March 17, 2018

Academic Movers 2014: In Depth with Rachel Vacek

Movers2014webBigVacekbIn the latest of our In Depth interviews (sponsored by SAGE) with Movers & Shakers from the academic realm, we spoke with Rachel Vacek, head of web services for the University of Houston libraries. Vacek made her way onto our 2014 Movers list by doing a lot with a little, making the most of microgrants available at her library to produce events that reached out to the campus and community alike.

LJ: Talk about the origins of the microgranting program.
Rachel Vacek: When I started here, our dean of libraries, Dana Rooks, had just started the program. Anyone who had an idea could write up a proposal that would benefit the library and the campus at large and didn’t need too much money to enact and ask for one of these new grants. I loved the idea and jumped on board, submitting ideas and getting a lot of them funded. I’m far from the only person putting the program to use, but I’m probably the one in the library who took the most advantage of it.

Why is that?
For me personally, these events are great because I’m an extrovert, but I work in the back of the house, and programs like these let me interact with people in ways that I don’t usually get to in the course of my daily routine. In a larger sense, they’re a great way for the library to reach out and change people’s perceptions of us.

US Political Stats | CQ Press

In this interview series, sponsored by SAGELJ goes in depth with this year’s Movers & Shakers from academic libraries, delving into just how and why they pulled off the projects that brought them recognition as innovators, change agents, and more.

What are some of the things this program has supported?
We’re really proud of some of the events we’ve had that started as microgrant projects and grew into annual events and larger programs, like Finals Mania, which is a stress reliever for students. We had midnight pancakes, board games, and massage therapists for students. It was extremely popular, and now it’s a regular event that gets departments from all over the college involved. Every semester we serve pancakes to more than 3,000 students, and we’ve expanded it to bring therapy dogs into the mix as well.

Another very successful event was our Discovery Day Camps. When discovery systems came out a few years ago, a lot of people had questions about them, and we wanted to have a one-day conference to help demystify those products. We had about 200 people from around the area attend the first day camp, and we’re just about to start planning the third iteration of the event.

My personal favorite, though, was Game On, Cougars, where we brought together students and people from the community to celebrate International Gaming Day at the library with board games, video games, and giveaways from local vendors.

What’s the bigger picture goal of these events?
What we really want to do is try to engage the campus as well as community and change their perception of the library. We don’t want to be just another place to study. We want to demonstrate that we’re partners in learning and in the university environment, and that’s working. We’ve been contacted by several departments across the university because of projects we’ve done, and they’re helping to strengthen our partnerships universitywide.

How about the other part of that equation, changing the perception that students have of the library?
We have a very busy library, and it’s unlike other places I’ve worked where people just kind of come to use the computers. We have quiet zones, social zones, food and drink are allowed. It’s more of a relaxed environment where people come together not just to study but to have fun, and these events have helped to contribute to that feeling. When people come out for programs like Game On, we have interactions with them we might not have otherwise, and that makes us more inviting. Our gate counts are steadily moving upward, and that’s not entirely because of these programs, but they certainly help.

Any tips for librarians who might be looking to run a similar project up the flagpole at their institutions?
I would talk to administration about starting small. Set a couple of thousand dollars aside initially, think of limiting grants to $500 or so, and begin with an application process that isn’t very complicated.

Are there any new programs on the horizon or things on your wish list for the future?
I’d love to do something that brings together the web and technology folks on campus for a conference of some sort. Too often in academia, people work in silos. I’d like to bring people together who are trying to accomplish similar tasks to see if we can help one another out.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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