We’re pleased to present this interview with (now retired) librarian Jane Bannerman, who reflects on her career at UW-Madison with Pamela O’Donnell of College Library.
Interview by Pamela O’Donnell
Jane Bannerman has worked at College Library for almost as long as it has been open. After forty years of service, she officially retired on August 31, 2012. It’s impossible to describe her many contributions. Jane has done almost every possible job in College Library: she established library instruction for College Library in the 1970s and helped develop the campus-wide instruction program in the 1980s; she has coordinated reference services and circulation services; she has overseen security and building concerns; most recently she has also served as the Assistant Director.
Jane has also been active in campus academic staff concerns, serving as an Academic Staff Assembly representative and in leadership roles with the Madison Academic Staff Association. Jane helped the Librarians’ Assembly create the Librarian-of-the-Year award, a recognition she herself earned in 2007. To quote former College Library Director, Donna Senzig, “Jane has a rock bed of principles that she has tirelessly advocated and worked to implement as part of the fabric of our libraries and our university. As a result, both College Library and the General Library System have benefited in so many ways.”
Jane often remarks that when friends ask her how she can continue to enjoy working in the same job after all these years, she replies that it’s easy because the work is continually changing; it’s never been the same job. We sat down with Jane for a candid interview on how the libraries have evolved since she was hired in 1972.
How has technology changed the libraries at UW-Madison in the forty years you have worked here?
I was thinking about which piece of technology changed our lives the most. During my first ten years working at College Library, we had our card catalog and every time we wanted to find out whether a book was at Memorial, we had to call their card catalog room. We would call them, I couldn’t tell you how many times a day. They would go and look up by hand in the catalog and say “yes, we have the book or no, we don’t.” When suddenly we had the online catalog and we didn’t have to call all the time, that was phenomenal.
The other thing I was thinking about, the other big change, was when we actually got all of the different subject databases. It used to be that people would come to College Library and say, “I’m a medical student and I have questions on this medical topic” and we would say, “Oh, you need to use Index Medicus and you need to go to the Health Sciences Library” and we would send them away. At the time College Library only had ten indexes: Readers’ Guide, Social Sciences Index, Humanities Index, and all of the Wilsons. If someone wanted any other index we would send them to another library. We did our bread-and-butter people, our undergraduates, but we referred away, out of our building, a lot of people who were more specialized. Now anyone can ask for help anywhere. I think that’s a huge change. But I was actually asking my husband, “What do you think the biggest technological change was in the libraries?” And he, as a non-library person said, the online catalog. I thought that was interesting that he agreed with me.
What’s the most interesting research question you’ve ever received?
I really don’t remember questions like that. Although recently on chat, I was able to find out if a long-dead person belonged to a particular group in Europe by following the connections through a series of obituaries. All of these people had very interesting lives so it was fun piecing together the story. I like those kinds of mysteries.
But in terms of how we answer questions, things have changed now that we have access to everything online. For example, we used to do a lot more calling around to libraries. I knew all of the librarians at Steenbock because I called there so often to ask them questions. At one time you had to know the scientific name of an animal to find good articles in Zoological Abstracts, so there were certain search strategies they would share with us. We would do what they said, find the material, and give it to the student. We don’t call on subject specialists like we used to and I think having the research guides makes a big difference. People have written up a lot of their subject knowledge and we can follow their advice. All of these aids make us more independent as librarians.
Do you find students any different today from when you started in 1972?
I guess the one thing that’s different is that people HAD to come to the library to do research. To find their articles they had to go into the stacks and copy them. They had to go get the books in person and they might have to go to five different libraries to retrieve them. And, I think there was a lot of frustration back then because you’d find the perfect article, go to the stacks with the person, get to the right bound volume, and discover that someone had torn it out. That was really frustrating; that we only had one copy of something. At that time we also had a vertical file where we actually cut articles out of the newspaper. We did that for quite a few years, collecting information on current topics. Someone would steal a folder that was a whole year’s work and it would be gone forever. We don’t appreciate now that we can go back and find it online – you don’t have to worry about it disappearing or someone taking it or it not being available to the next patron. I think that is a huge, huge difference.
As far as topics go, we used to have more, this sounds really funny, but we used to have these trends. I remember one being the “Bermuda Triangle.” Other times it these kind of faddish, sort of pseudo-science-y topics that would come up and you would have to try to find articles on all this weird stuff. I actually think that we have a lot more variation now in the English 100 or the Com Arts topics. They don’t seem as interested in the standard topics we always had like “gun control” or “capital punishment.” They’re more creative. I would say that the Internet has actually helped students because they are more confident that they can find something on some interest of theirs than they would have been in the past when they were stuck looking in Readers’ Guide for articles. It has given them more options.
What do you find most rewarding about librarianship?
I have loved my job. I love working with students. I love working at the desk. I really, really like to help someone who is trying to do anything and make their day better. It doesn’t matter if they’re printing or if they’re trying to connect with a campus office or they’re trying to do a research question, etc. I actually like being responsible for things in the library and how the library runs. I love working with my other colleagues. I think we have a great library here.
I would say that for the first ten years, honest-to-God, the job was pretty much the same. The databases were the same, they didn’t change and then all of a sudden, it’s like all hell broke loose. And from then on, I swear the library changed constantly. And I think that the speed of change is picking up. It used to be once-a -year we’d have changes, but now it feels like every few months there’s something new that we need to learn about. I think I’m leaving at a wonderful time because the library is strong in terms of its position on campus. It’s got good partners, we have good leadership, and we have good staff, so I feel really good about that. For a while I was feeling sad about retiring but, you know, I actually am excited about moving on to the next phase of life. It’s time for other people to take on the challenges.
Do you have any words of advice for people entering the profession?
Librarianship has changed so much. I think that people who want to go into librarianship have to have such a broad range of skills. We need so many talents in libraries. I was joking at my retirement party that I would never get hired now because I just don’t have the computer skills. I do have a certain combination of skills that have worked for me because my job evolved to fit my personality. Directors used the skills that I had and put me in the places where my people skills would be best served. For those coming into the profession, there’s a need for lots of different kinds of librarians and you’ve got to work to find the right niche.
What are your plans after retiring?
I see myself connecting with friends and family. Because fitness, exercise, and being outdoors are very important to me, I plan on finding ways to do more of that. I’ll also need to find a way to work with people. I’m not sure where I will end up putting my energy and my skills, but I definitely want to find a place that I can use the talents that I have. I can tell you I’m not volunteering to monitor streams, which is what my husband Roger wants to do. I may end up working in a hospital setting or in a nursing home, someplace that involves people.
Once someone gave me very good advice, they said you need time to have just kind of a sabbatical when you first retire and to do things as they come up. I think that’s a really good idea because I feel like I’ve been pushing very hard for the last few months and I’m going to need a little break before I decide how I’m going to spend my time. I’d also like to do some classes, mini-courses, that kind of stuff, but I don’t know what yet – cooking, maybe some crafts, I could always try crafts again. I’m just the worst craft person in the whole world.