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Interview: Rebecca Graham

In February, Rebecca Graham joined the staff of the Countway Library of Medicine to fill the newly created position of associate director for library operations. Graham, who has an undergraduate degree in organizational management (Wilberforce) in addition to her master's in library science (Illinois), worked previously for the Digital Library Federation (DLF) and subsequently for Johns Hopkins University. She was interviewed for Library Notes on June 25.

LN
Many of us are already familiar with your work—particularly with DLF. But for those of us who aren't, can you briefly trace your career path?

RG
I started out in public libraries, which isn't something that people realize about me. I happened into a job as manager of a distributed system for a county library in Johnson County, Kansas, where I grew up. I worked there for almost nine years, and that work positioned me well for future events in my career. I took a detour after the public library, and worked in information systems in a manufacturing environment—in a truck factory.

LN
Another thing that not a lot of people will know.

RG
We did cutting-edge applications of technology. We were using radio-frequency transmissions on the manufacturing line to transmit core pieces of data about sub-assembly components to the main systems, both for sales purposes and for tracking purposes. A lot of that was driven by the Oklahoma City bombing in that we needed to be able to track to the sub-component serial numbers. I realized two things by working in the truck factory: that I didn't care much about manufacturing and that I really loved libraries. This motivated me to finish my undergraduate degree—

LN
From?

RG
Wilberforce University in Ohio. I earned an organizational management degree, which has served me much more than I ever thought it would. Right away, I started looking at library schools, settled on Illinois, and was accepted. I wrote a note to the head of systems, saying, "I'm coming to school. If you have any graduate assistantships, here's my experience." She wrote back and said, "We don't have any graduate assistantships, but we have a full-time job to help us do our DRA implementation. Are you interested? We'll pay for your school."

So, off I went to the University of Illinois, to attend school part time while working full time as the coordinator for the University of Illinois's portion of a state-wide implementation of DRA. While Illinois is not quite as large as Harvard, it's the largest publicly funded university library in the US, with fifty unit libraries across the campus. I had an excellent group of colleagues to work with through difficult changes, as they were moving to a new system from a system that they had heavily modified locally, with all that entails. I'm sure that resonates here at Harvard!

From there I became manager of integrated systems, and all the while going to school. As I came close to finishing my degree, I started looking for opportunities to expand beyond integrated systems and knew I wanted to live in a city. So I focused on jobs that provided both of those opportunities and as a result ended up at the Digital Library Federation in Washington, DC.

Six or seven months after I'd gotten to DLF, the director, Don Waters, moved on to the Mellon Foundation as program director for scholarly communication. So I served as the acting director, prior to Dan Greenstein coming on board. My time at DLF was interesting and again has served me well in subsequent roles. This is how I know the folks here at Harvard that I do know. I met Steve Chapman through working on a series of guides to best practices in imaging to which he contributed. Robin Wendler and others in the LDI as a result of the DLF Forums, which is one of the legacies that means the most to me. It was the first time a venue had been provided to bring staff together who were working on digital library activities at institutions across the country. I was involved in an authentication project investigating the possibility of using digital certificates with an LDAP query. Early work supported by DLF to develop a core collection of art and architecture history slides helped to inform the creation of the Mellon-funded ArtStore initiative. With additional involvement in work on archiving and preservation, DLF gave me a sense of the broad landscape.

Hopkins came two years later. I was hired to serve as both head of systems and the person charged programmatically with bringing together all of their digital library activities. They were looking for cohesion, which has been a challenge for other institutions as well. Unfortunately, there was a management change, and the decision was made not to move forward with a comprehensive digital-library program until Hopkins hired a new dean for the libraries—who would undoubtedly bring a particular vision to the digital library program. And certainly with the hiring of Winston Tabb in the fall of 2002, that's true.

LN
What drew you here?

RG
My partner, who was expecting twins, had accepted a position at the Leahy Clinic. We moved in the early fall and I was staying on at Hopkins to finish up some work. As will happen with twins, they came earlier than expected, and I finished at Baltimore much more quickly than I expected, got here, and while our kids were still in the hospital learning how to eat on their own, Judy Messerle was given my name as somebody to think about for the library operations position. We had an informal conversation. I felt my systems experience gave me a good foundation to understanding operational areas of the library. I also felt that it would be a great learning opportunity, which is something I always look for in jobs. I had always hoped to expand my knowledge and experience beyond system/digital libraries, and this position provides plenty of opportunities.

LN
What's your charge?

RG
My charge here is to bring together two major functional areas of the library: the technical services functions and the access service functions. That means that we are looking for ways in which to improve our focus and our delivery of user services—and our operational activities overall. User services at the Countway are very much driven by a matrix. You have constituent groups who fit under the Medical School, the Dental School, or the School of Public Health, and if you think about those three schools, they're very different. You also have the Boston Medical Library fellows—another core constituency group as a result of the consolidation of the two collections and missions.

I think one of the other complexities— to go back to the user-services piece— is really that we're serving not only educators for all of the three schools I mentioned, but we're serving people doing research, and the nature of that research is changing. Along with providing traditional services and resources, the library has expanded to include the provision of bench resources used by researchers.

