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February 15, 2024

Barbara Rockenbach is the Stephen F. Gates ’68 University Librarian at Yale University. Rockenbach has held a series of user-focused positions in the Columbia University Library, the Yale University Library, and JSTOR. The focus of her work has been on the intersection of collections, technology, and pedagogy, including advancing research and learning through visual literacy, research education, and digital humanities. She has published and presented in these areas and serves as a board member of the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, positions that amplify her commitment to public scholarship. Rockenbach holds an MS in library and information science from the University of Pittsburgh, an MA in Art History from Hunter College, and a BA in English from the University of Illinois.

Read on to hear more about Barbara's career trajectory, her current work at Yale, and her hopes for the future of libraries, in conversation with Shea Spiller from the Kress Foundation.

Shea Spiller: To start with, can you tell me about your current role at Yale?

Barbara Rockenbach: My current position is the University Librarian at the Yale Library. I entered this role in June 2020, which was of course a crazy time to be starting. When I got here, the library was actually closed, which was unprecedented. The university is over 300 years old and even during the worst of times, including World War II, the library did not close.

The first half of my tenure was really tactically focused around COVID-19 and re-opening the library, and in the last year and a half I've been able to zoom out a bit more and do some strategic work focused on how the library aligns with the research mission of the university and where research is going. Increasingly, research on campus is data-driven and computational, and so it's a fun moment for the library to redefine itself and tell a different story about what the library is and how it can support people on campus.

SS: What do some of those changes look like at the library?

BR: For many years libraries have taught literacy skills, and you could call it information literacy, research methods, the kind of things that supported scholars, students, and teachers in using library materials. And those materials were mostly books and journals, in print first and then they became electronic. What is interesting now is the literacies that we focus on are digital literacies, research computing literacies, and visual literacy in some instances, because so much of our world is digital images. We just started a new department called Computational Methods and Data, and within that department we have experts in digital humanities, GIS, statistical analysis, and research data. The idea is that this is a unit that can support our students and faculty as they begin to imagine their research in different ways.

SS: That's so interesting. It’s exciting to hear about how the function of a library expands and changes as the needs of the communities it serves change as well.

BR: Absolutely. I think COVID was a really interesting time because people came to the library, in many ways, because it was a place of community. There were very few places that students could go in the academic year 2020-21, but the library was a place they could go. It made us really interrogate the question of, why are they here? The majority of students weren’t at the library because they were reaching for books on the shelf, but in general they came because it’s a place where they could gather and where they can get their work done in community with others.

As we reopened during the early days of the pandemic, we began to think about what that realization means for the way that we structure our staff, our spaces, and our services when the library becomes a place of community, not just a place where people come to consume books and journals.     

SS: Exactly. Reflecting back on my own undergraduate experience, more than half the time I was in the library, I wasn't necessarily referencing books. It really is this place that's so central to academic life, but in a much more social way.

It sounds like that may be one of the positive shifts to come out of the pandemic within your work. What are some of the other positive changes that you have maintained at the library since then?

BR: One thing we realized was that people don't have to come to the library to get library materials or library support. During the pandemic, we started mailing books to anyone in the United States with a Yale affiliation, and this is something we have continued. So, say you’re a PhD student and you’re finishing your art history dissertation while living in Philadelphia, or you’re living in California because that’s where your research is or your family is… there’s no reason why we shouldn't just send you books, right? Costs are minimal and then you send us the books back when you're done with them.

This idea of the library coming to you is true for library materials and, also, research support. While the library still has a strong sense of space and place, it doesn’t mean that people have to come into that physical space to be supported in using the library.

SS: I'm so jealous of the mailing books feature, that's such a such a brilliant idea!

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

SS: I'd love to hear more just about your career trajectory and how you ended up working in libraries. Did you always know that that was what you wanted to do?

BR: I did my undergraduate work at the University of Illinois and, in my senior year, I worked in the Ricker Art Library at the university. I was an English and art history major and, at the time, I really didn't know what I wanted to do. Within months of working at the art library, something just clicked for me. So I was a rare person who went directly from undergrad to graduate school in library science.

After going to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, I went straight to the Kress Fellowship—which was really pure luck. At the time, I knew I was interested in art librarianship, but I didn't have a master’s in art history which was going to be a barrier to getting a job. I was looking for a way to just get my foot in the door, so I applied for the Kress Fellowship at Yale. At the time, the fellowship was six months and within two months upon arriving, I was like, I'm not leaving here. I loved the library, the art museums, the culture, the pace… everything about it. After the fellowship, I moved into a job in the visual resources collection, which was essentially the slide library. It wasn’t a professional job and it was a bit of a gamble, but I wanted to stay so badly that even though it wasn’t technically a library job it was worth it.

