Staff Spotlight: Library advocate and aficionado, Ben Strand

November 21, 2013
Ben Strand
Ben Strand

Our staff spotlight this month is Ben Strand, Development Director for Campus Libraries at the University of Wisconsin Foundation. Ben is new to the position, but not to Madison—he received his undergraduate degree in English and Classical Humanities from UW—Madison in 1996, and he was one of the first six baristas at Ancora Coffee back in the day! Read on to learn more about Ben and his enthusiasm for fundraising, outreach, and all things libraries.

News: You just began working here in June, right?

Ben: Yes, my first day was June 3.  Before coming here, I had been at UW-Whitewater for the last eight years. I was their Development Director and Assistant Director for the Young Auditorium, a 1,300-seat performing arts center—similar to the Union Theatre at UW—Madison. They did outreach and programming, both on campus and with the community. One of the notable programs I started was writing the grant for the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read, for six years. With the Big Read, we jointly programmed events and outreach with twenty-four libraries in southeastern Wisconsin from Beloit and Janesville, to Lake Geneva and Lake Mills. We were able to leverage the grant, which ranged from $13,000 to $19,000 a year, with new individual and business sponsors.  That allowed us to bring in guest speakers like Tappan Wilder, Thornton Wilder’s heir and nephew, which was really rewarding (I especially enjoyed putting in a book order for six thousand books which our library partners then gave away). The more creative the outreach to the community we proposed, the better. The whole premise of the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read is to reach non-readers, so involving K-12 students as well as reaching parents and grandparents in a way that highlighted what their kids were doing in school was really effective. Every Big Read would also tie to an event with the performing arts center. Our first year was To Kill a Mockingbird, and we brought in a touring performance of the play performed by the Montana Repertory Theatre. Two years ago we did Mark Twain, so we had Hal Holbrook perform Mark Twain Tonight.

I’m bringing those experiences into my work now, communicating with librarians and trying to figure how I can best support their needs. It was really a nice transition from my development role at Whitewater to what the libraries are dealing with here. In the past, the libraries here have had a person at the UW Foundation who covered the libraries, but they would always be working with three or four departments. When Vice Provost Ed Van Gemert came on board, he was able to get a full-time development person. So now I’m looking at cross-campus and interdisciplinary ways to support the programming that the libraries are doing from the cutting-edge technology down to preservation and space and everything in between. Libraries are really at the forefront of changes in education and technology, and there are some really exciting things going on.

One thing that I think is so important is reaching out to the 375,000 alumni, because I think people just have a great general affinity for their libraries. I know I do! When I was a student here, I just lived in a tiny little efficiency apartment off Carroll Street, and when I was at the library I never wanted to leave! The library was the safe and open place to meet people and hang out; it was like a second home. When I first began dating my wife, Kari, I had to take her up in Memorial Library to show her the moving stacks (I told her, “You’re never going to believe this…”), and now I’m working with Spacesaver, the company that makes that shelving equipment, in Fort Atkinson. It’s fun to make those kinds of connections.

News: What is your favorite part of your job so far?

Ben: My favorite part is getting to know all the staff in the library system and learning about all of the diverse projects they’re working on. Everyone is so interested in and dedicated to the material they work with and they really are experts in their fields. To be around them, witnessing the passion that they have, is really inspiring. It’s just amazing to see all the different areas that are covered. We’re one of the largest research universities in the country, so all the collections can become very specialized. Subject specialists here encompass every country, every time period… It can get overwhelming to think about! So I’m just trying to put those pieces together and figure out connections to determine why specific people or businesses might want to fund certain areas. The interesting thing is that some of the larger donors are not alumni, but they have an interest in a collection we’re preserving or digitizing and they really want to be a part of that. I’m really focusing on trying to fit those pieces together. I think the strategic planning process will help with that, too, and will provide me with the projects to focus on for the next couple of years.

I really enjoying the work I do, and every week I’m just so surprised with the new things I learn about the libraries—like last week I saw the five extinct passenger pigeons at the Zoological Museum Research Library! And then there are all these other amazing things going on within the libraries, like Parallel Press and Silver Buckle Press, that bring in another aspect. Every week there’s just more and more to discover.

This first year, I’m just trying to go around and meet everyone I can and hear their stories, in order to start putting the pieces together and support them however I can. It’s really great to see how those pieces are in place. For example, I was able to attend author Ruth Ozeki’s talk for Go Big Read last month, which was really good—standing room only! Witnessing that campus bond coming to life, and the level of support and involvement from Chancellors Martin and Blank was really neat.

Speaking of Go Big Read, I was so proud of Madison for picking this year’s title, A Tale for the Time Being. It is a difficult book—not only the content, but the structure. It has a broken narrative, where one of the main characters is reading the diary of a Japanese girl and there are emails and letters and translations, so it’s very complex. As a former English and Classical Humanities major, I was very impressed that this type of book was chosen for a community reading.

The Strand family (from left): Kari, Leo, Ben, Sadie
The Strand family (from left): Kari, Leo, Ben, Sadie

News: What do you do for fun outside of work?

Ben: I spend a lot of time with my family—our kids keep us pretty busy. Our son Leo is nine and our daughter Sadie is three. They’re both really good kids. They’re into soccer and animals—one of the best things is that both of them are always competing to see if they can find the scariest, craziest insects. I’m so proud that both of them have no fear in picking up things like cicada shells and walking sticks.  It shows that they are both paying attention to nature and aren’t afraid of it. We also have two cats, Poppy and Martha, and lots of chipmunks too, which is fun.

As far as hobbies, I love reading and travel. I try to travel as much as I can. I did a travel study to the Netherlands when I was a student at UW—Madison and I think that’s what gave me the traveling bug. In April, I’ll be taking a family Amtrak trip down to Santa Fe, New Mexico. I also love Chicago. Both of my parents are from Chicago, so they’d always take us down there when we were kids. So now I travel there with my family a couple times a year.

News: You mentioned reading as a hobby…Who are your favorite authors?

Ben: Djuna Barnes is one of my favorite authors. She was a modernist lesbian writer in New York, who wrote amazing fiction and short stories. I also keep going back to Bruno Schultz, a Jewish writer from Eastern Europe who was killed by the Nazis in WWII. I just reread almost all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books with my son. That was really fun, because I remember reading them at his age, and it’s great to imagine what Wisconsin was like back then.

News: Are your kids big readers too?

Ben: Oh yeah! It’s kind of crazy—we recently had our first teacher’s conference for Leo. He’s in fourth grade, but it turns out he’s reading at the bottom of what an eighth grader is supposed to read. So that is really cool. He reads a lot on his own. Where we live in Milton, there’s an old college that went defunct back in the eighties. Their old library is now the city library, and it is pretty much in our backyard. It is really convenient and safe, so it’s nice that he is able to walk over there on his own now. Of course, as a lover of libraries, it’s kind of great to have one in my own backyard!

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!