Dean Suzy Szasz Palmer has presided over Longwood’s Greenwood Library for the last five years, at a time when the role of libraries on college campuses is evolving and digital collections are replacing vast shelves of volumes. This month, Palmer decided to retire after transforming the library and staff into a more versatile, flexible and service-oriented group.
Salutatorian of her undergraduate class at Syracuse University in her home state of New York, Palmer began her career as a reference librarian at Cornell University. After more than two decades there, she moved to the University of Louisville and then to the Library of Virginia, where she spent two years as director of research and information services and two years as deputy state librarian before coming to Longwood.
Palmer and her husband, Larry, split time between their home in Richmond—dubbed by the many friends who have enjoyed legendary dinner parties there as Palmer’s-In-The-Fan—and Farmville, or Palmer’s-In-The-Ville. Suzy has also pulled her husband into her beloved world of figure skating, and the two of them can be found at nearly every national championship each spring.
We sat down with "Dean Suzy," as she likes to be called, to talk about the state of Greenwood Library and the role of libraries on college campuses in a rapidly changing world.
Talk about when you first arrived at Longwood. Did you quickly identify opportunities for growth and change?
One of the things that really drew me to Longwood, even though it was a very different kind of university than I’d worked at before, was the size. That was very appealing because I felt I could wrap my arms around it fairly quickly. There are about 24 people who work here, and it’s not that hard to get to know 24 people really well. So when I first arrived, I set up meetings with everyone one-on-one to find out where they were and where they wanted to go, both individually and as a library. I sensed immediately there was a lot of untapped energy—people had been doing things the same way for decades, and I thought there was a lot of potential for growth. That was my initial thought—to make the library more about the students and faculty and less about the library.
Were there changes you wanted to implement right away?
I’ve seen something across my career: There’s a tendency in libraries for people who work in public service to be divided from the people who work behind the scenes, and that division extends to people in staff and professional positions. In my mind, we are all doing the same thing; we’re all here for the same reason. I wanted to infuse the library with an atmosphere that made everyone feel as if they were part of the same team. I don’t care if you’re a librarian who has been here for two decades or a staff member who has been here for two weeks. We’re all here to provide high-quality service to students and faculty.
Given that thought, I saw the opportunity to make the service provision a lot more efficient. That’s how we came around to having a single service desk. Around the time we made that change—previously we had three separate service points within a few feet of each other—Longwood was talking about the QEP and starting to explore having more research-intensive classes. I could foresee the librarians needing to spend more time one-on-one with students, and I wanted to free them from sitting at a desk all day. By having them in a more on-call environment, they can take on more of those higher-level functions. In turn, that’s allowed the staff who work at what we call "The Desk" to do a higher level of work. We have a very intelligent and well-trained staff who can usually get people started in the direction they need to go. And it’s less confusing for students to have a "one stop shop."
How has the role of a campus library changed in the last four decades?
The biggest change has been that 40 years ago, if you wanted any kind of material, you had to physically come into the building. We were a warehouse of stuff. Now, in theory, you don’t need to come to the library to find material. But I don’t see the library as just a collection, I see it more as a service, and, to that degree, it hasn’t changed as much as people might think.
Librarians are still helping faculty and students find the information they need and also find the information they don’t know they need. We’re doing it in a different environment but we haven’t gone away. Over time we’ve come up with different ways to, in a sense, lure people into the building, starting with coffee shops and other ways to make the physical space more inviting. There’s been a big shift on that front, making the building a place that has something for everyone and feels like a place you want to walk into.
The challenge in more recent years, as students have begun working more collaboratively, is finding the space for that kind of work. We’ve tried to create open space where students can work in the way they need to, and trying to find that space—not just at Greenwood Library but also at libraries across the country—has been a challenge.
Is there still value in a library’s being a repository for physical books and journals?
There’s value in having both a physical collection and one that’s increasingly digital. But it’s important to note that we have an incredibly strong consortium in the state from which we get a lot of material. Even the bigger universities are starting to ask themselves if it makes sense for everyone to buy the same copy of the latest book published by Oxford or U.Va. Press and have 50 or 60 copies across the state that may get checked out once every few years. Or does it make more sense to have one library build a collection in one discipline and another in a different area, and have more cooperation between the two? Those are hard questions to ask, and harder to answer.
The old school way of measuring libraries involved counting volumes on shelves. I think that’s less the focus now, so I’ve concentrated on building our collections—physically and digitally—with material that is going to help our users. We’ve built collections that will support more research on civil rights, African-American issues and other topics related to this area of Virginia. At the same time, we have invested in Web of Science, Eighteenth Century Collection Online and expanded access to a range of digital newspapers. Putting books on a shelf that don’t get used, I don’t think that’s where we’re going.
Is Greenwood Library the right size for Longwood?
When I first got here, some people were surprised I wasn’t pushing for a bigger building, but I don’t think that’s how we’re going to grow. So yes, it’s about the right size. If the student population stays about the same, I think we have enough space. Some space may have to be repurposed into study areas as the physical collection becomes more digital in the coming years.
I know that everyone wants a 24-hour library. That’s not only an expensive proposition, but the building is constructed in a way that we can’t even lock down portions of it to create a night study space. But I have to say, there’s also a part of me that has some anxiety about encouraging students to work at 4 in the morning. Maybe I’m a bit old school on that. But without more staff, I just don’t see how extending hours is even feasible right now.
You were an early champion for a growing event on campus, the Virginia Children’s Book Festival. Why was that important to you?
When I was approached about it, I thought about the environment it could create and the impact reading has on kids—and it was just a no-brainer. It was more a matter of how can we make it happen rather than should we make it happen. But to me, it was more than just a fabulous thing we could do—I thought it would really help put Longwood on the map, and that was not an insignificant part of my decision making. One of the great things about being a dean is not so much running the library but also having the opportunity to represent the university outside the bounds of campus.
On that note, you are the past president of the Virginia Library Association.
Part of my motivation to run for president a few years ago was that it would be a nice thing for me to do at this stage of my career, but it would also be a really good thing for Longwood to have the president of the VLA be the dean of its library. I’m the past president now, and I’ll certainly continue my membership in the association into retirement.
You’re an author yourself. You published Lupus: Living With It. Why You Don’t Have to be Healthy to be Happy in 1991.
That’s the other big part of my life—it’s something that’s a part of who I am. I’ve had lupus since I was 13, and it’s accounted for a lot of things, like being in a rush to get through school and getting a lot of things done because when I was younger I genuinely didn’t know how long I was going to live. But I got through college and a few years after I began at Cornell, I had the worst flare I’d ever experienced. Out of work for a year, I was fortunate that my boss kept my position open for me. But I decided that I was going to write a book about the experience.
My standard joke has been that I didn’t want to have enough material for a sequel. Part of the difficulty of deciding when to retire was that I really never thought I would live long enough to think about retiring. Every decade has been a kind of significant achievement in a way.
What advice would you give your successor?
It goes back to the notion that the library is primarily a service. For a library our size at a university our size, our mission is service-based, not collections-based. It’s not so much about what we own or what’s on the shelf, but it’s about how we help our students and faculty. We need to be more outward about that—less reactive—and reach out to students and faculty. We do a good job of that now, but there’s always room for improvement.