Meet our all-star team of new librarians, shaping the future of how we live, work, learn, and explore.
by Michael Mercurio and Lauren Weiss
User Experience & Web Services Librarian
“The digital space has become increasingly valuable for libraries as people move more of their lives online,” says Therese Kaufman. “Especially in this particular moment, the virtual materials and offerings that libraries have are of the utmost importance when we are unable to provide face-to-face or physical support.”
UMass and other academic libraries were well-poised to adapt to the increased focus on online services, as librarianship has long been shifting in that direction. Kaufman brings a unique set of skills suited to delivering online experiences that are available to all types of users.
It helps, too, that Kaufman has been in a library setting for years, beginning as a student worker for four years at the library at Mount Holyoke College. It was a summer with their Digital Assets and Preservation Services department that made her realize librarianship was a viable career option for her.
“I was in Gender Studies with a focus on Disability Studies and was considering either working in the nonprofit world or pursuing a PhD in Disability Studies,” she says. “Working in libraries professionally hadn’t even crossed my mind until I took a step back and realized that I could do accessibility work within libraries, which I loved working in, and which married my interests.”
After graduating from Mount Holyoke, Therese worked in several different library settings, including the Colorado State Archives as a project archivist while earning her Master’s in Library & Information Science.
It was during her graduate studies that Therese became interested in the user experience and web technology aspects of librarianship. “When I started my degree, I found myself turning every assignment into one that focused on accessibility,” she says. “Since libraries are increasingly looking at the digital space and how to e xpand that, it felt natural to turn my attention to what we can be doing better in that realm.”
As one of the most recent staff members to join the Libraries, Therese was brought in to do just that. She is currently managing the Libraries’ website redesign, making sure that the new interface is easily accessible to all patrons. “It doesn’t matter if your library has all the bells and whistles if those things are not accessible to all your users. I enjoy being a small part in ensuring that we’re reaching out to everyone interested in what we have to offer.”
Her plan for the Libraries’ website redesign begins with research on the current website, meeting with the librarians about what they have found to be important resources for users, and reviewing analytics to see “what users are asking, and where they are going” on the page. Additionally, she will conduct usability testing on the current website, asking participants to find various pieces of information on the page and reviewing their experiences. Any difficulties they have accomplishing those tasks will inform how the new site is built to ensure better navigation and display. Once the redesign is ready to share, more usability testing will continue on a regular basis.
“The thing I love about working in user experience is that I am constantly learning,” says Kaufman. “Every time you conduct a new usability test, you get to see how people are interacting with whatever it is you’re testing, and no two people are ever going to do, or think, the same way. I get to meet people, and see how their unique experience of the world shapes how they go about everyday tasks. I always glean something from it.” Kaufman says the more that she works in the space, the better librarian she becomes; “I love being able to help promote library services, technologies, and more by creating better access.”
As people spend more time online, they’ve grown aware that a poor user experience can make or break use or adoption of a website or technology. “This awareness is going to push all libraries to take a second look at what they are doing to ensure their digital presence is equal to their physical presence,” predicts Kaufman. “We will see new library platforms, systems, and technologies (or at least monumental upgrades to current ones) based on the feedback that comes out of so many libraries moving completely online.”
Data Services Librarian
Thea Atwood spends much of her workday thinking about how to manage all kinds of data across the spectrum: How best can researchers in any discipline share the materials of their research? In search of answers, Thea works with members of the university community in support of grants, projects, and scholarship, as well as working with end-users to help people understand the processes available for managing the products of their research.
Big picture? For Atwood, data management benefits society. “Well-managed data assists in breaking down traditional barriers across disciplines,” she explains. “Making the data from studies on the movements of invasive species can ripple out—it can inform inform many different aspects, from how we grow our crops, to how we mitigate or adapt to these changes, to how we monitor climate change, to health implications, to policy writing, to statements in the arts. We never know how a well-managed and shared dataset will impact us, or what ideas will grow from it.”
Well-managed data assists in breaking down traditional barriers across disciplines.Thea Atwood, Data Services Librarian
Managing their data isn’t something that faculty and students necessarily think about or plan for while they’re doing the work, so Atwood looks for opportunities to help shape planning in such a way that these practices will be included.
And shaping the future of data management is part of why Atwood’s work is so vital. She sees it as a natural outgrowth of what librarians have done for a long time: making information more available through organizing it and making it findable using metadata, and thinking about how it will be stable and accessible in perpetuity.
Still, “with increased connectedness in and access to data, there are some risks that need to be accounted for and mitigated,” says Atwood. She is keenly aware of the importance of human rights, privacy, and restricted data. Of the latter, she offers the example of a photo of an endangered species uploaded to a database with GIS data intact, potentially threatening the remaining members of that species.
