Last September, Frank Turner GRD ’71 stepped into the role of University Librarian after the search committee decided out of six finalists that he was the best man for the job. But just two months later, Turner had died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism, leaving his vision for North America’s second-largest research library unfulfilled.
Yale spent the next five months searching for new a new head of the library to serve as Turner’s successor as University Librarian, eventually settling on Susan Gibbons, vice provost and dean of libraries at the University of Rochester. The beginning of her term in July brought a two-year period without a clear library leader to a close and enabled the library to turn once again to broader goals, Chair of Library Associates William Reese ’77 said.
“We’ve been through a period of where people are just focused on what needed to happen — just doing the day-to-day,” said Roberta Pilette, director of library preservation. “What I’m hoping [for] in the next few months, and certainly what we’ll be doing in preservation, is strategic planning.”
As Susan Gibbons settles into her role as University Librarian, her staff can only speculate as to Turner’s vision for the direction of the library. Four librarians interviewed said Turner did not reveal much of what he was contemplating for the future of the library.
“Frank was a guy who kind of kept a lot of his thoughts to himself,” Reese said. “He probably had a lot of things in mind.”
As Gibbons begins drawing up plans for the library, she said many of the specific projects Turner had envisioned remain unknown to her, but she added that his broader ideas for the library’s future correspond with her own, and that she will spend her term making some of them into realities.
ALL FOR ONE, ONE FOR ALL
In his brief tenure, Turner made an effort to develop a positive atmosphere at the library and extend its relevance on campus by building a community for staff and reaching out to faculty, graduate students and museum curators.
The 550 members of the library’s staff are scattered throughout roughly two dozen satellite libraries, but Turner committed himself to thinking of the library as an entire system and increasing collaboration among the branches. Gibbons said she, too, will emphasize that the main library and the satellite libraries are part of one entity that provides a common service.
“We think about ourselves as one organization,” she said. “[We will] work towards making sure there’s consistency throughout that library system, rather than what seems to be the thought process. The us-and-them thinking has to go away.”
Most of the libraries’ component parts are dependent on finances from the University budget — in fact, Reese called the library “more dependent on the general budge of Yale than any other part of the University.”
But Turner, whose friends and colleagues said he met regularly with his staff and strove to know each member on a personal level, did not want to lay off anybody, despite ongoing financial woes. When the University’s endowment took a 25 percent hit in 2008, he made cuts by attrition, leaving positions vacant when staff members retired.
Western Americana Curator for the Beinecke George Miles ’74 GRD ’77, a personal friend of Turner’s, attributed some of Turner’s compassion for his staff to the late librarian’s upbringing in Wilmington, Ohio, where he saw the Midwest drained of industry and middle-class jobs.
“Frank felt that staff at every level had made a commitment and contribution to the University,” Miles said, adding that one of Turner’s goals was to re-evaluate what staff expertise would be needed in the coming years and to assess how current staff could acquire these new skill sets.
Gibbons said she is now investigating how to fill gaps that the economic downturn and Turner’s personnel strategy left in the library. She said the library does not have the funds to hire people to necessary positions that are vacant, such as head of library technology. Rather than laying off employees in order to hire needed specialists, Gibbons said she will continue Turner’s commitment to the staff, and will reorganize the responsibilities of existing staff members to compensate.
The library continues to collaborate with Union 34 in a Joint Departmental Committee, Miles added.
Acting University Librarian and former Dean of Graduate Studies Jon Butler said he made a commitment during his term to fostering faculty and student involvement in the library — an area Turner had hoped to expand.
Butler said he spoke with University Library Archivist Diane Kaplan and Director of the Department of Manuscripts and Archives Christine Weideman about how to be “aggressive in approaching faculty and students,” to show scholars how the library’s materials can enrich a subject.
Suttle said in an email that Turner saw the relationship between faculty and librarians as “a close partnership in the pursuit of the University’s mission of the creation, dissemination and preservation of knowledge.”
Turner planned to increasingly involve Yale academic departments, graduate schools, museums and galleries in the library and augment the Faculty Advisory Committee’s involvement in library affairs on issues ranging from collection development policies to the library’s budget, Suttle said.
‘STERLING AS A BUILDING’
Turner, who was concerned that many of the library’s reading rooms were not being used, also planned to focus more attention on what he called “Sterling as a building,” Deputy Provost Lloyd Suttle said in an email.
In the past, the library was a central academic and social hub of Yale, Miles said. He added that he remembers an era when graduate students were proud to earn a place to store their own books in Sterling. Now, he said the library often feels deserted. In Turner’s own words, Miles said, the library needs “a better sense of intention.”
For example, both Butler and Gibbons described the Linonia & Brothers Reading Room on the first floor as “tired,” and Butler said Turner had plans to renovate it. Gibbons said she will refurbish that room to make it a comfortable study space.
Turner was also thinking about reorganizing some of the smaller special collections in Sterling into one unified reading room, Reese said, and about opening the gate to Sterling on York Street for the first time in about 60 years to make the library more accessible.
Gibbons said she has not yet looked into reopening the York Street gate — which would require another security station — and added that several of the special collections reading rooms, such as those of the East Asia and Judaic Studies collections, have been recently renovated and will not be moved.
But Gibbons said she is looking into modernizing Sterling through better environmental control, most notably by bringing in air conditioning and humidity controls to manuscripts and archives, where materials are examined and restored.
“The windows are open on a hot day. The usage of space does not fit the conditions at all,” she said. “You really need to have better environmental control for those collections.”
Reese and Miles called the plans to restore Sterling’s nave, which the University has yet to officially announce, a prime example that the library is carrying Turner’s vision to modernize the building of Sterling.
A ‘BLANK SLATE’
While those closest to Turner were able to outline some of his ideals for the library, many of the questions he faced remain for Susan Gibbons to answer.
Butler said Turner grappled in particular with how to bring the library into the digital age while maintaining a stellar arsenal of print works. Butler pointed out an irony in the chosen text to conclude Turner’s memorial service “On the Origin of Species,” by Charles Darwin.
“The Darwinian process of evolution occurs in modern libraries,” Butler said of the digitization question, “and Frank was very aware of that.”
Gibbons said the tacit Turner left no map for determining how much time and money the library should put into digitizing its materials or answering questions about the maintenance of Sterling or the organization of library staff. Given a “blank slate,” she said she will chart a new course for the library, with little guidance from her predecessors.
“I wish I knew what [Turner] was thinking,” Gibbons said. “It would be so much easier for me if I had his thinking laid out for me, but I don’t. I have to learn it all on my own.”