LN
Can you talk about the nature of collection-building at Countway?

RG
Historically, much of the collection development was done in the acquisitions department. What many of us recognize is that there are other staff within the library who have direct connections with the constituents—through outreach, education, professional relationships with people in the various departments. One of the goals that I have longer-term is to try to move the collection development out into a larger number of staff in the library.

LN
Are you talking about being more inclusive in your decision-making, or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, are you envisioning formal bibliographer's positions?

RG
That's a good question. Countway, as a large, very large, academic research medical library, does not have a huge staff. I would envision identifying and utilizing existing expertise in new ways and including selection work as an additional role.

The changing nature of research is also going to drive our need to expand our collection in ways that we haven't typically done in the past—such as the earlier example of bench resources, which of course compels us to ask, "How do we better inform the decisions that we make about our collection dollars?" Librarians are keenly aware of the impact of increased prices and other economic realities. One of the activities that I will be engaging in here is increased data collection related to analysis of use. Our patrons are heavy journal users here, and what we all know about STM journals is they're the ones that keep going up exorbitantly in cost, and so we need to inform our collection decisions by looking at use data.

I'm also interested in thinking about what it will mean for the Countway to participate in a Harvard-wide activity to retain only a single copy of a print journal, particularly for which we have electronic—or do we even have to do that?

LN
What's your inclination on that one?

RG
Let's build the foundation of moving to a single print copy that we, as the University, retain so we have the historical artifact in its original form in a repository where we know the environmental conditions are controlled. But let's also think longer term: can we insist that vendors have escrow clauses that require that they turn over content to us or to a trusted a third party? What will be Harvard's role in the congressionally funded activities convened by the Library of Congress to develop a national digital information infrastructure for preservation (NDIIP), and how might the Countway participate and collaborate? Certainly these types of challenges are what appealed to me about the job. It's a great time to find ourselves faced with what is a hard set of questions, but in an environment that increasingly provides more opportunities to answer those questions in a thoughtful and informed way.

LN
What's the basic dynamic of your job?

RG
It's a combination of synergies and leveraging untapped expertise—or resources. I'll give you an example. The most truly intimate, hands-on knowledge of the collection rests with the shelving-unit staff. They deal with those materials on a day-to-day basis, particularly if you think about the nature of heavy journal use, which we have here, so we have a large current periodical room, and the two lower levels are largely made up of our journal collections. So we keep the most current ten years on level one, and then everything older than that is on level two. Obviously that's a collections challenge. It's a housing challenge, all of that. But there's a group of people who deal with those materials daily. They pull materials for binding, they reshelve materials, they find what people have been copying in the photocopying rooms in each of those areas. And I honestly believe that they have an expertise we haven't perhaps thought about tapping into.

Similarly, I think there is an opportunity to tap into the people who do a lot of the cataloging, to help us think about access. We have a core set of users whose most preferred method of access to materials at the Countway is through MedLine or PubMed—not HOLLIS—interestingly enough. PubMed provides access to biomedical literature and yet is not a resource that we have much direct control over. So what are the ways we can help enhance users' access? One thing that we can do is to update our holdings within PubMed, so people could, in essence, have a greater degree of knowledge of what we retain in our collections. That had been done in the past; it hasn't been kept up-to-date. It's certainly something that we will revisit doing, knowing what we do about the nature of the way our users use our collection.

LN
In a way, what you're saying is that to have the synergies that we need, we have to identify and value expertise that is not necessarily charted out in the job matrix.

RG
Exactly. So I'm really trying to think differently about the way people in libraries do their work—to stop thinking about it from the traditional, departmental construct and to start thinking about it in terms of the end product, or the service to users. I don't think I have any secret insights here. I just think that my approach is perhaps not as driven by the historical constructs that others have grown up with, and I think that's because of when—and to a lesser degree, how— I came into libraries initially.

LN
What's the goal for your first year at Countway?

RG
To understand the way work has been done and to look for areas to revisit. Certainly the Aleph system presents those opportunities, and in some instances requires that you do work differently. That's the nature of second-plus-third-generation integrated systems. We are thinking about things like divvying up or shifting financial work components that traditionally have been done in acquisitions and moving them into the finance department. I think that gives us a better check and balance, as it were. I think it changes the way people are used to doing their work.

And looking for ways to really bring the two major functional areas together, and again I'll go back to the shelving-unit staff because they deal directly with users. They're the people who often are out on the floor most of the hours that we're open. There is a shelving-unit staff person around. They're often the first person that a user will encounter. So working with them, thinking with them, asking, "Are we doing everything we can do in customer service?"

LN
Final thoughts?

RG
In my experience, librarians are the epitome of people who appreciate the importance of collaboration around common needs. It's one of the great things about this profession. The other, in my experience, is the opportunities that you're presented with, and so, for me, this position is all about those opportunities and my willingness to embrace them. If you're here and you make yourself open and willing, you can get such opportunities. I'm pleased to find myself at the Countway and Harvard with such a great opportunity.

LN
Thank you.

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Last modified on Wednesday, July 30, 2003.