This year, the Henry Whittemore Library looks much different than it has in the past.
Plexiglass surrounds the Circulation Desk, Red Barn is barren and brew-less, and students are spread thin along the wooden tables in the Periodical Room.
But despite all these surface changes, the role of librarians remains the same: to provide students with essential services that are often overlooked or invisible until needed.
Millie González, interim library dean, said although the library saw a “dramatically reduced footprint” in the past year, it was important to remain open since some students need the space to study or take online classes.
“We felt very strongly that the library should be open, and we’re proud that we were able to do it,” González said. “But it was quite challenging.”
She credited student workers as the reason the library has been able to remain open since last semester.
“We could not have opened the library and stayed open during this pandemic without them,” González said. “When we talk about being grateful, I’m very grateful for them.”
Noelle Meunier, a student worker and sophomore business major, said, “The students pushed hard to come to work throughout the pandemic because we love it here. We came armed with masks and hand-sanitizing stations.”
This semester, the library employs “roughly” 25 student workers, González said. These students put away, locate, and check out books for patrons – but are mainly responsible for operating the Circulation Desk.
At the Circulation Desk, Meunier said she answers questions from students, which are “often not strictly library related.
“We do our best to answer these questions or point out experts that may be better suited,” she said. “Every question from a library patron is a chance for me to help someone in our community and to be a resource to the students.
“As a student, I take my job seriously because I know how busy my peers are,” she added.
While Meunier did admit it was “tricky” adjusting to the ever-changing state mandates and safety protocols, she said it was important for the library to open its doors so students and staff could access its resources.
Lori Wolfe, the Access Services supervisor, said the library is “vital” to FSU because it’s “a hub that attracts all students.
“We [librarians] all have a wealth of knowledge and we are excited to share that knowledge and our resources to all members of our community,” Wolfe said. “It is very gratifying and satisfying to be able to help a patron find the materials they need for their research projects or to recommend books to read for pleasure.”
Since Wolfe is used to working with and helping students face-to-face, she said it’s been “challenging” adjusting to the library’s new environment.
Usually, the library is a crowded “hive of activity,” Wolfe said. “But Covid has really changed the whole vibe.”
When the library was forced to close along with the University last March, Wolfe said the staff quickly had to “pivot” online and acclimate to a remote work environment. In order to safely provide students with books and other resources, the library began offering a contactless curbside pick-up option.
“Once September came, we were very excited to open the doors to the campus community,” Wolfe said. “It made life feel a little more ‘normal,’ even if we were all masked and staying 6 feet apart.”
González was quick to commend staff for their efforts, which she said allowed FSU’s library to be “one of the few” local college libraries to open.
“It was a commitment by the library staff to staff the library,” she said. “We just want to make sure there’s enough staff that at any point in time when people come into the library … there’s staff there.”
While the library was closed at the height of the pandemic, González said the staff often gathered virtually, including once a week as a group “just to talk.
“It’s extremely important to still have that community,” she said. “It’s important just to check in with each other.”
When the campus was closed, González said library staff were concerned about their own families, but also the wellbeing of students. “There was always just anxiety that I think everybody was experiencing,” she said.
Despite not being able to work in person during that “unprecedented” time, González said library staff was “grateful” to work remotely and still provide services to students.
“In a way, I think it was good that we all had to move to be a lot more innovative and creative,” she said. “It’s kind of like a bittersweet thing. It was an extremely challenging year, but I think we all needed to adapt to get through it.
“We’re very proud of our library intern, and also our student workers,” González added. “They’re great.”
The library currently employs one “amazing” student intern, who was specifically hired to assist with social media posts, González said. “If you see our cool social media output, it’s because of Meeghan.”
Meeghan Bresnahan, a sophomore history major and student intern, said in addition to posting on the library’s social media accounts, she also films videos of staff to share online, corrects auto-captions from recorded Zoom events, and helps patrons at the Reference Desk.
She said her internship has been helpful because her career goal is to become a librarian.
“I really like everything about my internship,” Bresnahan said. “It has been really interesting to work in a library … [and learn] more about what really goes on ‘behind the scenes.’”
During her time as a student intern, Bresnahan has worked closely with the librarians, whom she said are “some of the most welcoming people” she’s ever met.
Lauren Hunter, a student worker and sophomore biology major with a concentration in pre-health, agreed. She said the librarians are “extremely approachable,” which creates a “welcoming environment” in the library.
“They are always very interested in the students’ lives and how our semester is going,” Hunter said.
Wolfe, who trains and supervises the student workers, said, “I like to get to know the students as people. I always ask about their classes and find out what they are majoring in and what their interests are.
“I am here to lend a sympathetic ear, help them navigate issues on campus, or to give advice if they ask for it,” she added. “I find that to be the most rewarding part of my job.”
In addition to supporting student workers, Wolfe said the librarians strive to build relationships with patrons and “the surrounding community.
“We are very welcoming, respect differences, and work to be inclusive in all that we do,” she said. “Once people realize all we have to offer, they frequently come back to use our vast resources.”
David Celestin, a senior psychology major, said, “Whenever I need help doing research or finding resources, the librarians are always friendly and available.”
