April 20, 2018

Librarian of the Year 2005: Susan Nutter

By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 01/15/2005


After entering as a “bit player” among feudal lords, she became an honored, celebrated campus leader. Building and repositioning the library, Susan Nutter brought it from what one senior professor called “an embarrassment” to its current role and site, a central force and place in the academic enterprise at North Carolina State University (NCSU), Raleigh. As Vice Provost and director of libraries, Nutter “has taken a middling library and made it into a model for the entire profession,” says her colleague Carla Stoffle, dean of libraries at the University of Arizona. “The NCSU libraries have come to be recognized across our campus as vital for the university’s success,” says NCSU provost James Oblinger. Despite these and many more achievements, she “supports and gives credit generously to others and is unduly modest about her own contributions,” says Karin Wittenborg, university librarian at the University of Virginia.

Professor Michael K. Stoskopf tells how, with her guidance, the NCSU faculty decided to forgo personal salary increases during trying financial times in North Carolina. They insisted that the money go to support the development of the NCSU library. “This generous gift made with enthusiasm by the entire university faculty was the catalyst that allowed the transformation of our library to one worthy of respect and admiration,” Stoskopf continues, adding, “It is as good an example as I can provide of Susan’s special abilities.”

Because of these achievements, and with these enthusiastic endorsements, the editors of LJ celebrate Nutter as the 2005 Library Journal Librarian of the Year.

Becoming central

“People don’t think of institutions like ours,” Nutter tells LJ as she describes the challenge when she was appointed director of libraries at NCSU in 1987. “They always think of the big names, and think that is where things are happening. I had to put this place on the map, both in this area and in the state and nation. We had to become central to the academic process here at NC State. We had to be a part of all the important decisions that were made at the university.”

Meeting that challenge took much longer than Nutter expected; she and her staff still work vigilantly to maintain the library’s new position on campus. With persistence and a push from a new chancellor, NCSU committees, the student senate, and faculty, Nutter finally broke into the Council of NCSU’s ten deans, a powerful group at the university. It was one key to Nutter’s progress, but it was an issue with the deans. Only deans had ever been members. NCSU deans head the ten colleges, each of which is separately administered and funded. To overcome their reluctance to call her a dean, Nutter was awarded the title Vice Provost in addition to director of libraries in 1995. “That gave me rank a little less than equal to the deans,” she tells LJ.

NCSU has a substantial 3.2 million volumes, which places it in the bottom ranks of research libraries in terms of collection size. NCSU went from 99th to 32nd, compared with other libraries that belong to the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), by building other areas, especially staff. The library, of course, has strengths in the disciplines that are the focus of the ten colleges at NCSU and the 92 undergraduate, 101 master’s, and 58 doctoral programs they offer.

Reigning in technology

As its central position on campus was being achieved, the library added, and continues to add, both staff and services. Among service innovations, the library was one of the first to offer reference, circulation, and security services 24/7, throughout the academic year. NCSU ranks first in research expenditures in the 16-campus University of North Carolina (UNC) system.

It was one of the first research libraries to create a Learning Technologies Service to help faculty develop online courses. It was the first in the nation to hire an intellectual property attorney and launch a unit to help both library and faculty with intellectual property issues and develop related NCSU policies. The NCSU library web site, now in the process of total reconfiguration, was among the first in the region.

Technologically advanced, the NCSU library boasts a Digital Library Initiatives Department. Its Learning and Resource Center for the Digital Age includes the Learning Technology Service, with staff and equipment to support new teaching approaches. Its services include a laptop lending service and the only full U.S. patent and trademark depository with complete, automated access to data in the region.

“I’ve tried to build a community of support with every sector involved with the library here, so they have a true understanding of the value of a research library,” Nutter says, summing up her approach. “We have a university library committee of students and faculty who advise us…. I truly believe that you have to listen to them and do what they want. They come up with interesting ideas, sometimes basic things, some of which we don’t agree with…. it’s their library. Now the Library Committee is the most popular committee on campus. Even the students come to every meeting….”

The staff is the key

In Nutter’s view, the most important factor in building a library is the people. “It isn’t what you are going to do,” she says, “but who is going to be your staff, that is important.” She calls staff “the primary asset.” At NCSU, the library invests in staff. That means rigorous searches, getting the Friends group to put up money to allow the library to offer moving and relocation allowances and reallocating to pay higher salaries.

The library often goes through three and four searches to fill a vacancy. “I would never settle for a candidate if I had any doubts,” Nutter asserts. First she seeks staff who are self-motivated, who know what to do. She looks for candidates who have “that passion,” the ability to work in teams, good interpersonal skills, and who are “mission oriented.” Nutter likes best those who are willing to tell you the truth, argue, fight it out, and then “defend decisions together when the decisions have been made.” Nutter is proud that most of the library decision-making comes from staff. “I don’t have to delegate it,” she says. “I don’t even have to worry about it. They are good.”

For beginners only

“I always hire people who aren’t quite ready to do the job,” Nutter says. Proud of her ability to recognize talent, Nutter interviews every candidate. “You have to see them and try to get to know them in a short time,” Nutter says. “I love that part of it. I want to convince them to come here. It was hard before, but it is easier now.”

Certain positions at the NCSU library are reserved for brand new graduates. Nutter got the idea from Jay Lucker when she worked for him at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the late 1980s. “We won’t have a profession if we don’t hire people right out of graduate school,” she quotes Lucker.

