake in your first year?
The very first thing is to get to know the Marriott Library and its faculty and staff. I’m really looking forward to digging in deeper to understand our services and programs. The second will be to get to know the U – especially its students and faculty so that I can better understand the current and future needs of the university. And the third – which will build on the previous two – will be to revise and renew our strategic plan.
7. What do you predict academic libraries will look like ten years from now?
That’s a hard question to answer and will depend very much on how we take on some of the challenges and opportunities that confront us in terms of control of our intellectual output and the impact of technologies like Artificial Intelligence. What I would like to see are academic libraries as essential partners in the teaching, learning, and research enterprises of the university and a critical part of student success. I would also like to see academic libraries serve as the linchpins in a collaborative, higher education-based infrastructure to support open, public access to research outputs.
8. What made you decide to come to the U?
I firmly believe that libraries are defined by the people who work in them. When I came to interview at the Marriott Library and in my subsequent visit, I was so impressed by everyone I met at there and on campus. I love that the space is so well used by students and feels vibrant and alive. I also very much wanted to be at a research-intensive public university that is committed to its students, to research, and to the public good, and the University of Utah very much fits that bill. I am really looking forward to getting started!