Staff Spotlight: Kerry Kresse, science librarian extraordinaire

September 27, 2013
Kerry Kresse says "Shhh!"
Kerry Kresse says “Shhh!”

Our staff spotlight this month is Kerry Kresse, Director of both the Physics and Astronomy Libraries. Although this picture shows her sporting the stereotypical “shush” pose, Kerry is anything but a stern, tightly-wound librarian. One glimpse inside her action-figure-festooned office at the Physics Library would confirm Kerry’s fun-loving, easy-going nature (don’t be intimidated by the beefy guy glowering in the corner—it’s just a life-size cut-out of Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings movies!). Read on to learn more about Kerry and her combined love of science and librarianship.

News: So I’m guessing you voted for Lord of the Rings for Book Madness?

KK: Yes, and only once each time! I was not one of the people who tried to stuff the ballot box. I would have been happy either way. I mean, if Tolkien’s going to lose out to anybody it may as well be Jane Austen. It’s so funny—students will come in to my office and look around and ask, “Are you a Lord of the Rings fan?” and I say, “How did you know?”

News: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into science and librarianship?

KK: I got my undergraduate degree in physics and astronomy here at UW—Madison, but I kind of just barely squeaked by because I couldn’t cut the math. So after graduation it was time for Plan B. Basically at that point my options were A) become a lab assistant or B) teach physics. I couldn’t imagine teaching physics in high school—No, no, NO. So I had to think outside the box a little.

I had been in and out of libraries my entire life. When I grew up in Mequon the public library was across the street from the pool and I was a water rat. But the rule was that you had to go to the library first (those public librarians were tough—no wet swimming suits in the library). So, I would ride my bike to the library almost every day and get a couple new books, go to the pool, read the books, go back home, next day go to the library, get some new books, go back to the pool—repeat, repeat, repeat.

My godmother was the school librarian at Menomonee Falls. Sometimes she would take me in during the summer when she’d have new books to process and I’d be pasting pockets in the back of books, just happy as a clam to be working in a library. In high school, I worked in the school library and loved that too. I also worked in the Chemistry Library as a college student here. So, you know, eventually even I saw the handwriting on the wall and thought, “Huh… Maybe I should look into library school.” And the rest is history! I graduated from library school here at UW—Madison’s School of Library and Information Studies in 1981 back when it was only 30 credits (lucky me!).

I’ve always loved books and reading. I like the feel of books, the smell of books. I like to look at new books; I like to look at old books. I can’t imagine the effort that it takes to write one book and I have thousands of them in my library—and there are millions of them in the world. I just think books are amazing. I couldn’t even study at Memorial when I was in school because I was too distracted. When I discovered they carried bound newspapers I thought that was the coolest thing in the world.

Kerry Kresse hanging out in her office with Aragorn
Kerry Kresse hanging out in her office with Aragorn

News: So then eventually the two things—science and librarianship—kind of melded together.

KK: Yes, they actually worked well together! There are more people than you would think with bachelor’s degrees in physics or astronomy or math or chemistry who don’t want to go on and do advanced study in that area, but then that specialized knowledge really comes in handy when you get a job like this. And on the other hand, there are a lot of librarians with degrees in the humanities and social sciences who have “science anxiety,” but with my background in science I don’t. It’s just the opposite for me—I guess you could say I have “Shakespeare anxiety.”

News: What is your favorite part of your job?

KK: I think my favorite part is the reference aspect—helping people find answers. I love the hunt. You know, I think there’s a little bit of detective in most reference librarians. With a couple characters typed in to an index or Google or wherever, you can come up with an answer and people look at you like, “How did you do that?”…Librarian superpowers! A while back, I had a guy who was looking for an old French article. I checked the catalog first, of course, and when I didn’t find it there I went to Gallica, this online repository for French materials. I found the journal, went down to the volume, found the PDF, and emailed it to him. It took five minutes, tops. The guy wrote back and said, “I’ve been looking for that article for two years! How did you find it in five minutes?” This is what I do—it’s what librarians are here for. All you have to do is ask.

