If you have a question, Stephanie Willen Brown probably has an answer. If she doesn’t, she will help you find one. As the director of the Park Library in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Brown fields questions big and small: how to find a journal article on an esoteric topic, how to cite sources in scholarly research, or something about the much-loved therapy dogs and cats, whose visits offer students stress relief during exams.
In a previous job as admissions dean for a law school, Brown realized that her passion for information and people were well suited for advanced study in library science—she’s a graduate of Boston’s Simmons College School of Information and Library Science. As a news librarian for the Springfield (MA) Union-News, Brown connected journalists with information as they gathered the news, such as the temperature of a lit match, or documents that revealed a suspicious business venture.
After she left the Union-News, Brown assisted faculty and students at the University of Connecticut pursuing cognitive science and psychology research.
It was after meeting Barbara Semonche, the previous director of Park Library and another former news librarian, that she found her dream job: working as an academic librarian. When Semonche retired in 2009 after 19 years at the Journalism School, Brown jumped at the chance to work with students again. At the Park Library, her real-life experiences in the field of journalism have proven valuable when assisting students on their projects, while her experience as a college-level instructor gives her additional credibility among her fellow academics, who entrust their students to her.
The self-described “search queen” encourages everyone to use her as a resource. She is fluent in social media and happy to help students in virtual spaces just as she would in Carroll Hall.
“Asking for help is a good thing to do,” she says. “But really, when you ask for help, you look smarter.”
Interviewee: Stephanie Willen Brown
Date: March 24, 2015
Location: Office of Stephanie Willen Brown, Park Library, Carroll Hall, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Interviewer: Eesim Oon
Interview length: 32 mins 29 secs
Special Notes: One of a series of interviews with North Carolina news workers and news makers, newstories.jomc.unc.edu
Transcribed by/date: Eesim Oon, March 2015
Eesim Oon: Hi everyone. My name is Eesim Oon, and today is March 24, 2015. It is a Tuesday morning at 10:07 am. We are in the Park Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and today I will be interviewing Ms. Stephanie Willen Brown, who is the director of the Park Library.
To begin with, tell me where you are from and what made you become a librarian?
Stephanie Willen Brown: I was born in New York City and I lived in Massachusetts for 30 years—28 years—and I wanted to be a librarian because I really like connecting people with information and answering people’s questions. And when I went to library school was the very beginning of the Internet, and so it was brand new and it was a lot of fun.
EO: Very interesting. So you have some background teaching reference classes at the graduate level. What did you gain from this experience?
SWB: Oh, I love teaching reference. I think it made me a better librarian because I was doing what I was teaching my students how to do, so I was thinking about doing it. I was thinking about teaching, working with students—while I was working with students—so it just sort of helped me up my game a little a bit. I just felt like I was a better—I was better at working with students, doing my job, because I was teaching people how to do it. And it made me stay up on the literature of my field a lot more than I am now that I’m not teaching. And it gives me a lot of credibility—this is for Barbara Friedman—gives me a lot of credibility with the faculty that I work with because I can say that I’ve taught and I can empathize with grading and that kind of stuff.
EO: All right. Our camera has died. So we’re going to take a moment to put the batteries into it.[Recording stopped] [Recording restarted]
EO: We’re back again. Before coming to UNC, you worked primarily in the area of communication science and psychology at the University of Connecticut. How has that affected your career as a librarian and maybe your position at the Park Library?
SWB: So I worked with faculty and Ph.D. students and undergrads doing similar work that they’re doing here, so in that sense it was very similar, the work. But the other thing that I did at UCONN was I did negotiations for online resources and subscriptions, and I do a lot of that here. So that helped me do the other parts of my job. So that helped me do the other parts of my job. The other experience at UCONN helped me do the other part of my job here.
EO: I see. I understand that like your predecessor Barbara Semonche you were also a news librarian. What led you to become a news librarian?
SWB: I was in library school in 1996. And I started school, I started going full time—well I was taking two classes, which was full time in the summer. I needed a job, and I was looking through the papers. In the old days you looked through the newspapers to look for a job. And the newspaper itself was looking for a librarian. And I thought, “Well that’s an interesting job, I wonder what you do as a news librarian.” I applied for the job and I got it, so I was going to library school part time and working at the news library—at the newspaper library. So I just kind of fell into it, and it was really fun.
EO: Oh okay, where was this job and what did you do there?
