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Interview: Judy Messerle

Judy Messerle, Countway librarian since 1989, grew up in Illinois and graduated from Southern Illinois University. Originally intending a career as a physician, she instead earned her MLS at the University of Illinois. Prior to Harvard, she worked in medical libraries for 18 years before her first academic position as a librarian at St. Louis University. Messerle, who will complete her tenure at the Countway on December 31, was interviewed for Library Notes on June 24.

JM
I grew up in a little town in Illinois called Gillespie—about fifty miles from St. Louis. From there I went to Southern Illinois University and wanted to become a physician. But it was the still the '60s, and I was a woman with a lousy record in chemistry. It was clear that I was not going to get into medical school. I'd been working in the university library, and my boss asked, "Why don't you go become a medical librarian? You could be close to medicine and not have to go to medical school."

So I went to library school at the University of Illinois and got my master's. I got a phone call from my old boss in the Southern Illinois University library. "They're looking for a librarian," she said. "You should come." And I did. The job was as librarian in a hospital-based nursing program. It was a small collection—perfect for a first job. There was no support staff. There was one great irony: the woman who was directing the nursing program said, "You have a science background. We need you to teach chemistry." So I did.

One thing led to another there. I kept taking on more and more responsibility. Ultimately, I was assistant administrator for the hospital and I'd built a physicians' office building and had medical records, community relations, education, the library, and data processing for the hospital all reporting to me.

I started out working with a group of planners who came in to see if we should build a physicians' building. I helped them when they arrived. I worked with the city interface with them. I did a lot of research for them. They ended up camping out in the library, and when they ultimately got the contract to build the building, my boss said, "You're the one who knows them best, so why don't you become the liaison for this construction project?" So I learned about concrete, got my own hardhat, worked with the controller to get a bond issue. I learned things that normal librarians would never learn. And I was still pretty young.

I created the first hospital library consortium in the country and got some grant funding and some notoriety in the medical library community, and I attracted the attention of academic librarians in St. Louis. I got the job as director of the medical library at St. Louis U. It was quite a culture shift to move from a hospital to an academic setting.

LN
That was in 1985?

JM
Yes. It was a great place to work and I had a great crew. It was fun really turning the place around and getting the faculty and students excited about the library and building a relationship with the university library.

LN
You are generally recognized as a consensus builder.

JM
I believe that good leadership and good direction is about consensus building—not about telling people what to do. At St. Louis, I had great people who were powerful, independent thinkers. Getting them to come together to make decisions was thrilling to me. I have always believed that leadership is about power that you give to others. You give power. It's about the work and getting people excited about the work, pulling together, making it happen. So that's just me.

LN
How did you make the move to the Countway Library?

JM
I was the president of the Medical Library Association (MLA), and I was one happy camper at St. Louis University. Harvard contacted the MLA executive director and they said, "We're going to be recruiting a new director and we want to talk to a group of leaders about the direction we ought to be pointing the library." So at our annual meeting, they arranged a lunch for some senior librarians. We all shared our thoughts, and I got a phone call asking if I would like to apply for the job, which was totally off my radar. I told my husband that the previous three directors were men, that this was Harvard, and that I was not the likely choice. He said to me, "Why don't you go for the fun of it?" So I did.

Throughout the interview, I was not real serious about the whole thing because I figured it was totally a learning experience. What they saw was me: no pretense. I was not in my interview mode. I was shocked to get an offer.

One reason I took this job was that my husband and I came and took a tour after the interview. We just walked around by ourselves. There was a book from the 1850s propping open a door, and my husband picked it up and said, "This place needs you."

There were so many issues. Along the way, somebody had decided to catalog single issues of journals. So we have different records where the user expects to find a long run—not just the 1918 issue, period. So we worked very, very hard here to get to fundamental issues. Building staff morale, redoing the way work is done. Renovating the building.

No inventory had been done in 45 years. A third of the collection was missing, including all of the medical ethics section—totally wiped out. Thanks to good staff, we really turned it around and have something we can be proud of.

LN
What were the major turning points?

JM
We inventoried the collection—and the big recon that the University did was a boon for us. Prior to that time, we had manual check-out: we were way behind everybody else. The users loved it that we were no longer making them fill out these long forms for every book.

The next really big thing was the renovation, which took a good six years, with planning and re-planning and getting the work done. We moved seven miles of stuff out of the library to create swing space and get the boxes out of the stacks. And we raised on our own $17 million that went into renovating the library.

When we started the renovation, the architect said, "You can expect when you're done that foot traffic will triple." But as the renovation went forward, the number of electronic journals went from about 60 to over a thousand. We're now seeing about a third less foot traffic than we were before the renovation.

LN
Foot traffic, circulation: these are traditional measures. What are the other—or perhaps the contemporary—measures for the importance of a library?

JM
There's a whole lot of work going on nationally trying to address the e-metric question. People come to our portal, but once they go on to a vendor, we really don't know where they go or what they use. We're beginning to get some of that information.

My guess is that we're tripling the number of people we reach. When it was a print-only world, we reached 1,000 people, say. Now we're reaching 3,000. Accessibility has made all the difference. The more we can make it easy for our users to grab things, the more they're going to use those resources. That's the power of this electronic world.

We haven't yet made it simple for them to find the right stuff. For medical libraries, the National Library of Medicine has made some enormous strides in improving interface and the relevancy of what people get when they search. I think we've got lightyears to go before we're really where we need to be.

LN
Does that include pushing information out—directly to the individual?

JM
If they want it. There are some who would hate that, but I think that ought to be an option. That push. We actually need to partner with our users. They're closer to their needs than we are.

LN
What will this library look like in ten years?

JM
I feel very strongly that there will always be a library place. People in the science world tell me that their laboratories are so small and so tight that they need a place to escape and think big thoughts—and there's something about libraries: open spaces and high ceilings. It reminds them they're in a scholarly community and there are loftier things out there than this widget going in this hole.

What happens in a library is likely to change. At least in the sciences, print collections will increasingly be minimal, as more and more companies look at creating content online. We'll be much more in the business of providing peer-reviewed content for commercial vendors.

Ten years from now I hope we're not going through the difficult processes that we're going through today to create records. That's a tremendous amount of intellectual work that could be shifted to thinking about unmanaged content created in the academy. Librarians are trained to organize materials and to make those materials accessible.

LN
When is your actual retirement date?

JM
I'm actually not calling it retirement, I'm calling it my next life. It begins at the end of the calendar year.

LN
You could still go to medical school.

JM
Not beyond the realm of possibility!

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Last modified on Tuesday, July 20, 2004.