I like to help people. I’ll be in the grocery store and someone will ask me where to find something and I point and say, “Yeah, it’s two aisles over on the top shelf.” I think I must just have that kind of face. Another thing I really like is when somebody comes up to me and says, for instance, “Hey, have you seen this new book by Hawking? You should get it for the library!” and I hold it up and say, “You mean this one?” It’s really satisfying when you can anticipate somebody’s need like that. Most people don’t realize it, when they go to a book shelf and find the book they’re looking for, that someone has actually anticipated that need, deliberately chosen the book, and all that effort went into cataloging it and placing it on the shelf so they could find it. It’s very easy to forget that, but when you can hand it to them from the new book shelf, it’s very rewarding.

I also like how, in a smaller library like this, you get to know a good portion of your clientele and you develop a rapport with people. There’s nothing wrong with the “nameless, faceless” reference patron because then you get a lot of variety. But getting to know people and helping people—that’s what I really enjoy.

News: Any book or author recommendations you can share?

KK: Right now, I am reading a book by C.J. Cherryh called Fortress of Owls. Cherryh is a science fiction novelist but these are fantasy, which is one of my favorite genres.

I would also highly recommend books by Kevin Hearne. He writes in a new genre called urban fantasy which is basically fantasy stuff that’s set in our current time. Hearne’s books are very funny. He has a wicked sense of humor and pulls in a lot of pop culture references. They’re very quick reads, and aren’t very serious at all. So if you are looking for something just kind of different, I would recommend these. I’ve gotten a whole bunch of people hooked on the Kevin Hearne novels.

Another author that I highly recommend is Patrick Rothfuss. He’s a Madison boy and currently lives up in Stevens Point. He has a hilarious blog that I follow too, and you can read excerpts of the books there. As soon as I read his author’s bio I thought, “Well I have to read this book.” And it was just fantastic.

I also like to read newspapers, magazines, Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, the usual. My eye is always drawn to the printed word. I like Popular Physics fiction, too, like this one by Stephen Hawking, The Dreams that Stuff is Made of. It’s a collection of some of the most influential physics papers of the twentieth century. Or this book, Higgs, which is about the Higgs boson, and is sort of for people, not physicists—not that physicists aren’t people… Most of them are.

News: Are there a lot of Popular Physics books?

KK: There are actually a lot. For some odd reason it’s a very strong genre. I think some of it is because the people who were involved in physics at the early part of the twentieth century and through World War II, were old enough to write their memoirs and they could finally write and talk about these monumental changes in physics and how they changed the world. People are always interested in physics. They don’t necessarily want to do the math, but physics attacks those “Big Questions”: What are we? How did this all come about? Cosmology books are hugely popular because people are looking for those answers. With the Physics Library Reading Blog, I’m trying to promote these kinds of books. I know as a student in physics, at the beginning of the semester I would hear about these remarkable people who did experiments that fundamentally changed science, but then we didn’t hear about them again until the end of the semester on the final exam. Physics in the classroom is mostly math. Where are the people? They have such interesting stories to tell. There are a lot of great physics books out there that are written at a level that people can understand. So I try to promote the books through the blog.

Another interesting thing featured on the blog is a series of author interviews. I came up with the idea because there had been four or five books written by UW faculty or with a UW connection that had all come out within a few months of each other. So I interviewed each of the authors and asked them a few questions including, “What are you reading and will you review it for the blog?” So those are kind of fun to browse through and I welcome anyone to submit a book review for a feature on the blog!

A selection of Kerry’s Chinese style paintings

News: Any other hobbies besides reading?

KK: A few years ago I took up Chinese style painting. There was a mini-course offered through the Union and I ended up taking it and really enjoying it. There are many different kinds of Chinese painting. I was particularly drawn to the black and white style with the very strong, simplistic-looking strokes. That particular style is the hardest. There’s another fine line style which is easier where you outline things and then you color them in. It’s totally different from western style painting but it’s kind of interesting.

I actually got awards for some of my paintings, which is kind of fun. If you look closely at the dragon one, each of those little scales has about five layers of shading around them. And this one, with the brick archway was pretty intense. I told my teacher, Yueh-mei, that I wanted to make something with a round door because a lot of Chinese paintings and gardens feature round doors. After I had drawn the archway, she said, “Okay so now you have to draw the brick…And each one of those bricks has to have a different texture.” And then suddenly it occurred to me what I had gotten myself into! But it’s a lot of fun. Each painting includes a poetic “running script” and I learned to carve my own seals for my signature. I don’t paint that much, but I do fool around with it a little bit and it’s something that I enjoy.

Want more?

Know a librarian or library staff member with a cool skill or interest? They belong in the spotlight! Submit your suggestions to  We’d love to learn more about you!