SWB: It was then called the Springfield Union-News, and it’s now called the Springfield Republican. It was a seven day a week paper, and I ran the news library. So I was the only professional working there. And I had, I don’t know, five or six people doing various things. I did reference and a lot of administrative things like buying books and buying—did we have newspaper subscriptions? We must have got other newspapers. And I taught people how to do research, because again this was the very beginning of the Internet, so I would help answer questions for people—reference questions. I remember my first question was, Stan Freeman asked me—he was the science writer—and he asked me what was the temperature of a lit match. I couldn’t find the answer, and I think he ended up getting it from a fire department. But he needed it for a story.
EO: Wow, that’s really interesting. I guess you must get some rare questions when you’re working with the news?
SWB: Oh, that was really fun. And I went to the daily news meetings every day because I felt that it was important for me to be able to help the story by knowing what the story was going to be so I could tell the editors, “Oh, hey, we have this resource or that resource that we can add to the story.” Or I can help this reporter or that reporter do some of the research. And I also just really wanted the editors to know every day that I was there and that I could help out and to help find information for people. So that’s what I did.
The two big things that my staff did, one was–they called it enhancing the paper—and they would take the daily paper and go through and give every story keywords and make sure that every story in the computer had the headline, the byline, and the date and all that kind of stuff. But it was really adding keywords. Then we threw them into a database that we kept forever. That was in 1996, before our paper was available online through LexisNexis. But now it is and it goes back to 1988 because my staff are doing the enhancing. So all of the newspapers that end up in things like LexisNexis and America’s News are worked on by people, often, in the news library of whatever the paper is.
EO: That’s interesting. So by the keywords that your staff has put in there, can for example someone like me go and search the Republican and find it?
SWB: Yeah, sort of.
EO: [laughs] If I really tried?
SWB: Yeah, you’d have to try pretty hard and from my professional—yeah, you can.
EO: So it’s possible, if not easy.
SWB: Yeah, it’s not easy. So that was one thing that they did. The other thing that they did was that they took the papers every day and they prepared them to go out to be microfilmed. So we prepared the papers, bundled them up, tied them up, sent them out in these big boxes every two weeks and then every two weeks we would get a box of microfilm back. I can show you. Do you know what microfilm looks like?
EO: Yeah, it’s really small?
SWB: Yeah, you guys have used them. So we—my staff—got the paper converted to microfilm. Then when the microfilm came back from ProQuest, UMI, somebody else went through—had the actual paper next to them—and went through the microfilm to make sure that every page that was in the print paper was on the actual microfilm reel.
EO: It sounds like you played a pretty active role in making the news.
SWB: Saving the news.
EO: Writing the stories—contributing to the stories, not writing so much.
SWB: No, not so much writing.
EO: In that case, how did your time as a news librarian influence your role now as the director of the library of the School of Journalism?
SWB: I know what it was like to work at a newspaper, so I have some credibility among my faculty peers who also used to work at a newspaper. And I can tell the students, this is what, if you were working at a newspaper or TV—because I know what the field is like, so if you were working for TV, you might have a librarian: here’s the kind of questions you would need to ask if you were a reporter on the story. So I know what that was like, so it gives me a little bit of credibility. I think the academic work gives me a lot more directly related experience, but I get a little bit of credibility and a little bit of, “Wow, you used to work at a newspaper?”
EO: That would make sense. It is after all, a journalism school. Speaking of which, what led you to become the director of the UNC School of Journalism Park Library?
SWB: I always wanted to be in an academic library. So even when I was in library school I wanted to work in a library and I didn’t have any experience, any library experience at all, so I took the job at the newspaper because I thought, ”I need some experience and they’re going to pay pretty well at the time.” But I always knew that when I graduated from library school I would probably leave the paper, and my boss knew that too. When I gave him my notice—I love him—he said, “There’s nothing I can do to keep you, is there?,” and I said, “No, not really.” So I went and got a—it was kind of a—it was a good entry-level job at a small college in Hartford, so I worked there for about six months, and then I got a great library job in an academic library, where I worked for five years before UCONN.
EO: Can you tell me what is the timeline of your library experience? Or from the beginning from the newspaper onward?
SWB: I worked at the newspaper from ’96 to ’99 and I remember I worked in December in ’99 because Wayne Phaneuf, who is still the executive editor of the paper, I remember he said to me, “Really? You don’t want to stay through 2000? You don’t want to stay through the beginning of the new millennium? That would be really fun!” And I said, “Wayne, no, I really don’t want to stay.” Then I worked at Rensselaer in Hartford for six months in the beginning of 2000. And then from 2000-2005, I worked at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. 2005 to 2009 I worked at UCONN, and I’ve been here since 2009.
