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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Westbrooks sees University libraries as a catalyst for change

Elaine Westbrooks

In at least one respect, University Librarian Elaine Westbrooks knows she has one of the best jobs on campus.

“Libraries are so unique,” Westbrooks says. “They are highly revered. They are highly trusted. I have never met anybody who has said to me, ‘Oh, you are a librarian. I hate libraries.’ Everybody loves libraries.”

Winning back the brand

That popularity is confirmed each year by the nearly four million users who pass through the doors of the University’s nine libraries that dot campus. 

The challenge for Westbrooks, 17 months into the job, is to give people reason to love them — and use them — even more. And she has to do that in an age when more and more students seek the information they need, not in a library stack, but with a Google search on their smart phones or tablets.

 

“Google stole our brand,” Westbrooks says.  And she intends to take it back.

“My goal in the next 10 years is to tell a better story about how important we are to the life of an undergraduate student, a faculty member, a community member because it is so easy for them to bypass the library with Google,” says Westbrooks, who before arriving in Chapel Hill worked at other research universities, including the University of Pittsburgh, Cornell University, the University of Nebraska and the University of Michigan.

Westbrooks says she wants everyone on campus, especially students, to know that libraries are more than book repositories or a quiet place they can go on their own to study.  There are times, she says, when libraries can also be loud and fun.

“We will always buy books and build collections, but we are also a vibrant organization shifting to a service philosophy that compels us to do a better job connecting our students, faculty and staff with experts,” Westbrooks says. 

Reimagining the future

Westbrooks wants to create environments where students take ownership of their own learning, and where librarians partner with faculty members to advance research and teaching.

“What I want to know more about is what are they doing and what more can we be doing to help them. Where are the gaps? We must become more and more invested in teaching people how to get information, how to access it and how to consume it in order to build knowledge.”

One initiative Westbrooks hopes to investigate in 2019 is moving the Writing Center and the Learning Center from Student and Academic Services Building North to the Undergraduate Library. “It’s all about putting the student first and I want the Undergraduate Library to be the epicenter of student learning, student activity and student research,” she said.

As librarian, Westbrooks also wants to put libraries in the center of the discussion about what the future of the University will be.

“I want to influence people,” Westbrooks says, from the chancellor to the provost, to deans and department chairs. “I want people to see that a great university has to have a great library.”

When discussing The Blueprint for Next, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Robert A. Blouin often asks “where do the intellectual collisions happen,” Westbrooks says. 

“They happen in our libraries because they are where we have all different people coming together. We open them up to everyone and that access is what makes our spaces so unique
and valuable.”

Seizing opportunity 

As with any institution, Westbrooks says, the challenge for university libraries is to stay faithful to core principles while adapting to changing times. One example of that is the shift in philosophy about acquiring content.

“Twenty years ago, I would have said, ‘If Duke has a book, so should we.’ That’s no longer the case.”

Thanks to a collaborative organization called the Triangle Research Libraries Network, faculty, staff and students from Carolina, Duke, NC State University and N.C. Central University now share free access to millions of books, manuscripts,
images and databases. And articles from around the world can
arrive at Chapel Hill in a matter of hours thanks to online cooperative networks.

Westbrooks is also an outspoken advocate for changing the subscription-based model within the academic publishing industry. Under this system, publishers benefit from the research freely given to them and  contributions of academics, but keep journal articles behind steep paywalls.  

 “The question is how can researchers take back their own work,” Westbrooks says. “The current incentives are all wrong. They have been put in place, not to advance science, but to advantage publishing and that is where I have a problem.”

While the job is more complex than ever, and the challenges never greater, Westbrooks also sees unprecedented opportunities as well.

“We are at the cusp of change and I believe Carolina’s library can help shape the future of this University,” Westbrooks says. “Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves what we need to do in order to help our students go out and change the world.”