Within the next year, more than two linear miles of books and periodicals will land on the doorstep of Karin Trainer. All of these, she and her staff will carefully blend among the 7 million volumes within Princeton University’s 11 libraries. (Firestone Library alone houses 3 million.) And that doesn’t even include the oceans of digital stuff, or the 94,000 sound recordings in the Arthur Mendel Music Library, which Bill Scheide built and named after his beloved teacher.
Trainer, bearing the unassuming title of “University Librarian,” directs the entire network of information systems at Princeton University. (Like so many titles in academia, the shorter they are, the greater the responsibility attached.) “Our goal,” says Trainer, “is to make sure that every person coming to us finds exactly what they need — and even things they didn’t know they wanted.”
Suppose you are a lowly freshman preparing a report on the water resources in Tierra del Fuego. You will be connected with a select few of Trainer’s 325 staff members. They will lead you to the proper periodicals giving you the most current population demographics. A tech staff member will guide you through the creation of a water-availability map, complete with overlays of economic, seasonal, and temperature data. Like the latest Google app, you didn’t even know such capabilities existed, but, boy, it sure spruces up the report and makes work simpler.
Being a librarian is not just pointing the patron to the correct stack bearing the correct Dewey decimal category. It’s always entailed more, but their immense and intricate professional labors often go unrealized. For Trainer the latest, newest role is that of renovation overseer of the Princeton University Library’s flagship structure, Firestone Library, the American gothic structure that stands — and also consumers a large amount of underground space — at the corner of Nassau Street and Washington Road.
With initial planning dating back to the 1920s, but with construction delayed by World War II, Harvey S. Firestone Library was first occupied in 1948. The librarian at the time praised the structure for “its openness, its ease of access to books and to the library services” — a building “dedicated to the dignity and value of knowledge and of wisdom.” In fact, Firestone remains to this day one of the largest open stack libraries in the world. If you are not a student or faculty member at Princeton, getting in requires some hoops to be jumped (see sidebar, page 21), but once you are in you can browse most every shelf in the library.
Expanded since then with multiple floors reaching out underground in the direction of Nassau Street, Firestone now is roughly halfway through an eight-year comprehensive makeover that will cost roughly $200 million. With the physical footprint already limited, one wonders where all that money will go. As Trainer explained at a recent informal alumni dinner, the library has been operating with an infrastructure that dates back to 1948, without ADA compliance or sprinklers and reigning as the campus’ single greatest consumer of energy.
On top of that, the individual study carrels in which Princeton seniors holed up to complete their senior theses had become little more than storage lockers.
And there is still the unresolved issue important to anyone who has ever spent prolonged periods of time in heavy academic research — food and drink, especially coffee. Some of the library’s constituents want a cafe; others do not. “I will bet that by 2020 there is some sort of food and coffee available,” says Trainer.
One of the admirable aspects about the powerful research aid provided by Trainer and her staff is that it is not reserved for just the elite tweeds — tenured professors and renowned researchers. “The university has always had a strong insistence on its undergraduates producing their own projects,” says Trainer. “Everyone receives our fullest attention.”
I dutifully reported this to my wife, Lorraine, who was appreciatively pleased, but noticeably less impressed than I. For the last 29 years of her official library labors, Lorraine served as director of the South Brunswick Public Library. During her subsequent three years of “retirement” Lorraine has worked with the International Federation of Library Associations to found mobile libraries in remote corners like Nepal and Ghana; plus working at home to refurbish the Mercer County Correctional Center’s library.
Lorraine decided if her husband was ever to understand how Trainer keeps transforming Princeton University’s libraries into a cutting-edge research machine, he would require her help. So together we met in Trainer’s office, where I watched and learned as the two professional librarians talked.
The innovative old days. The information explosion has most greatly rocked the chairs of librarians — those entrusted to manage and present it. Trainer was one of the first to understand and manage the new tech tools in the academic world. Modestly, she credits her early launch into automation and technological cyberspace to the good fortune of taking her masters of library science degree at the very tech-oriented Drexel University.
Daughter of an advertising executive for the auto industry, Trainer grew up in Detroit. Coming east, she entered Douglass College, earning her bachelor’s in 1970. Completing her MLS at Drexel, Trainer stepped into her first full-time librarian position as a cataloger at Princeton University in 1972. Recalling those tough, low-tech days, Karin and Lorriane laughed about how they, as catalogers, would pound manual typewriters and type little three-by-fives that would find their appropriate places in the huge wooden card catalog file.
But a new era was already dawning. In 1978 New York University sought to develop an automated card catalog that library patrons would browse on an actual computer screen. (A giant leap from punch cards to near sci-fi.) NYU selected Trainer to head the project and titled her as director of technology and automation. “NYU was really leading the way,” says Trainer. “We worked with a Canadian firm who had automated transactions for banks, and we struggled to translate these transactions into ‘library.’”
Recounting their early tech shifts, the two librarians commiserated a bit over the woes of establishing these now-museum-piece systems. But the struggle and experimentation paid off, and NYU, under Trainer, became the first university library with such an advanced system.
From NYU, Trainer graduated to Yale as associate librarian, and then returned to Princeton University in 1996, where she took the director’s position — the first woman in Princeton’s history to head the university library.
The glass ceiling. One thing that both Trainer and Jackson recalled with less fondness was the treatment of women when they started out. In the public consciousness, libraries have always seemed to present a great venue for women’s work. But when it came to leadership slots, women faced the same bias as minority players in the NFL and NBA. Sure, they were fine as players, but you wouldn’t really want that kind as coaches or directors, would you?
“When I graduated from library school,” says Trainer, “more than 80 percent of the MLS grads were women. But there were only five female research library directors in the entire country.”
Jackson, nodding in agreement, noted that when she started out in those years, a woman with two decades experience might expect to lose out to a male candidate with only five years in the field.
Fortunately, library trustees, like most other business boards, have come to their senses and are now employing talent, rather than gender, as a leadership yardstick. But it has taken women leaders like Trainer to bring about this change. Within a year of taking on the directorship, Trainer oversaw the construction and launch of the Mendel Music Library. Today, in addition to managing Princeton’s library systems with its hundreds of employees and $50 million budget, Trainer also sits on the board of the Princeton University Press.
Change as the norm. In addition to the avalanche of accelerating technology changes, Princeton’s library director must adapt to major shifts in the fields of knowledge itself. In 2008, working with architect Frank Gehry, Trainer helped launch the opening of the Lewis Science Library. “This represented a major remodeling in fields of study,” says Trainer. “By 1999 the traditional scientific boundaries had begun to blur. Supposing you are trying to teach a course on the chemistry and biology of the oceans. You are drawing your materials from physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and a dozen other so-called ‘traditional disciplines.’”
The Lewis Library served to present modern researchers with a unified science collection — a one-stop data and research station from which all angles of a project might be attacked. But information still explodes and research never sleeps.
Hence that major renovation of Firestone Library, with the 50 miles of shelves and 3 million volumes under an eight-year restructuring plan. Every book and segment is finding a new, upgraded home within the building. All the while, the entire library must remain ready and functional to the entire campus. The result? Every book, computer, and piece of material is being moved, several times.
The Firestone staff has gotten very expert at the Sysiphusian task of moving whole blocks of the collection out of that hall into this one, only to move it to some new hall later — while keeping every item accessible, in its proper order. Trainer shrugs and sighs only slightly as she says, “We are supposed to wrap this up by 2018, that means we’re more than halfway through now; so I am very much looking forward to completion.”