EO: So are there any similarities between being the news library director and being the Park Library director?
SWB: Ah, not really. Not really. And so the question was, how did I end up here. I always wanted to be an academic librarian, and when I was at the newspaper I met Barbara Semonche, who was here. She’d been here from—no, it must have been before ’99. When was she here? I can’t remember when she started but she was here for seventeen years. Anyway, she was here when I met her, and I thought, “That’s what I want.” I love the news business. I loved knowing was going to be on the paper the next day. I just loved that. So I liked the idea of working with the news but not in the news, and I wanted to be an academic librarian, and I thought, wow, Barbara’s job is great, that’s what I would like to do. But Barbara’s already got this job, so that won’t work. Then I just happened to be reading the news librarian’s mailing list, which is sort of an active group. She was announcing her retirement and she was putting up her position, and I thought, “Well there’s a job.” That’s the job that I wanted—my dream job, one of a short list of dream jobs. So I applied for it and I got it.
EO: Wow, that’s really cool. So Barbara Semonche is the person who introduced you to this specific job?
SWB: Yeah. I knew about it because of her.
EO: That’s really cool. So Ms. Barbara is another person that’s really important in the field of advancing research because of the Internet, and I know you are too. Your career has coincided with the rapid rise of the Internet. The rapid introduction of the Internet was jarring for many researchers, so how did you react to this change? I know you said earlier it wasn’t—you thought it was really cool.
SWB: Well, it’s interesting because I got into the field at the beginning of it, so it wasn’t that much of a change for me, because I’ve kind of grown as a librarian as the field has grown, as opposed to some of my friends who had the more paper based system and then moved into this, but I mean there’s just more and more and more of this stuff online. One of the interesting challenges is people say, “I don’t need the library because everything’s online,” without realizing that it’s the library that makes it available.
EO: That was actually going to be my next question, so because of the internet, research has become more widely available, but what would you say is the evolving role of the librarian and the library in our current times?
SWB: So I’m working with a lot of students in a class, Electronic Media Management—it’s JOMC 424—and they have to find articles on a policy topic related to broadcast. Their professor wants them to write a twelve- to fifteen-page research paper, right, and they need to do a lot of research. They need to read probably fifteen, twenty, thirty articles, and you can’t write a paper like that, analyzing policy, just by searching the Internet. I mean just by searching Google, the free Internet. So this professor and I have worked out a deal where the students have to come to me or they lose points on their paper. You know, I really think it helps makes their papers better because they meet with somebody who’s independent, so I’m not going to be grading them. I know the assignment, kind of. I’m not a TA, I’m not a person really directly affiliated with the class, although I am. I’m helping them find this kind of research that they need so that they can spend their time reading this complicated policy on things like retransmission consent and over-the-top broadcasting, which I kind of understand but not really. Their job is to understand the research, not to figure out how to find the articles. So I spend fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes with them showing them how to find the articles. Then they can go and find some articles and spend more of their time reading and analyzing the articles, and then writing a paper, instead of struggling to find articles that are relevant, and then struggling to read them, and then struggling to write their papers. So it’s really helping people do their research. To save time and find more stuff is what I need to do in this age, in this Internet age.
EO: That definitely sounds a lot more efficient. Would you say that’s pretty typical of what you do overall in the Park Library? What else would you say that you do?
SWB: Yeah, so this week that’s a big chunk of what I’m doing, but I also do things like budget. I have to manage my budget and buy things, buy books, buy databases, buy journals, and also staff. So supervising my student staff and finding the money to pay for the ones who are not on work-study. So supervising is a huge thing, budget is big, all the little things that happen; so making sure that the computers are working, making sure that there is paper in the printer, making my students check the printer and make sure that there is paper, making sure that the batteries are charged…when we get this equipment, cataloguing it, putting the little tag on it, and either doing that or making sure that it gets done, and making sure it gets done correctly. What else? I’ll look at my to-do list and tell you some other things that I’m doing. People like to donate things to the library, so talking to them delicately about the kinds of things that we really want and the kinds of things that might be better in another library, in an archive, or in another kind of library. Working on the library website—we have this library website which gets tons and tons of use and so making sure that it’s functional. We’re about to lose a—we’re going to need to migrate the website from its current place to another website on campus, so redesigning it and making it look like the J-School site but also like the library site so that for you guys the students, it looks like it’s both part of the library environment and part of the J-School environment, because it’s kind of both. So the website—training students to do stuff, dealing with a myriad circulation questions. I don’t do the majority of the circulation, but like when Sara was looking for [the flipcam], she had never checked one of these out. You were asking for it, but she didn’t know where it was, so she had to come and say, “Hey, are where are the flipcams?” So I told her where they are. Little questions like that, all day long. Somebody is trying to renew something and they can’t renew it, and the staff can’t figure it out why. Well it turns out, the way it’s coded in the database means that it can’t be renewed, so I had to talk to somebody over in Davis to figure out how to get it so that it could be renewed. Now that item type can be renewed. Just a bazillion little things like that.