Providing customized support for faculty is important to the promotion and tenure process, as best practices for data sharing across disciplines shift expectations of data management. Atwood stresses that data sharing across very different disciplines is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and that it’s critical to understand how each discipline sees their own data management needs.
Atwood is also involved with data management at the librarian level, focusing on the language librarians need to use with patrons around data management, as well providing guidance on how to meet researchers where they are. At the organizational level, she’s vital to the shaping of data management strategies by providing input on policies, identifying gaps in already-existing services, and ensuring that the Libraries are in compliance with the current government guidance on data management.
It’s a lot to keep up with, to stay abreast of this ever-evolving landscape and the ways it affects UMass Amherst. To do so, Atwood has built valuable partnerships across campus and beyond, leveraging her people-skills to work with stakeholders here and counterparts at peer schools to learn what they’re doing in the field. She is committed to identifying what services and solutions the Libraries can provide across campus and across disciplines, making time to serve on different committees—including Research Computing—and she is active in advocating for the inclusion and development of data management plans across all disciplines.
Atwood earned her stars from the ground up. In 2007 she was gearing up for a PhD program in neuroscience and neuroimaging, and decided to take a gap year before starting. Not wanting to be completely out of the game, she began working as the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technician for the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, where she helped collect data on brain activity for a dozen labs connected with the facility. Atwood found herself conflicted about picking a single subject for her doctoral studies, and began to recognize the innate competitiveness of the field.
Meanwhile, Atwood was processing and reprocessing data for her fMRI research because she was concerned that she wasn’t doing it consistently. It was an epiphany for her to realize that people could run code and track their own data—as she puts it, this was “the magical thing that woke me up.” She also recognized the potential difficulty that faced graduate students who tried to advocate for themselves and locate new opportunities for improving their own research.
Still, the road to librarianship from there had a few more turns in store. Atwood interned elsewhere, eventually volunteering at the Kinsey Institute Library and Special Collections on the Indiana University campus, where the Curator of the collection suggested that librarianship could be a career path that would allow Atwood to engage with all of her interests. She enrolled in the eScience Librarianship program at Syracuse University, which was then a pilot program focused on data management.
Thea loves being on the forefront of data management during what she describes as a “strange and awkward time” in scholarship: Atwood emphasizes that there’s no consensus, so it’s a collaborative effort to shape what data management will look like going forward. “There’s a long overdue shift in managing digital data, and we’re asking scholars to be vulnerable in new ways that neither they nor their advisors ever have been before. It’s a time of opportunity.”
ANNETTE M. VADNAIS ’99
Student Success and Outreach Librarian
There are a lot of assumptions and stereotypes people have of libraries and librarians, but we are so different than what they assume. I think it is important that there is a librarian dedicated to showing students that we are way more than just books and can really help them to work smarter, not harder.Annette Vadnais, ’99
One of the top challenges for academic libraries is successfully engaging the undergraduate population; today’s students may be under the impression that the library building is nothing more than storage for old books. As libraries evolve, their image has to be updated as well. Vadnais comes uniquely equipped for the task: starting out as a library student worker in 1995, she worked her way up the ranks, holding various posts including building monitor, Information Desk Supervisor, and reference librarian. She became the Libraries’ first-ever Undergraduate Outreach Librarian in 2015, a position created to focus on student outcomes. “I like the job because it is malleable,” she says. “I can be innovative and creative in my approach, and there is a lot of out-of-the-box thinking, which I enjoy.”
Vadnais makes herself approachable to students as a friendly contact point who can help them navigate the Libraries’ resources and spaces, even if they don’t remember her name. She self-identifies as the Purple Hair Librarian (with good reason), wears a custom sweatshirt with a cartoon of her face printed on it, and hands out stickers, business cards, and purple highlighters with the icon and her signature email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As part of her outreach efforts, Vadnais works with offices across campus to provide tours for individual students, classes, and visitors. Motivated by data gathered through an anthropology course on student usage of the libraries which showed little to no familiarity for many incoming students, Vadnais collaborated with the director of New Student Orientation (NSO) to make the Libraries an official stop. Last year, due to the positive feedback from the info sessions, NSO added extra blocks of time for Annette to speak with parents and guardians of new students, as well.
With the goal of simply getting students familiar with and comfortable using the Libraries, she also coordinates engaging events geared towards undergraduates, including pop-up welcome kiosks in the Libraries’ lobbies at the beginning of the semester stocked with info, candy, and friendly faces; Finals Fun study breaks include cookies, coffee, and de-stress activities like coloring and Legos; and Get Your Game On!, a night of board games and snacks in the Learning Commons that brings in over 500 incoming students. For many of those first-years, Get Your Game On! is their initial experience of the Libraries, and the playful nature of the event is what brings some back in later on to start their research.
