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6 things to know about the U’s new dean of libraries

Sarah Shreeves, formerly vice dean of libraries at the University of Arizona, took the helm as the Alice Sheets Marriott Dean of Libraries on June 15, 2023. Keep reading to get acquainted with the new head librarian.

Tell us about your background. Where were you raised? Where were you educated? Where did you start out professionally?

I am a third-generation librarian—my father was an academic librarian and my grandmother was a children’s librarian (and my aunt, my father’s sister, also worked in a public library!). I moved around quite a bit as a child and spent time in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia before my family moved to Los Angeles when I was about 10. I headed back to the East Coast for college. I got my bachelor’s in medieval studies from Bryn Mawr College and then headed up to Boston where I got my first job in an academic library.

I worked in the MIT Libraries for about nine years; I started there as a journals assistant, which meant checking in the paper journals on something called a Kardex, typing claim letters when an issue went missing and managing binding. I feel old just typing that—libraries have changed so much since I started! By the time I left to go to library school in Illinois in 2001, I had worked my way up to a role as project manager for the implementation of a new library management system. Along the way in Boston, I also got a master’s in children’s literature from Simmons College; I’d always felt this literature was undervalued in the academic sphere and this was a unique opportunity to study it more closely.

I got my Master of Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2002 and ended up working in that university library for about 12 years in a variety of faculty librarian positions. My time at Illinois really shaped my vision and aspirations for the role of libraries in the university.

When did you realize that academic libraries were where you wanted to focus your professional life?

I grew up in libraries—both public and academic—so they have always felt very much like home to me. I spent some time working in a public library during college—starting as a page and working my way up to doing a lot of different types of support work in the children’s library. I have an enormous amount of respect for public librarians—they have a very, very challenging job in the current environment. But my heart was always in academic libraries. I love the fact that life-changing research is happening all around me, that students are pursuing their dreams and that the library is an active partner in both of those endeavors.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges and opportunities facing academic libraries today?

It is easy to say the biggest challenge is constrained resources. And it is true that academic libraries—like all libraries—are facing budgetary challenges. However, academic libraries, as well as higher education more generally, face a fundamental challenge— the increasing privatization of and constraints on the research (and other knowledge) that comes out of our universities.

I am a long-time advocate for openness: open access, open data, open science, open educational resources, the list goes on. While there are some national policies moving us in the right direction, I continue to be concerned by an environment where we give away control over our research products only to buy it back at very high prices.

This also is—as is so often the case—a time for real opportunity. I believe strongly that libraries can and should be essential partners to the research enterprise. Beyond providing easy and ready access to information resources, we are bringing our expertise and knowledge in areas like data management and access and publishing to our research community early in the research process.

How can we help fill in gaps for our students and early career faculty around data science? I’m excited about leading the library on this course.

I am also watching carefully emerging technologies like AI. Libraries have an important role to play in how emerging technologies are integrated into the work of the university. Our professional ethics demand that we pay close, critical attention to issues such as privacy and bias, areas that others may not perceive as challenges.

What role do you see an academic library playing in its local community?

There are so many ways that academic libraries can contribute to the local community. For one, just being a place where our community members can go to do research and get access to information is incredibly valuable. Our exhibits and events serve as important ways for the community to connect with art, history and culture. Special Collections collects and preserves materials from the local community and highlights marginalized voices in partnership with those communities. Special Collections can also assist communities to develop and maintain their own archives. Many of our staff have the expertise to share with the local community—whether that’s how to preserve their own family histories or how to design a 3-D object to be printed. There are potential partnerships with public libraries and other higher education institutions as well.

What are the top three things you plan to undertake in your first year?

The very first thing is to get to know the Marriott Library and its faculty and staff. I’m really looking forward to digging in deeper to understand our services and programs. The second will be to get to know the U—especially its students and faculty so that I can better understand the current and future needs of the university. And the third, which will build on the previous two, will be to revise and renew our strategic plan.

What made you decide to come to the U?

I firmly believe that libraries are defined by the people who work in them. When I came to interview at the Marriott and on my subsequent visit, I was so impressed by everyone I met at the Marriott Library and beyond. I love that the space is so well used by students and feels vibrant and alive. I also very much wanted to be at a research-intensive public university that is committed to its students, to research and to the public good, and the University of Utah very much fits that bill. I am really looking forward to getting started!