UT’s New Library Director Wants to Make Information More Free

ljharicombe

With more than 10 million books and other holdings, the UT-Austin library system is one of the largest in the country. A mind-boggling 2.5 million people use UT Libraries each year—and that’s a number Lorraine Haricombe would like to see get even bigger.

Haricombe, who grew up in South Africa, began her term as vice provost and director of libraries on Feb. 1. She joins UT from the University of Kansas, where she led the creation of the first faculty-led open access policy at a public university in the U.S. And as she explained in a conversation with the Alcalde, she hopes to bring the open access movement to the Forty Acres.

Alcalde: What is open access?

Lorraine Haricombe: It’s the free, immediate availability on the public Internet of content that permits users to use it for any lawful purpose. That’s the definition that was crafted at the Budapest Open Access Initiative in 2002. It’s different from just sharing stuff online, because this allows users to use and repurpose it.

Why bring open access to UT?

If you think about the mission of the university and what society expects from it, it’s for research and discoveries to be made and to make our lives better. Taxpayers pay for what happens here, and I believe it’s important they have access to the investments made on their behalf. I love the tagline ‘what starts here changes the world.’ If we really believe that and take it to its logical conclusion, how will the research here change the world if it’s closed behind paywalls?

So what might that look like at UT? You have to be a student, staff, or faculty member in order to use the library.

Open access would allow anybody in the world to have access to our resources. That’s an aspirational goal and will probably never happen. But I do think there’s great momentum toward expanding access, not just at university campuses but in other organizations, like the World Health Organization, too. The other benefit is that if everybody’s research results were freely available, we wouldn’t have to pay vendors for it, and we would be able to leverage our resources differently and provide services that we currently can’t provide.

There are pockets of open access around UT already. We have a librarian who’s working in a focused way on engaging with the community. Outreach and education are going to be key. I’m also looking at the state level and collaborating with other key universities like Texas A&M—my colleague there is an open access advocate. I’m looking forward to seeing how we can advance this conversation at public institutions in Texas.

There’s a common idea of librarians as shy, quiet people who spend their days cataloging books. Is that a misconception?

That is a very traditional, romantic view of what librarians do. And there are some librarians like that, but I’m not one of them. I believe that we need to be out there and be the face of research. I would like to raise the visibility of UT Libraries as a critical component of the university’s mission. That’s very different than just saying ‘We support your teaching and your research.’ I want our librarians to be integrally involved.

Our job is changing so fast. I think we should be open to hiring people who don’t necessarily have library science training. If we bring in people with PhDs and subject knowledge, or people with data skills and communication skills, they may help us in new ways. Of course, I think library science training is very valuable; I have a [Master’s of Library Science] and a PhD myself. But I’m open to other approaches as well.

Some people might think they don’t need a librarian’s help, since so much information is easily searchable online. What’s your response to them?

You could just go to Google, sure. But we can do much more than that. We can develop and build tools that will make things easier, and we have expertise in researching and making information discoverable. I’m always surprised when researchers discover, often times too late, how they could have been more effective if they had contacted a librarian.

How did you end up in this line of work?

My mom was the librarian at a public library in my hometown. She trained us to help file the books, and she would drag me along during holidays to do story hours for the kids … I loved it. But I also ended up in that degree program sort of by default. I knew I didn’t want to become a teacher or a nurse, and those were the limited choices I had growing up in South Africa at the time. So I fell into it without planning for it, but I love it. I really enjoy helping to influence the nature of the work people do in libraries.

Photo courtesy University of Texas Libraries

 

 

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