Candidate for library provost position champions interdisciplinary work

By Maggie Dolan, news correspondent

Facilitating the innovation that happens at the edges of fields and the collaboration between them is one of a college library’s most important duties, said Dr. Charles Watkinson, a candidate for an open provost position within Northeastern University, at his Snell Library seminar on Tuesday.

Northeastern is seeking to hire a new Vice Provost for Information Collaboration, a position that doubles as Dean of University Libraries. Watkinson, the position’s first candidate, held the seminar and subsequent open forum to explain his history in research, vision for library collaboration, spacing plans and budget.

Watkinson spent the last two years at the University of Michigan as the Associate University Librarian for Publishing and was previously director of Purdue University Press and head of Scholarly Publishing Services of Purdue Libraries, experiences he used as case studies about library involvement during his presentation.

He said that university libraries tend to be considered the “Switzerland” of a campus, being centrally located, neutral and inclusive spaces.

However, Watkinson also emphasized that libraries should play a more active role than they are typically afforded by their campuses.

“Information is much more about the social relationship between the researcher and the information,” he said.

If selected for the position, Watkinson hopes to bring together research from many different colleges within the university. Providing opportunities for interdisciplinary research can improve students’ academic experience and employment opportunities, he said, adding that collaboration between students and libraries comes from library faculty bringing these ideas and information together.

“The library can be a coordinating hub for an interesting collaboration,” Watkinson said. “It can bring its own values to the table and can have a network effect.”

Northeastern library personnel asked Watkinson about his vision for utilization of space in Snell Library. At Purdue, Watkinson helped design an impact classroom, a study space designed to encourage academic communications within the library. The challenge with such a project, he said, is that the library itself loses a significant amount of traditional space.

“The library was very strongly involved in working with particular professors to reimagine their courses in a more in-the-round kind of experiential learning environment,” he said.

To decide the best layout of the library, his team conducted evaluations to find out what other options Purdue students had when it came to study space.

Watkinson spoke of the many different factors behind social planning, such as the need for more personal study stations after coffee shops have closed at night and quieter spaces during final exams.

Bridget Bergstrom, a freshman bioengineering major, said she uses the library at any hour of the day, usually to study with friends, but that it is often crowded.

“We need more space to work as a group,” she said. “Individually you can work so many places, not even including the library, but group-wise you need tables.”

Rini Ghosh, president of the Graduate Student Government, said that for graduate students, congregational areas are hard to come by on campus, so they are working on making Snell a better option.

“I’m happy to see that the candidate recognizes that an urban campus like Northeastern has these kinds of issues,” said Ghosh, who is pursuing a doctorate in law and public policy. “All needs don’t align, so undergraduate needs don’t align with graduate student needs.”

Watkinson also presented his work in improving textbook affordability and accessibility at Purdue. The project involved bringing accurate textbook information to students earlier, negotiating with vendors and partnering directly with Amazon to make the buying process more transparent.

Watkinson emphasized the importance of collaboration in the university setting when it comes to problem solving. He said that often technological solutions to challenges are created, but are culturally difficult to implement around the world. At Purdue, he helped start a program in which interdisciplinary research teams work with librarians on international research projects.

“This is where you have the power of stem experts, social science experts and library faculty and staff all working together on solutions for the world’s most wicked problems,” he said.

The second candidate for the provost position, Dr. Shali Zhang, will present a similar seminar this Tuesday from 10 to 11 a.m. in Snell Library classroom 090.

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