Celestin said he often uses the library as a place to work on homework or relax between classes.
“It’s clean and I can always find a quiet place to do work,” he said. “Even during a pandemic, there’s still a nice atmosphere there.”
González said when one enters a library, the “vibe” is instantly apparent.
At one point during her extensive career as a librarian, González visited different libraries to install software on computers. It was this job where she learned that kindness and a positive attitude are conducive to a welcoming library.
“When you come into our library, you hopefully get that vibe that we want you there and we’re actually excited to see you,” she said.
“Sometimes you don’t get that in places that you visit,” González added. “I’ve certainly felt that at certain libraries I’ve visited, and it’s a shame.”
Meunier said, “Millie has been an amazing asset in her interim director role. She recently started a student engagement group as a resource to give student voices an outlet.”
This group – the Student Worker Advisory Committee – is a way for staff to connect with student workers and learn how to make their jobs better, as well as create an even more welcoming environment at the library, González said.
“We want to make them [student workers] happy, and we certainly want to make our students who enter the library happy,” she said. “Through the Advisory Committee, they’re going to tell us what we need to do.”
Although the Student Worker Advisory Committee just recently launched and only met twice, Meunier believes “it has already improved communication between the librarians and the students.”
At the last meeting, Meunier said librarians sat in to listen to student workers’ contributions and ideas. “It was such a great icebreaker between the students and some of the librarians we don’t often get to see because of where they work in the building.”
Wolfe said, “We are always looking for input so we can better serve both the student workers and the campus community as a whole.
“After all, we are here to serve the students and faculty – and what better way to do that then to ask the students themselves?” she added.
González said she hopes the Advisory Committee will drive students’ creative energy and allow her to hear from different viewpoints, because diversity is key to ensuring the library remains inclusive.
“Anti-racism, diversity inclusion, and equity are part of the library’s core values,” she said. “We pay attention to what we say and how we say it during library instructions.”
González, who has worked at FSU for more than 14 years, served as the University’s Interim Chief Diversity Officer prior to her stint in the library. But this doesn’t mean she’s a stranger to libraries.
“When I was getting my MBA the librarian who worked at the school said, ‘I’ve never seen anybody pay so much attention to my library, you should be a librarian,’” González said with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m almost done with my MBA!’”
From that point on, González said she began taking courses in library school and was instantly “hooked.” Before earning a master’s degree in library science from Simmons University in 2003, González received her Master of Business Administration in marketing three years prior.
During her career, González worked at academic libraries, public libraries, and even a pharmaceutical library. “I’ve tried all different libraries, but I was really, really happy to find a place at Framingham State,” she said.
As the first Latinx/a/o library director at FSU, González said she makes a conscious effort to create an inclusive environment. She realizes the importance of bringing diversity initiatives to the library and views it as second nature.
“When you think of the diversity of library directors in general, it’s a very small percentage of individuals of color,” she said. “For me, that’s part of my identity. So, I always bring it to whatever role I’m in – I’m very proud of it.”
González said there’s a Library Diversity Advisory Committee that discusses issues related to diversity and how the library can better promote inclusion.
Although these efforts are crucial to maintaining an all-inclusive environment, González said it’s also important to make resources easily available.
“Whenever we consider a resource, we make sure that it is inclusive and accessible as well,” González said. “We’d like to make a lot of the resources that we have available online. So, that’s one of the reasons why we purchased the e-book collection of over 200,000 e-books.”
This “Digital First” initiative González referenced is aimed at making more of the library’s resources available online. Along with this initiative also came a chat reference feature called Ram Chat.
Ram Chat was made available on the library’s homepage last semester. The chat can be used for “anything,” ranging from research help to acquiring an interlibrary loan, González explained.
“You don’t have to be on campus. We want to make it a lot easier for students to contact us through text or through chat,” she said. “There’s always a reference librarian available from 8 [a.m.] to 9 [p.m.].”
Wolfe applauded the efforts of González, who is constantly working to increase the library’s online presence.
“Millie is really up on the latest trends and is into technology and e-resources, so that has brought a different dimension to the library,” she said.
Before expanding the e-book collection through the Digital First initiative, González said the library only had access to 8,000 e-books. “It’s definitely been a nice progression,” she added.
Despite rapid technological advances throughout the past year, González said there “weren’t too many surprises” because the library has always been as “innovative” as possible.
“We’ve always had a strong virtual presence – the difference is now … we have the chat reference,” she said.
Meunier said that while she’s “always loved” the library, she is “a firm believer in continuous improvement, and Millie has been a huge driving force for improvements in the library.”
For National Library Week this upcoming week, González said the library will be hosting virtual discussions on two books – one about empathy and one about anti-racism. The library will also be hosting a student worker appreciation picnic, a book cart decorating contest, and a toilet-paper mummy contest to celebrate staff and promote library use.
“Anybody can join us,” González said. “Even though a lot of it is virtual, hopefully, it will be engaging.”
With life slowly returning to normal, González said library staff finally sees a “light at the end of the tunnel” and are “very excited” to welcome more students on campus for the fall semester.
“We want to be part of your experience,” she said, encouraging students to ask for help at the library whenever they need it. “If we’re not doing our job, then shame on us.”