A place for old and new

A place for old and new

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New library leader looks to campus-wide collaboration to support 21st century scholarship
John CulshawPhoto by Tom Jorgensen.

John Culshaw has traveled to all 50 states, and is now happy to call Iowa home. In his new role as University Librarian, Culshaw is responsible for leading a system that includes more than 5 million volumes in the Main Library and five branch libraries.

After more than two decades at the University of Colorado, where he was most recently senior associate dean of libraries, Culshaw says he’s more than ready to step into the top spot and offer his leadership and vision for the future.

Culshaw sat down with Iowa Now recently to talk about the new energy in the building brought by the opening this fall of the Learning Commons, the delicate balance of print and electronic resources, and what library essentials might just go the way of card catalogs and rubber date stamps by the time current students reach milestone reunions.

What has been your first priority in these early weeks on the job?

I’ve spent a lot of my first few weeks meeting people, learning about the libraries, and learning about the campus. I feel like my administrative team is really starting to gel—we’re laughing a little bit more together. We’ve sort of crossed that uncomfortable, “Who’s this new boss?” threshold. I’m starting to frame in my mind the sorts of things that we need to do in the libraries to meet the demands of the future.

What are some of those things?

The first thing we need to do is to finish the Learning Commons. It’s been really exciting to come in and see the students embrace the new space. They’ve taken to the commons like ducks to water, and it’s fantastic to see the library reinvigorated as the heart of the campus. We’ll wrap up the rest of that project here pretty quickly.

Come see the Learning Commons for yourself — Open House Wednesday, Sept. 18, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.
* visit with library and ITS staff to learn how to use the technology
* connect with campus colleagues
* enjoy light refreshments

We have some more facilities things that we need to do. The Commons will hopefully initiate a domino effect of other facility improvements. We need to do some planning around the rest of the first floor of the Main Library. That will involve additional collaborations with some of our campus partners like ITS and the Provost’s Office, to really think about what services need to be on the first floor—it really is prime real estate.

The other space issue of course is that we are just bursting at the seams. We do still buy books and we do still keep a lot of journals on campus but we have run out of shelf space. We have a facility to store books off campus and it, too, is full. So we’re going to be looking at a broad range of strategies to make sure that we’re using all of our collections spaces wisely. We’ve got this constant balance between the print resources and the electronic resources and how to maintain the best access to that whole realm of resources for faculty, staff, and students. And that’s something that we’re constantly looking at in the libraries.

As you start to look ahead a few months or years, what excites you most?

We have fantastic special collections here. It’s been so much fun for me to watch in my first few weeks here how two stories—the miniature book and the fore-edge paintings – were being shared nationally and internationally.

A lot of times Special Collections are seen as things that are museum pieces—things you can’t really use and can’t really touch, and that’s not our philosophy here. We want to integrate those special collections into the curriculum, into research, and I think the social media outreach that our folks have been doing really makes people aware of the breadth of our special collections, and I think are a very interesting way for people to think, “Maybe I should go over there and check this out.”

Another great thing for the future is there’s a sort of corridor developing on campus between the new School of Music building and the Wellness Center and the Libraries and the IMU and eventually a new art museum all leading north toward the new Hancher. There will be a lot of potential for interaction and highlighting the things that are unique about our collections and the services that we provide.

What are some of the biggest challenges on the horizon?

Open Access is a big issue for us. The Libraries subscribe to hundreds of thousands of dollars of journals where the research is produced by the faculty here on campus. So we’re producing that research here and then repurchasing the outcome in journals from commercial publishers. It’s important for faculty to publish in peer reviewed outlets as part of the tenure and promotion process, but we need to work with the university and with the faculty on ways of embracing open access publications as a respected and legitimate form of scholarship of the future.

Likewise, and sort of related, is research data. More and more, particularly with federal grants, there are requirements that not only should the researcher make the outcome of the research openly available but the researcher needs to have a data management plan and make the data that went into that research available.

This too is something that we’re going to need to work with partners on campus including the vice president for research and ITS to figure out what sort of infrastructure do we need, how do we manage that. It’s related to the supercomputer center that was approved just this month by the Board of Regents. There is certainly a role for the libraries and others on campus to manage that new type of information that wasn’t necessarily available before.

For an undergraduate student, what is the number one reason to come physically to the library building?

The commons is a big draw for undergraduates. It’s a space that has group areas, and it’s a safe place, and I think that’s a message that we’d really like to get across. We are open 24-by-5 so we’re open those wee hours of the night.

The other thing about the commons is people work differently now—with food, with friends, with technology—and the commons is an environment that allows people to easily move from one activity of the day to the other. There is technology help available and research help available in the commons.

I think the average undergraduate probably comes into the commons and sees this really nice new shiny space, sees the nice new technologies, sees the big screens built into the walls and that’s all sort of apparent. But it’s the services we’re providing here that will make this space a core component of student success on campus.

Libraries look very different today than they did 20 year ago. What will today’s students be surprised to see missing from libraries when they bring their kids own to college?

That’s really, really hard to say. We’re going to get to the point where the physical collection becomes more of a core collection over time. I do think e-books will become more important as scholarly tools as their platforms become easier for readers to embrace.

It’s always hard to predict the future, but it will be interesting to see how mobile devices impact the services that we offer in our physical spaces. There are quite a few desktop computers in the commons, but when will we reach a point where mobile devices are going to negate the need for so many fixed computers? I don’t know. But that could lead to all sorts of other things. I can’t really imagine writing a whole paper on an iPad, but I bet there are some students who could do it.


John Culshaw, University Libraries


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