Interview with Karen Clay, EOU

Continuing our interview series of reaching out to academic library leaders across the state to facilitate “getting to know” our colleagues… the next interview in this series is with Karen Clay, Library Director, at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande.

Thanks for talking with us, Karen!

Pierce Library, Eastern Oregon University
Pierce Library, Eastern Oregon University

1. Tell us a little bit about your work background.

My educational background is in Engineering, which is unusual for a librarian and probably what got me my first few library positions once I graduated with my MLIS.

Early on I worked for the Library at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., providing their marketing arm with information to help them position their CANDU reactor in the global market. Their information needs were very broad, as they were interested in projecting the energy demand and governmental stability for numerous countries around the world. The role of the librarian was critical in helping provide and then sift through available data.

From there, I moved to academic libraries. I spent 5 years the University of Manitoba, a very large doctoral institution with a law school, a medical school, and multiple professional schools. I started in their Engineering Library and later became the Head of the Agriculture Library. I emigrated to the United States in 2001 (a few months before 9/11) to take a position as Head of the Engineering Library at Stanford University. In 2006 Eastern Oregon University offered to sponsor me for American citizenship, and I moved to La Grande to become Library Director here at EOU. These three academic institutions and their libraries have been utterly different from one another, which I have enjoyed – and I also hope it has given me some perspective as I move through my working life.

2. What has been the best thing that has happened to you since you started your position?

The most unique opportunity that has come my way here at EOU was the chance to be in involved in a fairly large scale library renovation – about $25 million. Not every aspect of this project was enjoyable — but it was always interesting and the renovation ended up being an unqualified success. One of my favorite parts was at the very beginning of the process – working with focus groups, trying to ferret out what our priorities should be for the new space, and then communicate those priorities to the architects. The other thing that I found very engrossing was the process of designing and laying out the stacks in the new collection space. It was not a trivial process by any means!

A big eye-opener for me was that our collection was very heavily used during the year that we were moved out of the Library, operating out of a much smaller space. We only had about one third of the collection available, and that third was not browse-able, as it was housed in closed stacks. I think many students preferred being able to simply pick up their requested books at the circulation desk, and not having to go wandering through the stacks themselves to find the books they wanted.

3. What would you like Oregon academic librarians to know about you?

Well – two things:
One is an admission that I don’t have very refined taste in books. I really like young adult books – also fantasy, science fiction, humor like Asterix comics, or mystery novels from the best-sellers list. I truly read for the sake of entertainment and escape, not enlightenment.

The other is that the thing I like very best about libraries is that over and over in my career I see evidence that libraries are strongest working together – I’ve seen it in Canada, where they have successful, centralized, country-wide initiatives, and I’ve seen it here with the Orbis Cascade Alliance. It’s nice to be in a profession where that is the case.

4. What is the biggest challenge facing your library in the upcoming year?

Our big challenge this year will be demonstrating that the Library remains relevant and vital as Eastern Oregon University evolves. The librarians here have done a very good job building new partnerships – in particular we have worked with our Division of Student Success to develop a First Year Experience class with a strong information literacy component. My challenge will be communicating the importance of this approach to the EOU administration. Our University President just came to EOU and to academia in July, from a career in the forest products industry. I report to an interim Provost who is facing numerous pressing challenges outside of the Library. Right now the institutional focus is very much on enrollment – I will need to find opportunities to talk about not just enrollment, but also the importance of retention, and the ways that the Library is effectively and demonstrably contributing to student retention and success.

5. What would you like Oregon academic librarians to know about your institution?

Eastern Oregon University has been through a difficult time and is beginning to embark on a cautious rebuilding and re-visioning. We have just emerged from the old OUS system, and now have our own institutional board. We have also just undergone some program cuts, and are looking to bolster the programs that remain and tentatively investigate possibilities for new programs. We are looking for better ways to serve our quite unique demographic – rural populations, students from low-income families, most of them first-generation, non-traditional students. Reaching students like this can be challenging, but it is very satisfying, and I think we do it well at EOU – both within and out of the Library.

6. What does advocacy for academic libraries look like from your perspective as a library director?

I see the academic library as a vital support unit within the institution. The role of the academic library will vary depending on the priorities of the institution. For example – the University of Manitoba, where I worked, is a large, research-focused, institution, and the Library collection is the major area of focus. The Library’s task there is primarily to make sure that the researchers have access to all the latest articles in their fields of study. At Stanford, the Libraries not only served very in-depth research needs, but also were involved in many cutting edge partnerships. Like the institution they serve, their role was to innovate and push boundaries – in this case by helping to curate unique collections around the world. At EOU, the Library has a large teaching role – we are very much a partner in helping students from diverse backgrounds succeed academically. It’s gratifying to me to see how many different ways there are for libraries to contribute to the educational enterprise.

Hannah Gascho Rempel, ACRL-OR Past President (2015-2016)
Associate Professor & Science Librarian
Oregon State University Libraries

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