Danuta Nitecki


“Having Fun Isn’t Hard When You’ve Got a Library Card” – Transcript


But it was definitely a place that had a certain magic to it.

Welcome to Drexel’s 10,000 Hours podcast. Our goal is to mine the stories behind our region’s innovators, inventors, and thought creators. We’ll be talking to experts and subjects from dance to cybersecurity to find out what lies behind the passion for their work, the inspiration for their ideas, and the motivation for their creativity. I’m your host, Maurice Baynard.

Danuta Nitecki is the Dean of Libraries for Drexel University and a professor in the College of Computing and Informatics. Danuta has worked in university libraries around the country and has published widely on topics like library space and user base, the evaluation of library services.

So I have so many questions that I wanted to ask you because libraries are so central to so many people’s lives. I’d love to start with something personal and ask you, A, were you bookish as a child? And if not, was there some seminal moment that sort of foretold what you would do and the decisions you would make professionally as an adult?

That’s a good question. So was I bookish as a child? There’s two ways of looking at that. Did I– was I exposed to books? Did I like handling books and experiencing whatever the magic was that linked the images and the words on it to something else?

Yes. I grew up in a family that, on Saturday mornings, we were taken down as little kids to the local public library with the stack of books we borrowed the week or two before and were set free to go look on the shelves and pick out whatever else we wanted to look at next. And I must admit, though, I would look– I would select what I wanted to read or what I wanted to engage with mostly by what the illustrations looked like. If they were fun kind of looking illustrations and inviting and not old and boring looking, I would grab it if it was nice colors and the like.

This is when I was young, my earlier years. Now, was a bookish in the sense of being a reader? I will admit here– and as a librarian, this is a big– sometimes surprise with big admission– I really had difficulty learning how to read. I did not know how to read before I started school. My family were immigrants, and the language spoken at home is my mother’s native tongue a lot.

But yet, at the same time, my parents were very adamant that this is our country and we had to learn English, we had to be able to integrate and merge into the culture and take it as our own. But I was– my first experience in school, even if I vaguely remember even with kindergarten, was that somehow people thought you already knew how to read. And so when we started in the curriculum, having to learn how to read in first grade, I can remember– I grew up in Chicago, and it was a public Chicago School system.

And I think I was in that period when the way they taught reading was you looked at it and somehow magically you knew what these words were and if there were words. And so many of the people in my class already knew what they were. And I’m thinking, what is it that they see in these letters at all?

And so I can remember going home and really crying about, I don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t know what’s happening. And I can remember to this day the picture of my– sitting at our kitchen table and my father and my older brother, who was taught a little bit differently, I think, trying to tell me– my father said, sound it out. And I said, what am I supposed to sound out? How do I know with these letters sound like?

And so it was a frustrating way of learning to read. And it wasn’t until I was in third grade that I reached the appropriate reading level that one is supposed to be at. And then magic happened. I suddenly devoured books, and I had this friend of mine who was a single kid, and her parents were willing to buy her any books she wanted.

And so we went through on summers, and we started with one series after the other. We read all the Nancy Drew books, and we read all the Hardy Boys books. And we just were devouring them, and it was a lot of fun. And we would share our books that we could have access to, and we would talk about them. And so that was really my first introduction to reading.

I’m wondering– and so you, like I, spent a lot of time in libraries because you were taken there by your parents. And even if you couldn’t read, was there something about the building and the books in the space and the librarians that you found appealing?

As a child?


Well, so I had two experiences, being fortunate to be living in Chicago, I would say, where the Chicago Public Library system was amazing. But when I was alone in my– when I was little and my parents took my hand to go to the public library, it was relatively small. It was the South Side public– I think it’s Blackstone Public Library in South Side Chicago, if I remember right.

And it was one big room for the kids, and it wasn’t particularly– there weren’t all sorts of– now, in public libraries, you have this lovely furnitures. And I was just shelves of books, and they were at my level. So I didn’t have to stretch up too high. And it was just intriguing, what was behind these spines.

