A Life Spent With Books

by Mary Liza Hartong | 4/9/15 6:34pm

As a kid, every day was career day for me because every day included a trip to the library. Flipping through the pages of my favorite tomes, I felt certain that when I grew up I wanted to fight evil wizards like Harry Potter, follow yellow brick roads like Dorothy or run a chocolate factory like Charlie.

Enraptured by the conquests of my literary heroes, I wasn’t exactly admiring those ever-present ethereal creatures we call librarians.

My mistake.

We may be far from childhood and far from home, but these mystical figures have not left us. These are the people who sit patiently at the reference desk, waiting for us to come with queries. They are the ones who discover new books and care for the old. They are like books themselves — filled with the kind of knowledge that is happily shared.

English language and literature librarian Laura Braunstein, whom I met at the reference desk one Monday afternoon, has worked for the College for 12 years.

“The most valuable resource in the library is the librarian,” she told me.

Braunstein looks how you think a librarian should — with her glasses and expressive eyes, she looks organized, curious and intelligent.

As it happens, she is. Before finding a home at Baker-Berry Library, Braunstein worked for the Modern Language Association and received her Ph.D. in English literature.

She found her way into library services in part because, as she said, “Only about 50 percent of people with doctorates in the humanities ever get a tenure-track job.”

Thus, she sought to find an alternative that would provide her the opportunity to work with students and pursue research.

Unlike the often-bland depiction of librarians in children’s movies — that of the shushing, book-stacking old woman who wants nothing more than absolute quiet -— Braunstein’s job affords her a great variety of activities on a day-to-day basis. On a typical day, Braunstein said she drops her kids off at the bus stop, commutes with her husband, comes in, makes coffee and begins scheduling appointments with whomever needs to see her that day.

Once that work is done, she spends an hour or two at the circulation desk helping students and faculty with anything from research meltdowns to questions about online databases.

“I manage a budget for acquisition for all of the books in English-language literature, so I might spend some time looking at book reviews looking for what to order,” Braunstein said. “I might be teaching a class, so I might be sitting in on a class — say ‘American Poetry’ — and helping students with their research with that.”

Braunstein’s day is often peppered with meetings, like those for the committee she chairs that looks at how the library staff does outreach with the library’s digital resources.

She frequently meets with faculty to advise them to prepare research assignments for courses they teach.

Braunstein explained that she believes most students are not fully aware of what librarians do on campus, nor the breadth of ways in which they can help.

“I don’t think they know they can just send a quick question,” Braunstein said. “It’s written into our job description to help students. I hear faculty voicing their frustration that students don’t know about the academic resources available to them, and we can help students find those.”

Many students are too new to the literature base to know how to find research effectively, Braunstein said. Not only might they not know where to begin searching for useful, credible online sources, but once students discover a useful search tool, they might be unfamiliar with which words and searches yield the best results.

“You may be using search skills that are really good for Google, but there are tricks to use for different databases,” Braunstein said. “I think Dartmouth students are very self-motivated and confident, and it may be hard for them to ask for help.”

Yep, you heard right: your Googling skills might not suit each database. Just because you have a computer and a basic knowledge of JSTOR doesn’t mean you don’t need a little help from a trained expert every now and again.

While they may know their way around a search engine or two and could probably point you to a book on nearly any topic you could imagine, interacting with students is often the prime motivator for academics who have joined the library staff.

Romance languages and literature and Latin American studies librarian Jill Baron — who, by my survey of her office, is an effervescent woman with a love of clogs and artistic prints — arrived at the College in the fall of 2012 having worked in book and manuscript library at Princeton University Library’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections as an archivist for Latin American literary manuscript collections. She craved a public services position, so when the job opened up, she jumped on the opportunity.

“I grew up in New Hampshire, so it was sort of a strange homecoming because when I was growing up I never thought I would ever live here as an adult,” Baron said. “But then when I was living in New York City I did start to miss home.”

After finishing her undergraduate years with a degree in comparative literature and French from Bryn Mawr College, Baron completed a masters degree in library and information science at Rutgers University, became a professional chef in Spain and completed an MFA program in fiction and poetry at The New School. Neither city mouse nor country mouse, Baron is obviously the type of person who prefers to carve out her own unique niche.

“I tried a lot of different things. Then I realized while I was doing my MFA I was doing a lot of research for my writing and I realized I was actually happiest in the library,” Baron said. “I thought, do people get paid to work in libraries?”

Reflecting on her own path to the College, Baron cited her philosophy of not putting too much pressure on oneself at a young age to pick a lifelong career path.

“I was much more interested in traveling and experiencing the world and figuring out who I was before I decided on a career,” Baron said.

Those diverse experiences, she said, helped shape her current career.

Baron brings this sense of adventure to her research methods and encourages students to do the same.

Baron noted that while Dartmouth students are bright, she said that students are often anxious to move along with research.

“But a lot of research is very slow and plodding,” she said. “Sometimes you have to turn around and go back. Sometimes you reach a dead end.”

Research, she said, shouldn’t be a purely instrumental means to aquire a bit of knowledge.

“I would like to see more of research as exploration and not just a means to an end,” she said. “It’s also being okay with a certain amount of ambiguity.”

Another advocate of explorative learning is Jay Satterfield, the librarian responsible for the Rauner Special Collections Library.

I doubt if any person on this campus could possibly be more enthusiastic as he is about all things rare.

Stepping into his office, I immediately encountered a large taxidermied penguin under a glass dome.

Catching my glance at it, he gleefully explained its history, coloring in the lines of the story until I felt I really knew the bird.

Satterfield has hung his hat at the College for the past 11 years, after having served as the head of reader services at the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago. He also has a doctorate — he graduated with a Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Iowa, specializing in the history of the book in the Americas. Starting with an undergraduate degree in anthropology, Satterfield never expected to become a librarian.

“I totally lucked out and got a job working for the National Parks Service as an archeological aid,” Satterfield said. “Mainly I worked in the lab cleaning artifacts and researching them. I found that the stuff I liked the most was researching the artifacts.”

Satterfield went on to pursue an education that he thought would put him on the track to be a reference librarian but immediately found a job in special collections.

Combining teaching, researching and interacting with relics of the College’s past, Satterfield’s job is exactly what he never knew he wanted to do. Sharing his enthusiasm for the materials is one of the biggest perks of the job.

“I love to watch people use the collection — sometimes for the first time — and realize that the book works even though it’s 500 years old and start to see things in a different way than they had before because of that encounter,” he said. “That just knocks me out.”

Last year Rauner welcomed over 115 different classes from 25 different departments through their doors, as students interacted directly with the collections that related to their own work in the classroom. Rauner, it seems, is not just for the bookworms.

“What I like to say is that anything that you’re interested in, there is something here that will knock your socks off,” Satterfield said. “I encourage people to come up to the reference desk and just say they want to see something interesting. We’ll usually say, ‘What’s your major? What are your interests?’ And we’ll cater the thing we pull out to what might excite you.”

The moral of the story is this: You shouldn’t leave this place with just an impressive knowledge of the vicissitudes of the D-plan or the trials and tribulations of the Collis line. You should leaving knowing how to write a killer research paper, how to marvel over an ancient book and how to embrace ambiguity.