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SMC welcomes new library director

| Wednesday, September 4, 2019

When members of the Saint Mary’s community enter the Cushwa-Leighton Library this year, they won’t just notice physical transformations and renovations that occurred over the summer. The library has also gone through recent administrative changes.

Beyond the circulation desks to the back of the library is the office for Joseph Thomas, the newest library director named in January.

This year marks Thomas’ first academic year as library director. He previously worked at Notre Dame Law Library for about 25 years and Georgetown Law Library for four years. Then he came to Saint Mary’s.

He pursued the position at Saint Mary’s due to its diverse subject matter as a liberal arts college.

“I’ve always been interested in working [in] a college library at liberal arts college,” Thomas said. “What I find very appealing is the variety of subject areas instead of just one. I really enjoyed working in law libraries, and I like the laws as a subject, but I have a liberal arts background. The idea that we have a library with science and literature and sociology and everything else that a liberal college covers, is very appealing to me. … That’s kind of my dream job. … So, when it opened up at Saint Mary’s, I applied.”

The liberal arts identity of the college offers diverse content, but the College itself will hopefully provide social diversity and a diversity of perspectives to the world, Thomas said. He is excited to be part of an institution focused on ensuring women’s voices are heard.

“I’m very excited to be at a women’s college,” Thomas said. “I’m hoping in the next generation or two, the voices of women will be heard in a way that they haven’t [been] in the past, and that a place like Saint Mary’s is going to be not just supportive of that, but kind of a leader in that way. That combined with the sort of Catholic and intellectual tradition in a place like this just seems to be such a fruitful way for new voices to get heard.”

Saint Mary’s students interact with librarians and research librarians through the research help desk and during class demonstrations, Thomas said, but they are sometimes removed from the administrative side of the library.

“The library in some ways operates like other campus offices,” Thomas said. “It has a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes on that people don’t realize. … Ordering the right resources and getting them organized and cataloged and made available so that people can use them effectively is really one of our big jobs that kind of goes unseen.”

He said the results of this work can be seen on the library’s web page.

Like any on-campus office or organization, the library has a budget. Deciding how that budget is used — including which books, websites and subscriptions are purchased — is one of Thomas’ duties.

“We want to make sure we buy the right stuff,” he said. “And that that’s a big part of our job.”

Thomas said he does not have any large administrative changes planned but asserts that he sees the library as a service to the Saint Mary’s community.

“I think my whole approach to libraries is to be focused on the users of the library and to make sure that we’re giving them the best sort of bang for their buck,” he said.

Thomas said he is likely not alone in this goal and that most library directors probably have similar ones. With the introduction of new technology during his library career, he has seen his and his colleagues’ mission of making information both more accessible and useful become reality.

“Now, at any given time, the way that [providing the best service for library users] is best accomplished changes,” Thomas said. “Twenty years ago, you would not provide the best service to your patrons in the same way you would now. … The way information comes in his changed a lot. One of our roles is to keep up with that. If the way information gets presented to people changes, say from print to electronic, you don’t want to be living in the print world only, just because that’s what you’re used to. You need to adapt. Whatever the current information needs are for our students and our faculty, we want to make sure we’re on top of that. And that’s one of our jobs is to stay abreast of those developments.”

Despite the introduction of new forms of technology and the changing roles of libraries and librarians, Thomas said books are his favorite part of his job.

“I know, it’s kind of an old-fashioned thing, but I just think there’s never been a better sort of technology,” he said. “People don’t often think of books these days as a technology, but what is a way of conveying information or entertainment more effectively and preserving it than a book?”

Despite all his years working amongst them, Thomas asserted books still bring meaningful excitement to his life and career.

“Something that compact can contain so much within,” he said. “The fact that we can collect those together and just one shelf of books in theory could have so much in it, that you could supply your whole life with entertainment, knowledge and inspiration — I just find that having a whole building of that still gets me excited.”

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