But as I got older and was able to– and I was in my early teens and my parents allowed me to travel downtown by myself to get on the L and the train that went from the South Side downtown, and, actually, the stop that I got off was right at the door of the downtown main public library. And that building, as I learned later, was incredible.

It was designed by– I believe it was the Shepley Bulfinch building that was just sparkling. There was mosaics. It was just a gorgeous building. And later in life, I saw when it was renovated, it was even more so.
And there was just this incredible feeling of independence and trust that I could go there on my own and find a spot. And I would go with the idea I had to do some reading for school, and some of this was still late grade school but high school as well. And it was a– and I do remember it being a place that it was OK and expected of me to be just sitting there, quietly working with the books. And it was more just being inspired by this environment and this ambience. But it was definitely a place that had a certain magic to it.

Those are lovely memories of Chicago. You should write a book.
So I’m always fascinated with people, especially around that formative time when you’re about to go to college and what you think you’re going to do with the rest of your life. So what did you think you were going to do in Dayton?

I came out of high school with identifying my strengths in two areas, one in art. But I realized that I could not produce art to support myself. I couldn’t– I didn’t have it in me. I couldn’t imagine being able to produce on demand. So I didn’t see this as a way I was going to support myself, which was a strong motivation in my life.

And the other half was math because that was one of the few really good programs in my high school. So when I went to college, though– and the program that first year at Chicago was very much a liberal arts, but it was liberal arts to prepare you for graduate school. So I really didn’t quite know what I was going to do there, but it was just trying to get that broad education.

And for various reasons, I transferred at the end of my first year. Yeah, I was not particularly– I was actually ready to drop out of college. This isn’t what I wanted to do. And I transferred to the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

And so when I got there, it was a very different kind of college education. And in my third year, I took very seriously that I had to declare major. And again, I was taking courses. I took advanced math courses and all that. I turned to art history because, if you can’t be an artist, you become an art historian, so those were sort of the two tracks.

So this third year, I had to declare major, so I figured, oh, well, I guess I better do math. And so I went over to the math department, and they said, no, you need a fourth semester of calculus. I said, but I got all these other math courses. No, come back another semester. But I have to fill out this form this week.

And so I said, OK, and I thought, well, where else have I taken courses? And it was art history. So I go to the art history department, and they said, sure, we’d love to have you. So that’s how I became an art history major.

It would’ve been great if in art history, they were like, you need one more calculus to be an art history major.
To get one more math under your belt.

That’s right. That’s right. So anyway, so that’s how I ended up with the major that I ended up with, and then I stayed there actually another year as a graduate student, thinking I wanted to do that. And that is the precursor to how I became a librarian because, in the middle of that first year as a graduate student, I was a TA. And I was I was supporting myself now.

This is the first time I was living alone. My parents moved away again from me, so I didn’t have a home to live in. So I was supporting myself as a TA, and I couldn’t get a confirmation that I had an appointment for the next year. And I thought, how am I going to support myself? And so I decided– it was suggested to me– and family members that were librarians, too– and they said, well, come back to Philly. My parents were in Philly at that time.

We’ll put you up for a year. We’ll help you with room and board. And Drexel’s got this accredited, good program. It’s a good program in library science, and so get your degree. And then you can go off and be an art librarian. So that’s what happened, and it was at that moment that I started to see– it was the time when automation was an exciting application tool.

It was sort of the new language of the profession that was needed. And something happened to me while I was there. It was the exposure of thinking, wow, of all these different ways to really look, and it sort of brought together my interests of communications in different formats. It wasn’t the 8 and 1/2 by 11 Manila paper to express yourself. And it was connecting different forms of information for things.
My first professional job was at University of Tennessee, and I felt, when I left the program here at Drexel, the thing that I was missing– having come with a little bit of introduction to a discipline way of thinking, art history, and with that came how you looked at research, and I felt we did not– I did not have a strong basis in really understanding research and research methods. So when I was at Tennessee, I started taking courses in research, and, there, the key strength was communications.

And so it was courses in mass media. This was long before the internet. So I was doing public opinion surveys, mail surveys, and learning all the things of that. The guy who was sort of overseeing it said, this lunchtime degree of yours, why don’t you just write a thesis and get a degree? And so that’s how I got my second master’s in communications.