Because hers is a science and engineering library, people with a liberal arts background were hesitant to apply. Nutter was concerned. The library reallocated funds to put “a lot of money” into professional development. Nutter notes that the standard for industry is to invest 15 percent of a budget in professional development. Her library comes close to that.

Recruit, recruit, recruit

Of a total library staff of 310, 100 are librarians. The other positions are civil service jobs controlled by the state. It is a frustration for Nutter, because they are in classifications with all state workers. University librarians throughout North Carolina have tried to improve the lot of civil service support staff, difficult to do with salaries, but a little easier with staff development. Currently Nutter is trying to raise funds in the capital campaign to benefit those civil service people through bonuses and other means. Many people have made the leap to the professional staff. The NCSU library’s mentoring program and groups of librarians who work with support staff help. “We get them every scholarship, every award, and support for library school.”

With an eye to the future and future diversity, the library is aggressively recruiting potential librarians from beyond the library walls, as well. The library is now trying to interest middle school children from the community in library work. The library raises scholarship money for internships for those who come to NCSU as students. If these interns are accepted into a library school, the NCSU library pays the tuition. All members of the NCSU library staff get one free course per semester.

“We’re in a great area to recruit African Americans to librarianship,” Nutter asserts. “Also, no one ever sees a male librarian in grade school, so we have these great guys on the staff whom we can send out to the schools. Our staff is about 25 percent minority, and our minority librarians are more than 25 percent…. We need the best, regardless of their background.”

Building blocks

Nutter decided to create a Fellows program at NCSU in 1996. The library went to library schools to recruit, offering a good salary, a development stipend, and a moving allowance. Takers would spend half of their time in a department of their choosing, and the other half on strategic initiatives and new projects in areas from GIS applications to preservation. Now the program gets 200 applications for each fellowship. The Fellows meet with Nutter and interact with a group of librarian mentors. “They are so polished at the end of their second year that everyone wants them,” Nutter says. “We still have problems because people know how good our people are. I try to keep them from going on an interview by making a counteroffer before they go. My philosophy is ‘don’t let ’em see Paris.’ ”

The Triangle Research Library Network (TRLN) abets Nutter’s work. It makes NCSU part of Internet2 and has made it part of the National Light Rail program to deliver video and audio and other new technologies on Internet2. The TRLN Human Resources committee adds to the funding spent by its members on staff development, both for professional and support staff.

“I believe in library education,” said Nutter, “but we are not turning out enough librarians to meet our needs. I think we have to look to other means when we have a shortage or a particular area of need. That means that we have to hire people with advanced degrees and find ways to inculcate library values in them. The majority of our hires are people with library degrees, but sometimes I go the other route.” Nutter proves the point with her pride in NCSU’s Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) postdoctoral Fellow. Nutter herself worked in an institute for advanced technology applications in the humanities at the University of Virginia and has her degree in English.

Take every opportunity

Nutter’s career reveals why she so strongly supports staff development. Her quick enlistment in nearly every opportunity for development and learning convinced her that staff development is the most effective management tool for library building.

“I take every opportunity to learn,” Nutter reveals. She began that pattern as a library intern and later a librarian at Project INTREX at MIT. She worked with Carl Overhage, a colleague and friend of Vannevar Bush, who headed the project and was the “most inspiring person” with whom Nutter has ever worked. She stayed at the project from 1966 to 1973. Overhage’s values were always tied to what the faculty and students wanted. He focused on immediate access to anything for which users asked. The experience instilled in Nutter the need to do things fast, to get things to people quickly. It was “a career-changing experience”—anticipating and simulating the online library.

While associate head of Engineering Libraries at MIT, Nutter was given a two-year appointment as a CLIR intern at the library of UNC–Chapel Hill. There she was “taken under the wing” of the great librarian James Govan. He introduced Nutter to the chancellor, let her sit in on every decision-making process and meeting, and gave her tremendous knowledge and insight into the workings of universities and their libraries.

“Govan was totally open with me about everything, and I watched and learned from him. Lucker had a very open style, too. He shared everything on his agenda. I learned about things outside of my own domain from these directors. I wasn’t shocked when I became a director,” Nutter says. She spent a week at Duke and one at NCSU during this internship.

“My colleagues were taking bets on whether I’d like Duke or NCSU better. Everyone assumed it wouldn’t be NCSU,” Nutter recalls. She returned to tell them she had “fallen in love” with NCSU, it was so much like MIT.

“I had no responsibility except to learn during the internships. I loved being in the thick of things and I loved policy issues. That surprised me,” Nutter says about the internships. She was offered all five jobs for which she interviewed afterwards and realized that NCSU “needed me” more than the others. “People in our profession ought to think about this,” says Nutter. “Everyone thinks these internships are at the beginning of a career, but mine were in the middle….”

“I never really thought about my career,” Nutter adds. “I never had a five-year plan, never knew where I was going. Oh, I am very ambitious, but it is for the organization, not for me—for the work I am doing and for the people with whom I work. It has always been about building the organization.”

Take back copyright

Asked about the future of research libraries, Nutter was optimistic, and militant: “We have to take back the copyright. It is the only way we can go. It can’t be just us; it is going to have to be universities and faculty. It is their research output, and they are getting more and more frustrated with the problems, especially with the cost of things. I’m optimistic about the future of libraries if we are smart and we change—if we act and we don’t allow ourselves to think that we have some entitlement to what we do.”

A new $70 million research library, to be added to the current libraries at NCSU, is now the university’s number one funding priority. That alone is enough to make Susan Nutter the 2005 LJ Librarian of the Year.

John N. Berry III is Editor-in-chief, LJ