EO: It sounds like you do things from small things to really big overhaul type things. Seems pretty extensive to me. You’ve told me a little bit about the databases, and a bit about what the Park Library is able to do. How would you say that they Park Library has evolved to facilitate the latest possible research. If you have any anecdotes or anything like that, or specific examples?
SWB: I do, actually. So what all the cool library kids over in Davis are talking about is flipping the classroom. Instead of me going in to lecture you and say, “Use this database. Do this thing and you’ll find that, and if you do this you’ll find that,” more interactive. You may remember when I went in to [JOMC 490], I was trying to ask you guys questions and try and get you guys to tell me the things that I wanted to tell you. Remember I said, “Hey, has anybody used microfilm?,” and getting other people in your class to explain to you guys how to use the microfilm and where it is and that it’s weird, but it’s fine. So that’s one thing to sort of try and make the classes more interactive as opposed to me lecturing. But also the flipped classroom thing I’m kind of doing, which is really just giving you the students library homework before I come in, so giving you a couple of questions to answer before I come in. Then when I go in, instead of lecturing you, I can say, “Okay, you were looking for this; how did it go? Did you find it? What were the problems that you encountered?” Then, again, I can get you guys to say the things that I want to talk about. But I feel like if it’s coming from the students, you’re going to remember it more than just me standing up there and saying, “Do this, do that, do the other thing.” Then you’re going to be like, “Yeah, blah blah blah.” But if your classmate says, “Yeah, this is what microfilm looks like, it’s kind of weird, you have this little box threaded through and then it’s on this big machine—but it’s really cool!,” you’re going to pay much more attention than if I were to show you some slide of a microfilm.
EO: That’s fair enough. How do you feel about working with students and how is it different from what you have done before, maybe in the news library?
SWB: I love working with students, I love your guys’ enthusiasm. Teaching people to do things faster and smarter—when you guys get something, I can see it, and that’s really fun. Making the work better is really fun. Making the work easier is really fun for me. I liked doing the research for the reporters, so it was much more me doing the research as opposed to me doing the teaching. And I like that; I kind of miss doing some of that. I miss the fact that it was always different, like the temperature of a lit match, or trying to find Social Security records for some nursing home that was moving into western Massachusetts, and had been doing some shady stuff, so doing some background material on that. That was fun, but I really like the teaching, and I didn’t get to do as much teaching in the newspaper as I would have liked. I really like doing the teaching, whether up in the classroom—going to class and talking to a bunch of people—or doing the one-on-one. Love doing the one-on-one.
EO: That sounds really cool. I had some other questions because I was really interested when I looked, doing some pre-research, I found a lot of stuff on the Internet that you had done because it was you using the handle CogSciLibrarian. It seems like you are really active in social media, which is not really characteristic of a lot of academics, especially at this university I found. You’re using Blogger, Twitter, Pinterest, Flickr—can you tell me what made you embrace this social media?
SWB: I don’t know, I think I remember getting into Twitter and Facebook. I remember getting into Facebook. When would that have been? It would have been like 2007. I went to a library conference. Basically it’s my peers, the cool kids, who were doing stuff. All my friends—well, not all of them—but some of them were already on Facebook, you know, when nobody was on it. I went to this conference and they were all talking about Facebook Facebook Facebook. I remember we all went home from that conference and we just all joined Facebook, and we were all just Facebooking each other. It was kind of like that, that my friends are using it and we’re talking about how we can use it in the library. What could you do with this? What could you do with that? It was mostly my peers—sort of my aspirational peers, the people I want to be like.
One of the things I like about this school, the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and advertising and PR, is that we really care about how we communicate whatever it is—so the news or the ads or whatever the message is we are trying to get out—and we, the faculty, teach the students how to use social media to do that. It’s a good fit for me because I can use social media to interact with students. My counterparts probably don’t do it. Some of them are great it, but I think that the students—think about your student friends in history. You’re history and Spanish? Yeah, so they’re probably not using Twitter as much as your classmates in this class are. So it’s a great fit for me because I can use social media and interact. I’m also on Instagram, and I actually get a lot of interaction with kids on Instagram, which is interesting.
