This interview is over 1 year old and may no longer be up to date or reflect the interviewee/interviewees’ positions
by Rachael Altman, Head Editor, INALJ Alabama
I had the pleasure of meeting Suzy at the JobList Placement Center at ALA Annual in Chicago. I was lucky enough to be paired with her for the NMRT Resume Review Service. It turns out Suzy and I are both alum of the iSchool at Syracuse University (small world!). My meeting with Suzy was helpful and reassuring—she offered quality job hunting advice and complimented my freshly crafted CV. I’m glad the universe brought Suzy and I together and I plan to keep in touch with her for years to come. Check out my interview with Suzy to gain job searching tips and learn about her long and diverse career in libraries.
Rachael: Favorite Library you have been to?
Suzy: The library at Phillips Exeter Academy designed by Louis I. Kahn. I was never a student there, but visited many times while my husband was a trustee. It’s an amazing combination of stunning architecture and welcoming space. I always feel smarter when I’m there.
Rachael: Favorite book?
Suzy: That’s almost an impossible question for anyone, let alone a librarian. The book that first made a significant impression on me was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I don’t read a lot of fiction, but I’m a fan of Edith Wharton. Mostly I read “illness narratives,” and I’d have to say one of the best is Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face.
Rachael: Favorite website/blog (it doesn’t have to be library related)?
Suzy: Definitely epicurious.com — my favorite pastime is cooking, and I can always find a great recipe here.
Rachael: Favorite thing about libraries/library technologies?
Suzy: Everyone can find something to enjoy in a library, something that can also change your life – whether it’s a book to read for fun, help with a term paper, a place to contemplate, or using the Internet to do research, communicate with friends or family, or apply for a job. What other free institution can offer all that?
Rachael: If you could take any of your hobbies and create a job of it or integrate it into your job, what would it be? And how?
Suzy: My hobbies are cooking and knitting. I fantasize about opening a restaurant or a yarn store, and have a Facebook page solely devoted to food (Palmer’s-in-the-Fan). I suspect the enjoyment I derive from these hobbies would be lost if they became actual jobs. But I can bring food to the office and teach people how to knit (and do both frequently). And most important, these activities outside work provide me with the mental break I need to be fully engaged in my job.
Rachael: You have been working in libraries for a number of years–what positions have you held? How did you get these jobs?
Suzy: I sometimes find it hard to believe I’ve been working in libraries for more than 30 years now. I started my first position, as a Reference & Instruction Librarian in what was then the undergraduate library, in 1979 at Cornell University. I was actually a graduate student in government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia when I decided, MLS already in hand, that I really wanted to be a librarian. One day early in my second semester, I literally walked from class to the library to search job ads in The Chronicle of Higher Education (remember, no Internet!). I had no library experience when I got that job, which is not something that might happen today. One benefit of working at an institution the size of Cornell was the availability of new opportunities, and the large network of colleagues. After a few years, I was encouraged to apply for a similar position in what was then the graduate library, and remained in that position for more than a decade. I stepped outside the box a bit when I left general reference to become the Head of Public Services in the Rare and Manuscript Collections, also at Cornell. This opened a whole new world of archives and special collections, and gave me a taste of administration.
I might still be at Cornell were it not for my husband (now a retired law professor) who decided to retire early from Cornell to explore a new opportunity at the University of Louisville. At Louisville, I first worked as an Outreach Librarian in Special Collections, but quickly rose through the ranks, first as a Head of Collection Development and eventually as an Associate Dean. After four-plus years in Louisville, my husband and I both wanted a change. This time we moved to Richmond, VA, so that I could become the Division Director for Research and Information Services at the Library of Virginia (the state library and archives). After two years, I applied for and became the Deputy State Librarian. But after another two years, I felt the pull to return to a college campus.
Since 2011, I’ve been Dean of the Library at Longwood University, a masters-level university with about 4,800 students, and where I have a staff of about 24 — a wonderful size for really being able to get one’s arms around the organization, know every staff member well, and make things happen more quickly than might be the case in a larger institution. I never thought about, or planned for, becoming a library director. For me the path has been somewhat accidental. I’ve learned to take one job at a time, stay in it as long as I’m learning and making a contribution, and then be open to unexpected possibilities.
Rachael: Best piece of job hunting/career advice?
Suzy: Whether you are applying for your first job or a job 20 years into your career: know how to tell your story in a cover letter to a potential employer. Be confident, but not arrogant. Most important, let your passion for librarianship—whatever that may mean to you—come through.