Summer 2014

Five Questions for Geneva Henry

5 Questions
(Credit: William Atkins)
June 16, 2014

Geneva Henry isn’t a lifelong librarian. Her path to becoming GW’s university librarian and vice provost for libraries took a couple of right angles: A political science major, she was working toward a doctorate in political science when a required computer programming course opened up a career-defining passion. That led to a successful career in industry before her move to academia. “I didn’t have your traditional trajectory to this position,” Ms. Henry says. Now she’s using her knowledge of complex information systems to make GW’s libraries as powerful as she knows they can be.

What role should libraries and librarians play in academia today?

It’s all about service. We’re here to facilitate research. Before the Internet, if you wanted scholarly information you had to come into the library. Librarians knew how to find information you couldn’t find on your own. 

Today people don’t need to come into the library to get the information, which means having librarians stay in the library is a bad model. Searching online for information can be overwhelming; librarians know how to sift intelligently through that. So what we need now is to be proactive in engaging with researchers, faculty, and students. With the right skills, librarians can be an integral part of your research team. They can help you pull together a data management plan and help you think about curation and long-term preservation.

The other unique aspect of libraries is special collections. Because there is so much available online, the 21st-century library will be distinguished by its unique materials— what we have that nobody else has. That’s what’s going to bring in the scholars.

What are some of those resources here?

We have a really strong collection in labor history: the International Brotherhood of Teamsters archives and the National Educational Association archives. We have the Kiev Judaica collection, which is one of the strongest Judaica collections in the country. Of course there’s the University Archives. And we have a huge collection of Washingtoniana, including materials from poet laureates—some pretty incredible stuff. I want to position GW as a hub of information. One way to do that is to work with other institutions. Scholars of Washingtonia, for instance, shouldn’t have to say, “OK, I have to go to Howard for this, to GW for this, to the Martin Luther King Library for this” while doing research. We should present a unified face for the end user—not giving our collections away to each other, but facilitating their use. We should be building communities of scholars. 

How can libraries better connect with students and researchers?

That is a challenge. We need to understand what our users need, what it is they’re interested in, and how we can provide more of that. For instance, we’re trying to do more with multimedia—we have a lot of expertise, especially if we collaborate with Academic Technologies and the Division of IT. So we should be surveying our faculty and students, giving them a menu of software platforms and other things we could provide training for, and find out what they’re interested in.

I’m a data-driven person. Let’s not just make good guesses: Let’s find out exactly what our users want. We can’t give them everything, but there are things we can do. And if we have choices, let’s do those things.

How can libraries help students in the job market?

I go back to multimedia. When GW students are going to job interviews they may be up against candidates who can talk about nontraditional ways of communicating, like using video and other technologies. With staffing and training, we can use our multimedia lab to give GW students that same advantage. We can expose them to data visualization and geographic information systems so they can create their own mapbased visualizations. We can help them work with data sets. Those things haven’t been incorporated into the curriculum yet, so the library has a big role to play there. 

Also, I hope, we can teach students how to be inquisitive. It’s not just a matter of doing a Google search; we can teach them how to do a more intelligent query, to think more deeply about how to craft the point they want to make. Those are lifetime skills.

What is your vision of the library of the future?

Really, the library of the future—the library of today—is the No. 1 interdisciplinary crossroads on campus. So it should be an interactive environment. We should have shared labs and simulators where the English faculty and the engineering faculty could work shoulder to shoulder. Things like visualization are as applicable in arts and humanities as they are in the sciences, and the libraries are the natural place for disciplines to meet.

We can also provide preservation environments for the research our scholars are doing: We can safeguard their publications and their data sets and the simulations they create, and migrate them over time so they remain available. Fundamentally, it is still about preservation of the human record. That’s what libraries do. And in the 21st century, into the future, that requires understanding technology.

— Ruth Steinhardt