EO: Do you really?
SWB: Yeah, I do.
EO: Tell me more about what it’s like to use that. I’ve never heard of a librarian using Instagram. Tell me more about what that is like.
SWB: I’ll show you. Sarah just posted something, and I usually just have my students do it. Instagram—is this going to be me? Yeah, so I just had Sara tweet—er, Instagram—a picture of me working with a student, Rene, because I’m trying to promote what it’s like to sit in here and talk to me, because that seems like it would be intimidating. People don’t do it as much as they need to, in my opinion. So we posted that. We also posted our spring break hours, just so that it’s out there if people are looking at their Instagram feed. This one got a lot of traction, this really cool database that we call Statista that we have access too. Someone said, “Oh my god, I just spent the last week wishing I had something like this.” So I responded. That stuff gets a lot of traction. Also like [during] the snow, we were closing early. The puppy bowl, because that’s just so cute, the day after the Super Bowl. And all the kittens and puppies that we bring in for therapy dog events. Look at Lucy, she’s so cute!
EO: Aww…did you bring those in for exam therapy dogs?
SWB: We do. They go into room 268. This is Whiskey, and that’s Katia, and I forget who the—Topaz, that’s Topaz. They’re Maine Coon cats. And Archie is going to come. Let’s see, this is Archie—nope, that’s my boss Chris Roush and Whiskey.
EO: Is that through the Park Library, too?
SWB: Yeah, so this obviously gets a lot of traction on Instagram.
EO: I’m sure it does.
SWB: But we just try and promote stuff.
EO: So do you do both your own CogSciLibrarian and then you also do the social media for the Park Library?
SWB: Yeah. When I was at Hampshire, I was the cognitive science librarian and I just loved cognitive science. I love cognitive science, it’s so interesting how the brain works and how we perceive things and how we respond to language and color and all kind of stuff, which actually helps here because that’s a lot of what the messaging and advertising stuff is talking about. It’s an interest that I have, so I blog. I used to blog a lot more about the cognitive science stuff than I do now. Now I just blog more about library stuff and other stuff—my cats and so on.
EO: Yeah, I went on your blog and I noticed that you had also mentioned your cats, and then also the cooking, and then also some stuff about the PR for the Park Library. What would you say the function of your social media in general is right now?
SWB: To get people to know that we have these print resources. Not print, but intellectual resources, like Statista, for finding data. My little tagline is “space, stuff, and support.” And I feel like enough people know about the space, because there’s people out there all the time, which is great. And this is the stuff, so the newspapers that we have. There’s one class that needs to read the daily newspaper, so we get some every day so that people can read them here. People can read them online, obviously. Some people like to read them in print. So promote all that and all the databases for finding articles about people or by people. Helping people know that we have that stuff. The support is me interacting with students to help them save time and find more stuff. That’s what the campaign is. I mean, it’s not really a campaign, but what the PR message is: “space, stuff, and support” and sort of explaining it.
EO: That sounds pretty interesting. You mentioned some stuff about cognitive science and psychology, which I didn’t ask you any other questions about. Could you tell me more about how that background made you learn stuff that maybe helps you out here, or anything like that?
SWB: The whole thing about memory and learning, which I—implement is not quite the right word—but I use when I teach, because of the goal of my teaching is to get you to learn something. Thinking about how memory works and how learning works and how lecturing doesn’t really work so much. I mean, that’s a lot about how the brain works. I’m interested in thinking how the brain works and then how to apply that in a classroom, for example.
EO: So that’s most of how that affects you now?
EO: Cool. You’re a person who has a lot of experience in different types of librarianship, different types of research. What would you say is the most important thing that students should know about utilizing their resources to conduct effective research?
SWB: Asking for help is a good thing to do. And I just read—I have it in here somewhere—a study in Scientific American Mind—here it is—that, “when you ask for advice, people do not think less of you, they think you are smarter.” So asking for help make s you look smarter. And there’s a study to back it up. I can give you more details if you want. But really, when you ask for advice, people think you are smarter. So ask for help, and save time, and find more stuff.
EO: That sounds like it is definitely the best way to go, and I know you’ve helped me a lot in my research. Thank you so much for conducting this interview with me, I really appreciate it. It’s been really fun. So thank you very much.
SWB: You’re welcome.
END OF INTERVIEW