Library puts ‘glorious changes’ in motion following staffing reductions

By Katherine Savage, News Editor

Camilla Forte
Jo Cates, Columbia’s returning library director, hopes to introduce changes that will better align with student needs.

After a nine-year absence from Columbia, Jo Cates returned as the library director in July with much more on her desk than just book orders and budget concerns.

During a time when college libraries across the country are reimagining how best to use their spaces and continuing to digitalize their collections, Cates has to “get creative” with her plans for Columbia’s library. She came back amid staffing cuts that affected the entire campus, including the library, 624 S. Michigan Ave.

In 2005, when Columbia’s enrollment was 10,842, the library had a staff of 39 people, she said. Now, with a student population of 6,947, the library has a staff of 16. That would mean for every staffer in 2005, there were 278 students, and in 2019, there are 434 students per staffer.

Cates said having a smaller staff now than in 2005 makes sense because with a bigger population  you would need more staff. However, she does plan on hiring a few more employees to get to at least 18 staffers.

At Rush University Medical Center, her previous institution, Cates said she had a 15-member staff. Rush’s Fall 2018 enrollment was 2,708, according to its census. With that headcount, there would be 181
students for every staffer.

“We maintained approximately the same hours and similar services as we do at Columbia,” Cates said. “Decreasing staff is a trend and a reality among most small- to mid-size academic libraries today.”

But even with challenges ahead, Cates said she is happy to be back.

“I feel lucky to have a job and to come to work, and I’m looking around at this incredibly talented library staff, and one of the things I’m doing is I’m speaking to their strengths,” Cates said. “I’m looking to realign some people with what they do best.”

She is taking over for Jan Chindlund, who retired from the college in 2018, as reported July 3, 2018, by the Chronicle. Chindlund served as the Library director from 2007 to 2012 and then continued as
the dean of the Library.

Cates was at Columbia from 2001 to 2012 and held positions such as library director, dean of the library and associate vice president for academic research.

During her absence, she spent time as a library director for both Rush and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Cates said she returned to Columbia with “new knowledge” to apply.

One of the challenges facing Cates involves the world-renowned Center for Black Music Research. Cates’ goal this year is to take the archives, specifically the Center for Black Music Research archives, and make them more accessible for students and connected to the curriculum at Columbia.

“The downside is it’s three people [working in the archives], so this may be … a process, but the more open and accessible we can make it in the next year or so, the better for everybody,” Cates said.

Two employee positions within the Center for Black Music Research were eliminated and a third employee resigned in May, leaving many to question the future and functionality of the Center, as reported
July 22 by the Chronicle.

Now, a new library committee, Programming and Events, is focusing on how the library could creatively advertise the archives and other services through different events, Cates said

Cates was selected from a pool of more than 100 applicants, said Suzanne Blum Malley, senior associate provost and associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department, who looked at Cates’ overall career, not just her time at Columbia.

“She had a track record of proven improvements to library services for students and faculty while maintaining high morale [among] her staff,” Blum Malley said.

Cates has extensive knowledge about the inner-workings of libraries. In 2013, she wrote a case study for the Journal of Academic Librarianship. The study centered around how staff should respond if a library were destroyed by a natural disaster, such as a hurricane. She explored what would happen to all of the destroyed materials and how that space would then be used.

One new idea Cates plans to implement is the Library’s own version of a Genius Bar—a concierge-style support team that helps connect customers to the right services, and is based on a tool by Apple. The Library’s version will be a central hub for information in one place, she said. During her time at Rush, Cates created a similar type of program.

Blum Malley said she is already seeing some of the work Cates has done, specifically how the library is working with being more available to students. She added, “They’re working on cross-team training so any staff member the student runs into can help them with something or take them directly to where they need to go.”

To manage workflow, “self-directed” teams will be created to focus on a specific task rather than having one person do it, Cates said. For instance, several years ago, Columbia had an intellectual property librarian, a title that no longer exists. Now, it will have a “copyright awareness team,” whose purpose is to help students find resources regarding copyright.

Cates has been meeting with deans, department chairs and faculty to get a sense of what they and the students need. Several faculty members she spoke with said they want a greater focus on research tools.

“We can … return to our core mission of providing access to high-quality information resources and teaching our students how to evaluate them and use them,” Cates said.

Craig Sigele—academic manager and part-time faculty member in the Communication Department and United Staff of Columbia College union president—said the Communication Department has a good relationship with the library and he hopes to see it become more engaged with faculty.

Sigele said he wants to see the library connecting more with the curriculum and helping students fulfill course requirements.

“It’d be really helpful if they had tutorials built into the library site where a student can be … reminded how to use a database,” Sigele said. “The more digitally-integrated they are in the curriculum, the better.”

After talking with students, Cates said her biggest concerns are about the space the library provides.

“One of the themes in the upcoming year is creating the best space we can for our students. And part of that is cleaning it up and getting rid of clutter,” Cates said.

Cates plans on getting rid of some of the broken and mismatched furniture the library has acquired over the years. She also wants to promote wellness in all aspects by cleaning up and having alternative seating, such as exercise balls. Cates said students should be able to see these changes in the spring.

Senior marketing major Alex Foster enjoys having a place to go between classes, with the library being one of them. Foster said she would love to see the Library renovated because “it’s really old.”

Cates wants the library to be a space where students can search for exactly what services it offers without feeling confused about where to find the resources they need.

“After we’ve had a chance to see if any of these plans have legs,” Cates said, “I’m pretty convinced we’re going to see some glorious changes, which translate into wonderful, better [and] more services
for you all.”