And that was the moment that clicked, your answer– a long way of answering your second question, what was the moment that foretold what I wanted to do? It sort of brought together for me how the field, the profession of librarianship, is such an amazing way of anything. It’s bringing together. It’s managing and looking at the patterns and the relationships of information as it connects people, which, in a way, is a form of communicating the expressions and the output of human endeavor, whether it’s art forms or literary forms or text. And nowadays, we’re challenged with data and different kinds of other kinds of languages, coding and software and the like. So that’s how I got to be where I am now.

So I’m– OK, so I’d love to maybe take a deep dive into how you think about the philosophy of libraries. So what I mean by this is, well, outside of lecture halls and teaching labs, nothing symbolizes sort of a university’s commitment to its academic mission more than libraries. A lot of times, they’re the biggest, most opulent building on campuses, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the centrality of libraries and what they’ve meant to universities and, as things changes, where we get our information, the way we do our research changes, if the library’s mission has to change as well, including we don’t need as big a building if library’s goal is no longer to house every book that they can possibly get their hands on.

Mhmm, mhmm, to answer that, it might be a nice moment to bring in the challenge that brought me back to Drexel because, OK, so I was a graduate student here for my library degree. And then I left, and then I come back decades later. And in between, my entire career has been working in those big research, large research libraries in clearly established research institutions. My path went from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, University of Maryland, College Park, and came here most recently from Yale.

And so it was unquestioned, and, truly, what you described in all of those, in particular at Yale as my latest experience, when I really got involved to and thinking about and helping to manage and translate what it means to have a library as a place and place defined as a space with an intentional design– and one of those intentions is the symbolism and the symbolism and how the affordance of space inspires a behavior. And that goes back to my days going into that main library on Randolph Street in Chicago, the Chicago Public Library.

It was an inspiring place. So it wasn’t just because it housed books and had people there. But it was– there was something about that environment, so it wasn’t just a space. It was a place that had with it an environment.

So the challenge in coming here was partly established by our late president Taki Papadakis, who had his moment of fame among librarians in an interview that was published in the Wall Street Journal, where he was interviewed and was quoted as saying something to the effect– I don’t remember exactly the quote now– but something to the effect that, I’m not going to raise the budgets of the library just to collect books and build the buildings to house them and people that are going to sit there and read them.

And that had an impact on the culture here that went pretty deep that was sort of translated superficially, so why do you need a library? Exactly what you’re asking. And I was actually recruited with the notion that– by the person recruiting who said, this is a neglected library, so come and redefine the library for the first part of the 21st century. You’ve got this small enough place that we can bring the people together and try to implement that here and a large enough place with large enough big ambitions that you’ve got all the issues you couldn’t explore.

It’s not just about the place to house people and things, but it’s the activity that occurs there. So now, when we look at what are the contributions the library really can uniquely present, one of the areas– and this is a more recent particular interest of mine– is to look at what about physical space contributes to learning and not just learning in the formal spaces like classrooms and labs, where the control of what happens is at the foot of the faculty members, somebody who’s external from the user. So we have this category of environments called, among planners and all, that’s starting to take on as a phrase, informal learning environments.

And these are ones that nobody has– and the libraries are a great example of that. Nobody has to come to the library. Nobody’s forced to come to the library. Nobody’s even assigned here to come to the library, and yet they come.

And it’s a place where– so I was– we’re looking at– we’re serving in this environment, trying to facilitate. And actually, our goal is to inspire the quest for lifelong learning. We don’t grade them. We don’t evaluate their activities there. We even protect the right to do whatever– for them to formulate what they want to do.

But we’re there as part of the environment to help guide them or help give them feedback as a form of their own self-assessment. But it’s where the self-directed learner can actually– and in the true sense of a Drexel dragon, ambition, it’s an experience. There’s experiential learning. So that becomes, in a sense, the unique part of what spaces as place are.

There is this feeling amongst some folks that, with the rise of the internet and the access to information at the touch of a button that everybody carries around in their pocket, that libraries seems like a thing of the past and both an investment in space and resources that no longer have relevance. And I wonder, how would you respond to that, both civically and sort of personally since it’s kind of your life’s work to carry on the civic mission of libraries?