My hunch was that this was a transitional moment in the field. It was the late 90s and this was a time when art history was moving from slides to digital images, and it was a huge lift to get faculty to teach with digital images. So, that was my job. I basically cataloged images, helped digitize them, and then helped hands-on in the classroom with faculty to get them to use digital images. It was through that work I became connected with both Artstor and Max. So it was six months in the fellowship, a year in the visual resources collection, and then I moved into the art library in an instructional role.

It was also a moment when things were moving from print to electronic, and there was a need to have a librarian focused on teaching the basics of how to search in an online environment. I left Yale after five years to pursue my master’s in art history at Hunter College. At the same time, I also became a consultant for Artstor through my connection to Max. Having the Kress fellowship and then working for a couple of years allowed me to gain some life experience before going back to graduate school for art history. I think I enjoyed my MA and being a graduate student more for that.

SS: That sounds like kind of an ideal track. And I agree, life experience before graduate school is so important and informative.

I spoke recently with Beth Harris and Steven Zucker from Smarthistory, and they were reflecting on this same exact moment in the late 90s and early 2000s where everything started to go digital. It’s so fascinating to hear about as a student of the 2010s and 2020s because digital images have always been so central to my education, it’s hard to imagine a time before them. I think it’s easy to forget how relatively recent these shifts were.

BR: Exactly. I think what was so interesting to me when I first started the Kress Fellowship was that I was tracking this transition from the inside. There were lots of concerns about quality and people felt that the quality of a digital image would never be as good as a slide. And so I did some research around the history of photo documentation for art history, and in the 1950s there was this crisis where color photography was becoming more ubiquitous and there were art historians who felt that the color could never be accurately calibrated to the original object, so it was better to just stick with black and white. That made me realized there is a long history of mistrusting images and what was interesting about that transitional time is there was concern that if you digitize images no one will go to museums anymore. We’ve learned that it’s quite the opposite. The more ubiquitous digital images are, the more people want to see the real thing. It actually drives people to museums because they want that authentic experience. You know, it could be Walter Benjamin’s “aura,” or whatever you want to call it, people want to see the real thing. It was interesting to trace that history of concern about the image and how you learn from an image.

Yale Library website circa 1998 (source: Wayback Machine)

SS: It’s so telling that there was such a similar fear behind both of those transitional moments. Do you see any comparable shifts occurring now? Of course, the first thing I think of is AI.

BR: For sure, that’s what came right to my mind. How do you think about an information profession when search has changed so significantly? Even in my 25-year career, so much has changed. When I was a Kress Fellow, I made the first website for the library. This was in 1998 and I was by no means qualified to do anything of the sort, but I was the only person who had taken a web class. The way we thought about information in that moment was to replicate the paper world online. In libraries, we'd create pathfinders that were essentially paper documents made digital that took you through a search process. It was all about moving through the digital space as you would a physical one.

Fast forward a decade and a half later, Google is ubiquitous and no one goes to search the website itself for information anymore. If you need to know the hours for a place you type “Yale Library hours” into Google, right? So, what does that mean about information seeking? Now I think people will just go to ChatGPT to ask questions like, “Can New Haven residents use the Yale Library?” [They can!] There’s a real sophistication to searching on the web now, which is phenomenal compared to what it was in the past. I would absolutely say, even though it may be cliche to do so, that we have to rethink search and the role of the library in search because of things like generative AI.

There's an opportunity to think expansively about what the library could be as a problem solver beyond what it has traditionally been. It can serve campus needs and student needs.
Barbara Rockenbach

SS: What is one of the things that makes you most excited and energized to be working in libraries right now?

BR: There are so many things, but for me, the most interesting part of this job is that I get to play a role—along with an incredible team—in shaping the view this current generation of students will have of the library. What is a library for these current students who are going to go into the world and become politicians, leaders, teachers, and all kinds of roles. They’re going to leave here with their notion of the library, and we're trying to define it as something more than just a warehouse of books.

I think about that a lot as a kind of touchstone. It's an absolute honor to be in this role for so many reasons, but we, the current staff of the Yale Library, are shaping the notion of what the future of a library is for people who will lead in all aspects of our society, and I think that's pretty exciting.

SS: That is exciting. My follow-up question to that would be, what is the impression of the library that you’d like students to come away with from Yale?

BR: The way I like to describe the library is that it's a problem solver. If you ask someone what they need from their library, they're going to think very narrowly in terms of books, journals, or reference help. But if you ask someone what problems they’re having at university more broadly, you're going to get a different answer.

The bottom line is there's an opportunity to think expansively about what the library could be as a problem solver beyond what it has traditionally been. It can serve campus needs and student needs. The library was really static for most of its history, and I'm not looking at it from a point of relevance or crisis, but more as an exciting moment where the library needs to change and grow as research changes and the needs of our communities change.

SS: I love that answer. And I think that that's kind of a perfect note for us to end on. Thank you so much for speaking with me today!

[We] are shaping the notion of what the future of a library is for people who will lead in all aspects of our society, and I think that's pretty exciting.
Barbara Rockenbach