One of Vadnais favorite parts about working in Student Success and Engagement is the teaching. In addition to giving Library instruction sessions to classes, Annette was recruited by the university’s Director of Student Success and Academic Programming to give required Library tours to the 800-1000 students enrolled in Residential Academic Program (RAP) classes, which provide first-year students with a living-learning community on campus with which they take a one-semester course. She named the series RAP/Tours, in honor of the rooftop falcons, and it is taking off—pun intended. A few times a semester Vadnais dons a falcon costume and makes appearances in the building as the Falcon Librarian to promote library services and resources—a cheerful, disarming way to engage undergraduates and set them at ease.
In addition to working with UMass Amherst students, Annette engages with elementary and secondary schools throughout Western Massachusetts through a program at the UMass Center in Springfield called “College Matters for U,” where she dismantles library stereotypes, promotes libraries and librarianship, and encourages students to consider higher education as an option.
“I love working with students,” she says. “They are inspiring to work with, and for. I think it plays to the strengths that I have: I love meeting and talking to people. Also, as a proud first-generation alumna who was able to attend college because of financial aid, I know what many of the students are going through. And if I can be a support to them, that is rewarding.
Geospatial Information Librarian
As one of the foundational supports for learning and research in every discipline, librarianship’s evolution ultimately reflects what areas of the academy are growing. The use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS)—tools that enable users to store and manage spatial data, analyze patterns over space and time, and visualize data in the form of maps and 3D models—is increasingly in demand at UMass and other top research universities. In response, the Libraries brought in an expert to support students and faculty in this work. A year ago, Dr. Rebecca Seifried became the Libraries’ first Geospatial Information Librarian.
“GIS librarianship is tied to the field of map librarianship, in that both require an expertise in core geographical concepts,” Seifried explains. As more and more maps are being digitized and georeferenced, libraries are downsizing their map collections and map librarians are becoming less common.
“I see being a GIS Librarian as a kind of leveling-up, an expansion of that role to incorporate the ever-growing corpus of digital geographical datasets.” Seifried says the big issues in the field right now are about making sure data are discoverable and usable, providing educational support to fields like the humanities and social sciences that don’t typically teach geographical concepts, and advocating for free and open source technologies and data. “I think most academic libraries in the US will find it challenging to meet these needs as demand for geospatial education increases—and it is most certainly increasing.”
“GIS is a powerful approach to working with data, and it has applications in nearly every field in which our researchers engage. I see this playing out in the range of people contacting me with questions, from undergraduates enrolled in the introductory course through emeritus faculty interested in using GIS for the first time in their research.”
Seifried became interested in the field after taking GIS classes as a graduate student in the Anthropology department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “We were told that GIS was the ‘next big thing’ in the field, and that it would be good to have a working knowledge of the technology,” she says. “It turned out that I really enjoyed doing it, and I quickly became the GIS Specialist for several archaeological projects in Europe. This gave me a rare opportunity to work with data hands-on in the field, and it led to a number of internships and fellowships that gave me a more rigorous understanding of GIS as a field in its own right.”
GIS Librarianship is tied to the field of map librarianship, in that both require an expertise in core geographical concepts. As more and more maps are digitized and georeferenced, libraries are downsizing their map collections and map librarians are becoming less common.Rebecca Seifried, GIS Librarian, UMass Amherst
Midway through her PhD, a colleague who was also an archaeologist specializing in GIS was hired as the Geospatial Librarian at a research university. “That was the first time I’d even heard of the position, though of course it had been ar ound for a few years by then,” she says.
As the Geospatial Information Librarian, Seifried is responsible for leading and developing services through the Libraries’ Digital Scholarship Center for both students and instructors. She teaches workshops and consults with people across campus. She recently began work as a co-principal investigator on a grant for a collaborative project to add geospatial data to aerial photographs already in the library’s collection. (See “Mapping Massachusetts’s Past and Future”).
Another major aspect of Seifried’s work is to foster communal resources that bring all these different individuals—and academic departments—together. She has helped launch a campus-wide GIS Community of Practice that meets monthly, and established the UMass GIS Hub, a website hosted by the Libraries. She is currently working towards helping the Libraries develop a “geoportal” platform to make the geospatial research being done at UMass more easily available and accessible to others in the field.
POSTCRIPT: Professor MacConnell no stranger to firsts (see “Mapping Massachusetts’s Past and Future”), would likely approve of the pioneering technology enhancing his original images to continue their usefulness. In the late 1970s, MacConnell and fellow researchers used the maps to show natural changes in Bristol County wetlands, not solely human-induced ones, and argued that policy should take this into account. It was one of 97 papers he published during his 44 years at UMass Amherst, on subjects from aerial photogrammetry to the use of herbicides in forestry, watersheds, and winter sports areas. From 1960 to his retirement in 2000, he served as the coach to the UMass Ski Team, making him the only academic faculty member in the history of the university to coach a sport.