Well, I think, first of all, in asking that, there is a certain amount of reality one can gauge if the assumption is true that everybody has access. And when we look at particular activities in public libraries, where society is looking still for places in public libraries, from the start of access to the internet and the equipment needed to use it and the cognitive skills to know how to navigate it, have taken on that role for society. And it’s clear that not everybody has access.

And I would even argue, just anecdotally, there’s evidence of students that come to Drexel that are paying the big bucks for it. They don’t always have the access to the information or the ability to know how to navigate it. So one is just even getting into the internet and as a channel. But then the other one, which I think is the bigger elephant in the room, is having access to the content.

And now, when you look at the economics of information, so you have an awful lot you can get out there on the internet. Again, it’s organized differently, and it’s sometimes harder. And we all know that, if you do a search and I do a search, based on the history of our searches, there’s this question of how private is the way we look for stuff. And does it affect the way we’re going to be seeing results of the next search? Of course, it does. And part of that is because we’re in– you’re in an access universe that still has a lot of influence on commodity of that very activity.

So I’d like to end with, in your role as dean of the library, what is your long-term vision for what libraries are both at Drexel and libraries across the country, especially those on college campuses? What would you– how do you see them changing in the next 10 years, 20 years? And what would you like to see?

Oh, wow. [LAUGHS]

I’ve made you library tsar.

[LAUGHS] That question’s a work in progress, or that vision is a work in progress. So I guess– and I’m evolving this myself in my own reflection, but, I guess, I still believe fundamentally in the purpose and the value of the concept of a library, whether it’s the place or, as you raise it, the philosophy of what we’re about. But we’re in that space to help people learn and to help people make sense of the world through evidence that’s been recorded and that’s been shared and disseminated and that can be evaluated for its truth, if it’s misinformation or something that’s established or if it’s an opinion or all of this kind of stuff.

And so part of what that role of being a hub or an energy for facilitating and fostering self-learning I think is really important. And the other is then, as a place, that it’s a place that can help inspire that so, now, that space is not only in physical brick-and-mortar space but it’s also in cyberspace. And I think there’s still a huge range of designing those spaces.

I think we’re just starting. There’s a lot of work, of course, on interfaces and all. But does it really introduce the value system of ensuring that there is free access of information, that there is an importance to protect people’s privacy, to not assume that just because somebody is looking at something or that anybody else should even know what they’re looking at because you’re making some assumptions about them, which shouldn’t even enter people’s mind. And yet there’s forces that now must try to monetize that.

Exactly, yeah.

Yeah, so I think those are still important. Now, how they will function in as an organization will really depend on, I think, the institutions, and I think higher education is challenged in a lot of ways to thinking about what its role is. So whether there will be– what of the different problems that we can help uniquely– a library can help uniquely address, whether it ends up being in the responsibility of the library organization or addressed somewhere else, it goes to those things. How do you best help reduce the cost of education by having the most cost-effective ways of providing the access to resources and looking at introducing even the concept and the commitments to open access, open science?

Still preserving that important role, in particular, higher education has disseminated the results of all this knowledge and not just looking at it as a commodity that will bring profit. And that’s a big one. Space is– yes, they’ll change. I do think, though, that there should be a recognition that people need something different than just– I don’t know if you’re familiar with that– this book came a few years ago, The Third Space.

We have a place where we work. We have a place where we live and after work where we socially engage to things. And often, there was a period there, where everyone said, oh, libraries are the third space. And I’m saying, no, we’re the fourth space because we’re going beyond just that social thing because we have a purpose of behaviors that we’re trying to encourage, inspire, and foster. And that is this quest for learning and for being responsible in the way you use information and you seek it and you incorporate it into your decision making and your perspective on life.

Well, Danuta, it has been a real pleasure to talk to you this afternoon, and I really appreciate you taking the time.

Well, thank you very much. I was delighted to be invited to do this, and it made me do a little more soul searching and thinking too about what we’re trying to do. And it’s been really a pleasure. Thanks very much.

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