After a year on the job, Oberlin’s director of libraries shares her vision for the position.
Alexia Hudson-Ward likes to brag about her namesake and endowed title, Azariah Smith Root, because anyone in the world of librarianship knows about his legendary career.
For the uninitiated, Root (Oberlin graduate of 1884 and 1887) was the college’s first professional librarian from 1887 until his death. He is often referred to as the Dean of American College Librarians. He led the growth of Oberlin's collection through gifts and exchange programs, and by 1924 he had established Oberlin's library as the largest college library in the nation. He was also a leader in the library profession and served as the college’s interim president. That cafe in Mudd Center? Named after him. The second floor meeting space in Carnegie? Also named after him. He was a pretty big deal.
Hudson-Ward gleefully shows off Root’s walking cane, a piece from the library’s special collections that was presented to her when she took over as director of libraries one year ago in July. (She may have been seen taking it around campus with her.) Root’s picture hangs on her office wall, and she keeps some of his books on her shelf.
“Azariah Smith Root was someone who believed in equitable access to information in a time in which that was a radical idea because in America, people of color and women were not allowed in public library spaces. Or, if they had access to resources, it was typically aged material or not germane to advancing education. To have someone like Azariah Smith Root say regardless of the edifice you reside in—be you man, woman, or person of color, that this space was a space for you to grow—was powerful.”
To be the second woman and first person of color in this position is equally exciting for Hudson-Ward.
“I believe that all of us are the sum total of experiences that we bring. To be welcomed to provide a different cultural lens, being a woman of color, and being a so-called younger library director, is truly a blessing. I could not be more happy or more proud.”
A typical day for the library director can go from delving into big-ticket issues like digital humanities, faculty engagement, information literacy, and haptic learning (interactive learning through touch), to administrative and facility issues.
“I will come to Mudd Center to take it all in and see how people are using the space. That occupies a lot of my thoughts,” she says. “I start the day with a long list of things I want to achieve, but throughout the day that list gets shorter and shorter. I’ll feel good if I can achieve 15 things, but it gets whittled down. I try not to be so dogmatic and allow myself the opportunity to engage with faculty, staff, and students.
“I tend to be in quite a few meetings, many of which are very interesting. We have our day-to-day process, things like facilities management. For example, we had a resident skunk that would would appear during the busiest parts of the day! Or, we could be talking about what’s going on in Azariah’s Cafe. Then there’s the really intriguing work in terms of how our different facilities support curricular engagement and faculty engagement. In what ways can we further enhance collaborative engagement for all of these very unique academic communities that desire physical or virtual space in the library? That is something that’s on my mind every day.”
Hudson-Ward came to Oberlin from Penn State University Abington College, where she was a tenured librarian. In fact, she had just finished a sabbatical when she was contacted about the opportunity. “I kind of vacillated because Pennsylvania is my home, and I just became a grandmother. My husband and I talked about it, and he said, ‘Ohio, here we come.’”
Throughout the interview process, “I was extremely impressed with the students. But I was also impressed with the libraries and the institutional commitment to excellence in all realms, including the development of the student as the whole person,” she says. “Institutions talk about it, but here, you can actually see it in the various ways we guide students through their educational experiences, including winter term. It made me super excited that we were really putting some mettle behind this notion of full-person development.”
What’s at stake for libraries
It’s is an interesting time to be a library director—this being an era when the legitimacy of information is constantly called into question.
The Oberlin College Libraries, along with the Allen Memorial Art Museum, received a $150,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation to assist in planning the future of what is affectionately called the GLAM sector, which stands for Galleries, Libraries, Archives & Museums. With the grant, the library and museum will partner to conduct a series of focus groups with faculty, students, and staff to talk about what it means to have a shared experience—things like a shared catalog and shared curricular goals.
“We are at a critical point in the world’s history around the synergistic connection between our past, present, and future in terms of libraries, museums, and archives, and in which ways those three entities can find common synergies and have common goals. Our desire is to not just be custodians of materials in a protective manner, but also ensure that individuals can interact with those materials in a way that can be deeply enriching.”
Hudson-Ward says that concept is playing itself out internationally. The Library of Congress has invited Oberlin to participate in a project called the World Digital Library.
“When you think about some of the turmoil that’s going on in the world, specifically regions of Africa and the Middle East where there is a deliberate effort by insurgents and terrorists to destroy cultural relics and history, how do we capture that history so that it’s preserved in perpetuity? What is our role as an international body who believes in being keepers of the archives, and how do we come together? That’s a huge topic in librarianship.”
Another pressing development for the library staff is the responsible use of information and helping users decipher fake news. Hudson-Ward says a group of librarians organized a successful fake news forum in the spring 2017 semester and are planning more educational activities. “There are all these places and social media platforms where you get snippets of information. We want to help you negotiate those bits versus editorial expounding.”
Hudson-Ward is also paying special attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“We’re having some really rich conversations about our core values and principles surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion. We recently had very good talks about gendered experiences and transgendered experiences, and if we are as diverse as we claim we want to be. Our library staff is very self-aware. They worked on a 2014 self study, and they’ve been very open and receptive to talking about implicit bias. That makes me excited as their director because it means we’re preparing to talk to our community about very difficult topics.”
Hudson-Ward’s office in Mudd Center is filled with natural light and the aforementioned display of Root’s personal items. Some of her favorite library spaces include the special collections and archives reading room, the conference room in the conservatory library, and the back end of the art library, where “I sit when I feel like being pensive.” Not surprisingly, the Root Room is a personal favorite space on campus.
“The powerful thing about libraries is that they democratize learning,” she says. “You can come in here and guide yourself, or you can have someone to guide you. To walk in the very big footsteps of someone who was as visionary as Root and all of my predecessors, who thought so intentionally about my success even before I got here, is really an incredible thing.”